BIG LOVE * The Woman Who Saved Jones Academy

You may already have guessed her identity from her photograph. Jane Austin McCurtain is probably the most recognized woman from the old Choctaw Nation. Articles about her life have appeared many times – in my research I’ve counted four books, three issues of The Chronicles of Oklahoma, and at least two magazine/newspaper articles.

Yes, she was a Choctaw First Lady, being the wife of Jackson F. McCurtain, who served as Choctaw Chief from 1880 to 1884. But Jane was so much more. And she continues to fascinate us all these years later.

  • We know that Jane was a trusted advisor to her husband during his political career and especially in his last years as Choctaw Chief.
  • After 1885, the McCurtain house in Tuskahoma, known as the “McCurtain Hotel” became legendary for Mrs. McCurtain’s hospitality and for the sage advice she gave her political guests on current affairs.
  • Jane managed the livestock and crops at the McCurtain ranch and raised six children without a husband, [ Her daughter Lilly Bell died as a young child.]

1885 janes children

  • McCurtain County author, Joy McDougal Smith, called her “the great woman who stood behind the great man.” Read Joy’s article – Grand Lady of the Choctaws.
  • Dr. Anna Lewis proclaimed that Jane McCurtain “stood equal to any man in the Choctaw Nation in her knowledge of political affairs. She knew personally every chief of the Choctaws from 1860 on until her death in 1925.” Read the full article from Dr. Lewis.
  • In 1916 Joseph Thoburn, having the opportunity to interview Jane Austin in person, writes about her refined manners and fluent, articulate speech. “One enters the big council house, explores its high-walled and wide measured empty rooms, and enters the chamber of Aunt Jane on the first floor expecting to encounter considerable difficulty and employ the art of signs in order to converse with her. Her wrinkled features change to contours of smiles, for she welcomes the American seeker of Choctaw knowledge, and in pure English invites him to take a seat.” Read the entire interview by Mr. Thoburn.
  • But no one spoke about her heart and sense of compassion until one long-forgotten student was interviewed years after her death. William Columbus Ervin’s strongest impression of that “fine woman” was how she “had room in her heart for more than herself and her own good.”  Read William’s full story.

For not so widely known is the tale of Jane McCurtain’s efforts that saved Jones Academy during the Choctaw government’s “great embarrassment” which began in 1894.

The Academy opened its doors in the fall of 1892, as one of two new Choctaw schools, the other one being a school for girls, the Tuskahoma Female Seminary, located very near Mrs. McCurtain’s home. Both schools were established during Chief W.N. Jones’ term so he gets a lot of the credit for building the schools. Actually the idea of new Choctaw schools started with Chief Isaac Garvin, but his death from tuberculosis in 1880 cut his term short. When Jack McCurtain took over as Chief, other issues seemed more pressing during his tenure, including negotiations for the Frisco Railway line through the Choctaw Nation and his crowning achievement – the building of a handsome new council building at Tuskahoma.

After the school was finally built, Chief Jones was fortunate to have the able assistance of the nine members of the school board whose devotion to education for the nation’s children ran deep in their Choctaw blood. The Choctaw School Board, shown below, was tasked with the selection of a promising and talented man to head the new Jones Academy for Boys.

choctaw board of educ-4 wilson brothers

Seated, L to R: John P. Turnbull, Judge Henry C. Harris, John Davis Wilson, W.W. Wilson.

Standing, L to R: James Wood Kirk, Absolum James, Edward H. Wilson, Raphael Wilson, Solomon Hotema.

The first years of operation were overseen by a brilliant and energetic young 26-year-old named Simon T. Dwight. Prior to his appointment, he was the National Superintendent of Schools under the tribal government. A full-blood Choctaw Indian, Simon Dwight had also been a student at Spencer Academy as a young boy. In 1887 he graduated with honors from Center College at Danville, Kentucky after four years of study. Upon his return he was first elected Journalist of the House, and then elected Representative from Jackson County (Leaders and Leading Men of the Indian Territory, H. F. O’Beirne, 1891).

Simon had grown up in a household focused on the educational policies of the Choctaw Nation. His father Timothy Dwight worked closely with Forbis LeFlore on educational issues, and served for many years as the District Trustee of the old Pushmataha District until his death in 1885. As a District Trustee he was responsible for the neighborhood schools in his district (Records of the Choctaw Nation, Microfilm Roll 75, No. 19878.) Timothy Dwight had been educated in the mission schools in Mississippi prior to removal and had even kept a journal of the arduous journey to the Indian Territory (Interview with Edwin Dwight, Indian Pioneer Papers, Hazel B. Greene, April 20, 1938).

