One of my intriguing finds on my recent research trip concerned my grandfather W.W. Wilson, 1857-1924 (Fort Towson). He was an outstanding statesman for the Choctaw Nation, serving as Senator, Auditor, Treasurer, School Board member, then one last bittersweet appointment to the Dawes Commission, 1900-1902, to help draft the Curtis Amendment. He would always remember Nov. 16, 1907, when Oklahoma statehood arrived – one hundred ten years ago.
Thoughts of his valiant efforts at the ending days of the Choctaw Nation started rolling around in my head when I saw the news that the award for best Western Writing in 2017, the Carolyn Bancroft award, was given to The Earth Is Weeping, by Peter Cozzens. The book begins at the end of the Civil War when the U.S. government began its expansion onto traditional Indian tribal lands, “setting off a wide-ranging conflict that would last more than three decades.” Although not specifically about the Choctaw Nation, the events with the Plains Indians lend an ominous tone to the pressures exerted by the Dawes Commission upon the Choctaw Nation in the 1890s.
I never knew what my grandfather’s personal politics were. Jefferson Gardner, Green McCurtain, and Gilbert Dukes all called him friend. My grandmother wrote of my grandfather, “He was a friend to all, both Indian and White.” On the cusp of statehood, his Dry Goods store in Fort Towson had a sign in the front window, “We welcome all people.” Many a time I wondered how he dealt with the dissolution of the government of his Choctaw Nation, which he had served for so long.
He left no diary; any personal documents are lost to time. I thought I had found the few scant documents and bios still available for him. But tucked away in one of the collections at the Oklahoma History Center was a 1896 campaign pamphlet for the newly formed Choctaw-Chickasaw Union Party, that gave me insight into his struggles. My grandfather was one of the sponsors along with Gilbert W. Dukes, Thomas D. Ainsworth, J. C. Folsom, and J. B. Jackson.
In 1896 the Choctaws were reaching the end of Chief Jefferson Gardner’s term and his extremely conservative policies toward the Dawes Commission. In his inaugural address in October 1894, he stated that “he opposed any change in tribal affairs or the holding of land. He asked the members of the council to dismiss the extraordinary subject from their minds, as no proposition from the Dawes Commission would be entertained.”
The problems with the Dawes Commission only festered. Historian Angie Debo took the perspective that the 1896 election was a pivotal election for the Choctaws:
A desperate McCurtain wrote to W. W. Wilson, an influential advisor and National Treasurer for Chief Gardner, urging him to persuade Gardner to begin immediate negotiations in an effort to head off hostile legislation. He also called for leading Choctaws to meet in Tuskahoma on January 23, 1896 to draft cooperative measures to present to the Dawes Commission. Thus the “Tuskahoma Party” was formed.
In the summer of 1896, four bitter rivals were vying for Choctaw Chief. In the end, Green McCurtain’s election was viewed as a victory for allotment of tribal lands. But if the opponents of allotment had consolidated their votes behind one candidate, they would have won by a landslide. The official count was as follows: McCurtain, 1405, Jackson, 1195, Dukes, 613, Gardner, 596.”
The pamphlet at the History Center explained that the Union Party was created after the 1896 election by a union of the members of the Progressive, the National, and Independent Parties, known as the Dukes, the Jackson, and the Gardner parties:
“These prominent leaders of their people have united their forces and made common cause against those who desire the breaking up of all our social and political ties, the abandonment of our tribal government, and the admission of the white man’s government to supplant that of our own which has been our heritage from our forefathers.”
The outrage in the two-page pamphlet still simmers off the pages as I read them. In no uncertain terms, the platform of the Union Party drew a hard stance against the Green McCurtain position, which advocated full cooperation with the Dawes Commission.
In his defense, McCurtain argued that to do nothing was to invite the impatient U.S. Congress to legislate away all Choctaw tribal rights in one fell stroke. It was, as one journalist described, a choice between a half-loaf or no loaf at all. Prolonging the treaty ratification did nothing to ensure the Choctaw tribal rights.
Choctaw-Chickasaw Union Party
Declaration of Principles Unanimously Adopted at the Antlers Convention November 25-27, 1896.”
FIRST: We favor the continuation and reservation of our government as it now exists, and was handed down to us by our forefathers, and while it may be that a change is inevitable, we do not believe that we are now prepared for such a change, and we know that at least three-fourths of the Indians by blood do not desire it, as is shown by their votes in the last election.
SECOND: We unreservedly condemn the action of our late General Council, assisted by a Chief [Green McCurtain], elected by open and notorious bribery, in passing a law to create a Commission to negotiate with what is known as the Dawes Commission…the passage [of the law] was procured by intrigue, corruption, and open and notorious bargain and sale of legislative votes.
