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August 2, 1917: The Green Corn Rebellion

 

US participation in the Great War was popular but not completely so.  The Socialist Party of America was strongly anti-war, and held 1200 elective offices around the country, including one seat in Congress, 32 seats in state legislatures  and 79 mayorships.  Its anti-war stance cost it membership.  Socialists however, and other rural radicals, were apparently the instigators of an armed anti-draft riot that began on August 3, 1917 in rural Oklahoma among a gathering of tenant farmers.  This fed off years of disputes between radicalized tenant farmers and the much more conservative residents of towns in Seminole and  Pontotoc  counties in Oklahoma.  August 3, 1917 was to be the end of the annual Muscogee Creek Indian tribe Green Corn Festival.  On August 2, 1917 the Seminole sheriff and a deputy were ambushed, bridges burned and telephone lines cut.  The next day  800 to 1000 armed men, a mix of white tenant farmers, Indians and black tenant farmers, assembled near the adjoining borders of Seminole, Pontotoc and Hughes counties in southeastern Oklahoma.  Their plan was allegedly to march on Washington, eating green corn and barbecued beef on the way, overthrow the government and end the draft.

The whole scheme proved abortive when a well armed posse of townsfolk showed up.  The embattled farmers fired a few shots and scattered.

A total of three people were killed during this riot or rebellion.  Four hundred and fifty people were arrested in the aftermath, with two hundred and sixty-six being released without charges.  One hundred and eighty men were prosecuted with one hundred and fifty found guilty or pleading guilty.  Sentences ranged from ten days to ten years.  Most were paroled or pardoned shortly after they were sentenced, but five men were still in Federal prison as of 1922.

The whole affair is hazy and poorly documented.  Whether this was a rebellion or merely a lot of loose talk combined with alcohol and local feuds is unclear a century later.  A novel The Green Corn Rebellion was written by William Cunningham in 1935.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

5 Comments

  1. I can see why many would be anti-war, given Wilson’s promises to keep us out, which were quickly abandoned when he was elected. Interesting, little-known side drama. Also comforting to know that the Socialist fever ebbs and flows in this country but never seems to take firm root, at least I hope so.

  2. For a tenant farmer service in the military would likely mean they would lose their land. Ironically, the Draft had an exemption for men with wives and minor kids if military service would mean insufficient income for the dependents. That meant that almost all of the married tenant farmers with kids, probably the vast majority, would have been exempt from the Draft in any case.

  3. That meant that almost all of the married tenant farmers with kids, probably the vast majority, would have been exempt from the Draft in any case.

    If I understand correctly (cannot locate the reference) about 3/4 of the applications to draft boards for a ‘hardship’ exemption were granted. I think just having dependents was generally sufficient.

  4. Sounds similar to the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s in Western Pennsylvania -not due to the cause, but the result.

  5. In the UK, farming, along with a number of other occupations (mining, shipbuilding) were Reserved Occupations, carrying an automatic exemption from conscription.

    The UK imported about half its foodstuffs and farming was considered vital war work.

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