Superintendent Simon Dwight passed away from illness in January 1894. His wife Janey helped to clear up the outstanding vouchers and payments. She stayed on at Jones Academy, probably for the benefit of her young son Ben, born in 1890.

Ben Hunter Dwight would become one of Jones Academy’s illustrious alumni. He was appointed Chief of the Choctaw Nation in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. Ben also served in Washington, D. C. as administrative assistant to Senator Robert S. Kerr until ill health forced his retirement in 1953 (Obituary, The Daily Oklahoman, July 21, 1953, page 2, col 2).

Bills and expenses flowed constantly at Jones Academy and the burden fell on a young instructor Thomas W. Hunter, to reconcile Mr. Dwight’s last report to the Choctaw Council.

1894 thomas w hunter-review of expenses

The year 1894 was a momentous year for Jane McCurtain. She was finally given a leadership role in the male-dominated Choctaw Nation. The three areas of her greatest interests converged into one “Big Love” – her devotion to the Choctaw people, her love of teaching, and her support for the Choctaw schools – when after Simon Dwight’s death, Jane was asked to take over as superintendent of Jones Academy.

She immediately encountered financial issues, as word spread rapidly that the Choctaw treasury was empty and the Choctaw warrants could only be redeemed at a greatly discounted value, eventually becoming almost worthless. She soon found that she had no funds to work with, and virtually no money to pay teacher salaries, which ranged from $750 to $1200 a year. The coal strikes of 1894 had dried up the coal royalties that fed the Choctaw Treasury. The empty Choctaw Treasury would become known as the Choctaws’ “great embarrassment.”

The Choctaws Broke

Their Treasury Empty on Account of the Coal Miners’ Strike

Hartshorne, I. T., June 19, 1894 —As a result of the miners’ strike the Choctaw Treasury is empty. There is not more than enough money in sight to carry current expenses and there will be no service after the summer vacation unless the run from coal royalties is quickly resumed.

The owners of coal lands and all Choctaws generally are greatly incensed at the existing condition of affairs and will insist that the laws relative to the Intruder question are followed to the letter. There are quite a number of applications for permits amongst those who have hitherto ignored the law. The majority of applicants are refused permits because of having been previously listed for ejectment.

A prominent Choctaw stated today that every man within the Nation would have to comply with the permit law or get out. Three intruders were escorted to the Arkansas line by soldiers who were in the first list Work will be commenced on an additional list Thursday.

~~St. Louis Republic (Missouri), Thursday, Jun 20, 1894.

Mrs. McCurtain had her own troubles in 1894. On June 1st of that year the Caddo Banner reported that the McCurtain Hotel at Tuskahoma had burned down the preceding Saturday with all of its contents. The cause was determined to be a cigar dropped onto bedding while a young man was taking a noonday nap. [She would later rebuild the hotel.] photo-jane mccurtain home

In addition, five of her children were still dependent on her and lived at home. Her oldest daughter Brunette lost her husband Simeon Hampton during this time period, and in May 1895 Brunette would also lose her two year old son.

1896 census jane mccurtain 5 children

Despite her many private concerns and obligations, Jane McCurtain used her own personal income to meet expenses at Jones Academy, and in doing so, won over the hearts of her students.

Interview with William Columbus Ervin: “I went to school a while at Hartshorne when I was small. The school here had been established by the Choctaw Oklahoma and Gulf Mining Company, and was kept up by taxes paid by the miners. Then I went to Jones Academy for the rest of my education. I went there when it had only one room for a classroom.

Mrs. J. F. McCurtain was the superintendent. She was the sister-in-law of Green McCurtain, the man who was High Chief of the Choctaws for so long. She was the widow of Jack McCurtain, Green’s brother. At one time Jack was chief, also.

This Mrs. McCurtain was a fine woman who had room in her heart for more than herself and her own good. Jones Academy was about to go under then, and she kept it going for a time with her own money. She did a lot to save the school so that it could develop into the fine school it is today for the Indian boys of this section of Oklahoma.

I remember that there was a post office at Jones Academy; it was called Dwight. I guess there were about one hundred students at Jones Academy when I went in the early part of the century.”

In 1899 Mrs. McCurtain was finally reimbursed for the interest she was required to pay on monies she borrowed to keep Jones Academy in working order, after she had first spent all of her personal cash.


To the Senate and House of Representatives, General Council of the Choctaw Nation.