Signed: J.C. Folsom, Chairman of Committee on Platform
FIRST District: J. B. Jackson, T.D. Ainsworth, M. N. Cass, Daniel Bell;
SECOND District: W. W. Wilson, G.W. Dukes, L. H. Williams, J. J. Watkins;
THIRD District: J. C. Folsom, T. L. Griggs, Henry Byington, G. N. Blevin.
As we all know, Green McCurtain defeated Wilson N. Jones, the Union Party candidate, in the 1898 election. Finally in 1900 Gilbert Dukes was able to prevail , but it was too late to undo actions taken by Green McCurtain and his Council. The Choctaw rolls, which had been “lost” and unavailable to the Dawes Commission, mysteriously surfaced after McCurtain’s election. The Dawes Commission meetings that Chief Jefferson Gardner had resolutely refused to attend, now had the full attention of Green McCurtain. By the end of 1896 the leaders of the Choctaw Nation had given the Dawes Commission what it wanted: a signed agreement , consenting to the abolition of their government. For the Choctaws, the signatory parties were Green McCurtain, J. B. Standley, N. B. Ainsworth, E. N. Wright, Ben Hampton, Wesley Anderson, Amos Henry, B. C. Garland, and A. S. Williams. The Atoka Agreement, with few changes, was signed April 23, 1897.
In the white man’s language; each of the principal chiefs, upon ratification of the Atoka agreement, would be required to execute a deed of conveyance to the United States, in trust, for all the interest of said Nation in the lands of their Nation, for the purpose of allotment of said lands as individual holdings to the citizens of the Nation.
The only opportunity left for my grandfather and his Union Party members was to see that the Supplemental Treaty, also known as the Curtis Amendment, did as little damage as possible. It would require many hours of thought and negotiation. Several thorny issues remained that were not dealt with in the Atoka Agreement, among them, rights of the Chickasaw Freedman, Mississippi Choctaw rights, townsite selection, appraisal methods, and coal and asphalt rights.
The Curtis Act was signed on March 21, 1902 by all parties; it was then sent to the Department of Interior, then on the U.S. House of Representatives, where it was passed on July 1, 1902. There was still much distress and debate over the issues surrounding allotment and citizenship. Green McCurtain was returned to office over Thomas W. Hunter, who was supported by out-going Chief Dukes, but McCurtain faced resistance in taking possession of his office. Hunter set up a government-in-exile; however McCurtain won out, being recognized by the officials in Washington. This description vastly over-simplifies the events of that tumultuous period. Allotment rolls closed on June 4, 1906. It heralded the final days of the Choctaw Nation.
Six of Choctaw Governor’s Light Horse in Custody
Paris, Tex., Oct 24, 1902 – Six members of McCurtain’s Light Horse were arrested at Tuskahoma yesterday on a charge of disturbing the peace. McCurtain, though declared governor, has not got possession of the national seat, and he sent the Light Horsemen to the house of the Supreme Judge, where they demanded it, hence the arrests. ~~from San Antonio Express, Saturday, Oct 25, 1902
One more opportunity presented itself for the Choctaw Nation; a faint hope that the Indian Territory would be recognized as its own state, separate from the western end of the proposed state. My grandfather represented the town of Fort Towson at the Antlers meeting, and was elected as one of seven delegates to the statehood convention at Muskogee. This effort, too, would not be successful.
His last act for the Choctaw Nation was to serve as National Chairman for the Tuskahoma Party. In April 1905 he issued a call for a convention of the party to meet at Tuskahoma and nominate the last Chief of a sovereign Choctaw Nation. He chaired the convention in May which unanimously nominated Green McCurtain. It was the largest convention ever held in the Choctaw Nation with 300 in attendance and 17 counties represented.
I wish I could discuss with my grandfather how he dealt with these difficult and disappointing times. It is my fervent hope that he realized it made no sense to drown in despair over the injustices of the world. He married three times, losing his first two wives to illness, two infants and three teenage children. But he did remarry a third time in 1906, so not all hope was beaten out of him by political corruption (as he saw it) and government coercion. He dusted himself off and looked to see what can be made of these circumstances. He became a successful banker and owner of several retail businesses in Fort Towson and had much to be grateful for. I believe he never strayed from his Choctaw path, always caring deeply for his fellow man, despite the world shifting and changing around him – a man we would all admire, a friend we would all like, and a person we would all want to be. And – LOL – he would probably start up a third political party!
***Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
SOURCES: Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940; new edition, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), ISBN 0-691-04615-8.
Reference to McCurtain’s letter to W. W. Wilson: Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, second edition, 1961, page 253; and election results, page 255.
Chief Jefferson Gardner’s inauguration speech was reported in the Claremore Progress (OK), Oct 13, 1894.
News about the last Choctaw convention was reported in The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, OK) on April 15, 1904, and May 14, 1904.
Discovery of the 1885 Choctaw Rolls by McCurtain’s Secretary, Edward H. Wilson, from a letter to Tams Bixby: Kent Carter, The Dawes Commission (Ancestry.com, 1999), page 82.