Your Committee on Finance, having had under consideration the petition of Mrs. Jane F. McCurtain, late Supt of Jones Academy, asking for relief on account of losses incurred by her, have investigated the matter and find that she was Supt. for two & one-third years; that during that and up to this time the Nation has been financially embarrassed and unable to pay Mrs. Jane F. McCurtain cash with which to run the school.

We find that she had good personal credit and in order to keep up the school she borrowed money on which she had to pay interest, and that while she was Supt., she bought supplies of all kinds on credit and our warrants have so decreased in value, that no one would take them.

While this Committee is unwilling to set a general precedence of all owing interest to parties who had to pay interest on account of being unable to get their warrants cashed, still we think that in cases like Mrs. McCurtain, who spent all her personal cash and even sold her beef cattle to raise money of which to continue the school; and this Committee believes that but for her sacrifice and personal endeavors, the school would have been closed.

Therefore this Committee recommends that an exception be made in her case, and that she be allowed relief, for the actual amount of interest paid by her. The Committee finds that commencing Sept – month 1897, and up to the present time she has paid interest – to the sum of $1077.40 for which she has exhibited proper vouchers.

Your Committee therefore asks passage of the following bill:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

An Act for the Relief of Mrs. Jane F. McCurtain:

Be it resolved by the General Council of the Choctaw Nation assembled; that the sum of $1077.40 is hereby appropriated and of any money in the National Treasure to reimburse Mrs. Jane F. McCurtain for money expended by her as interest incurred on debts while she was Supt. of Jones Academy and the auditor shall issue his warrants in her favor for said amount.

Proposed by L. E. Oakes, Chairman, Comm. on Finance

Approved this the 19th day of October 1899

Green McCurtain, P.C.C.N.

Recorded this Oct 20th day 1899

Will Everidge, Recording Secy


 

In an article for The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Joe N. Kagey, Superintendent at Jones Academy, wrote the following: “The Choctaws have at no time discouraged education and at the present time [1926] own and support three of the best boarding schools in the state; hence they are considered one of the leading tribes in the United States in education. Jones Male Academy is one of the youngest Choctaw institutions, but in a short time it has made an enviable record.”

Jones Academy is the last Choctaw school from the days of the Choctaw Nation to remain open, being in continual operation for over 125 years.

Two sisters: Jane Austin McCurtain (left) and Malina Austin Roebuck (right), wife of Choctaw attorney David B. Roebuck. A third sister, Harriet was the second wife of Edmund McCurtain, but died in 1880 several years after their marriage. See Mrs. McCurtain’s memorial page HERE.

 

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

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SOURCES: [under fair use exception; not-for-profit educational purposes]

Books:

Harry J. O’Beirne, Leaders and Leading Men of Indian Territory, 1891, page 145.

Joseph B. Thoburn, A Standard HISTORY OF OKLAHOMA, (American Historical Society, New York, 1916), Vol. 3, pages 1338-1339; online at OKGenWeb site.

Frances Imon, “Most Noted Woman,” Smoke Signals from Indian Territory, Volume II (Henington Publishing Co., Wolfe City, Texas, 1976), pages 58-62.

David Dary, “Jane Austin McCurtain,” Stories of Old-Time Oklahoma, (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2011), p 91-93.

Periodicals:

Dr. Anna Lewis “Jane McCurtain,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. XI, no. 4 (1933), page 1027; online at OSU site. Dr. Lewis was head of the Dept. of History at Oklahoma College for Women, Chickasha, Okla.

John Bartlett Meserve, “The McCurtains,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 13, no. 3 (1935).

Joy McDougal Smith, “Grand Lady of the Choctaws,” Real West (magazine), Vol. 30, No. 212 (Feb 1987), pages 32-36.

Newspaper article, “‘Aunt Jane’ McCurtain was an education pioneer,” printed in The Norman Transcript (Okla.), June 20, 2007 (mostly a re-wording of the Anna Lewis article with no new information).

oklahoma reflections - jane austin2

Interview with William Columbus Ervin, #13619, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1938, page 7, online at OU Western History Collections, Norman.

William’s father “was William Ervin, known all over the western part of the Choctaw Nation as “Bill.” He was more Indian than I, practically a full-blood. He was one of the old type Choctaws; a man who believed in the old ways and customs and who felt that the Territory should be for the Indians alone. I can’t tell his exact age, but he was about sixty when he was killed in 1917.”

EDUCATION

J.N. Kagey, “Jones Academy,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 4, no. 4 (Dec 1926).

Angie Debo, “Education in the Choctaw Country after the Civil War,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 10, no. 3 (Sep 1932).

 

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