Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Charles Curtis (1860-1939)
 On March 4, 1929, a Native American was inaugurated as Vice President of the United States. Charles Curtis served one term with President Herbert Hoover.

Curtis was born on January 25, 1860, in North Topeka, in what was then the Kansas Territory. His mother was three-quarters Native American, of ethnic Kaw, Osage, and Pottawatomie ancestry. His great-great-grandfather, White Plume of the Kaw nation, had assisted the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. From the Kaw, we get the name “Kansas.” Curtis spoke French and Kaw before he learned English.

When he was five years old, Curtis’ mother died, and his father left him with his mother’s parents on the Kaw Reservation in Morris County, Kansas.  He spent three years with his maternal grandparents, then went to live with his paternal grandparents in Topeka. Both sets of grandparents urged him to obtain a formal education, lest he become nothing more than another suppressed Indian eking out a hardscrabble existence on an underfunded reservation.

His childhood and early adult life were varied. These were the days, still, of “wild” Indian raids and frontier rivalries, both between whites and Indians and between Indian tribes. He learned to ride bareback, to use the bow and arrow with deadly accuracy (shooting at coins to entertain white visitors), and other activities typical to Plains Indian life.

By ten, he was an accomplished horseman and was working in a livery stable.  By sixteen, he raced horses on Kansas racetracks, and at the time was considered the best jockey of all time.  Still in his teens, he became a reporter for the North Topeka Times. While driving a hack (horse-drawn taxi). he studied law, and was admitted to the bar when he was twenty-one. He began his legal practice with a fellow attorney.

He served two terms in the elected position of Shawnee County Prosecuting Attorney.  At age 32, he ran for the US House of Representatives on the Republican ticket, and served seven terms.  In 1907, he was elected to the US Senate, where he served 3 terms with distinction.  He was the first Republican to become Floor Leader of the US Senate, and at one point was a presidential hopeful.

In the midst of this busy life, he found time to court and marry Anna Elizabeth Baird, with whom he had two daughters and a son.  Anna died in 1924. Curtis’ half-sister Theresa Permelia Curtis Gann, fondly known as Dolly, also made her home with Charles and Anna’s family.

Wah-Shun-Gah, Kaw chief, c.1900
Curtis’ political interests and causes were broad and civic-minded.  Among many other issues, Curtis supported the Woman Suffrage Amendment (Kansas women received the vote in 1912); the Soldier’s Adjusted Compensation Bill (for WWI veterans); the Anti Child Labor Amendment; anti-narcotic legislation; bills which protected the rights of Native American women and which made Native Americans citizens of the US; parts of the Tariff Act to protect farm interests, plans to benefit wheat growers whose crops failed, and the Hepburn railroad bill which eliminated discrimination against farmers; Farm Loan Bonds which offered low-interest loans to farmers; and the consolidation of the US ports of entry to streamline the collection of customs. He held more Senate Committee assignments than any previous Senator.

Senator William Borah (R-Idaho) described his contemporary, Curtis, as “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia, and one of the best poker players in America.”  The American Mercury described him as “the greatest whisperer in Congress.” This was typical of Curtis, not to be loud and obstreperous but to cajole and convince, to attract more bees with honey than vinegar.

Curtis became Herbert Hoover’s running mate in Hoover’s 1928 bid for the White House, which the team won in a landslide. Unfortunately, Curtis’ dynamic dedication in the US Congress did not carry him far as Vice President. Like most vice presidents, he was generally ignored, never consulted, and often lampooned. The Republican ticket had been a “marriage of convenience,” and there was no love lost between the two candidates.  Hoover’s deliberate alienation of Curtis was not entirely unfounded: the two had a history of political disagreements. Curtis found himself, typically, shelved.

Since Curtis was a widower upon his election to the vice-presidency, he asked his half-sister Dolly to come live at his Washington residence. She served as hostess for the social events required of the Vice President.

Curtis made the most of his position as vice president.  He presided over the Senate on a regular basis. He displayed artifacts from his Kaw, Osage, and Pottawatomie culture in his offices, and was rightfully proud to be the first Native American to reach such high office.

After five decades of public service, Curtis’ youthful vigor faded, his innovation dimmed, his resiliency stiffened. He was 69 on Inauguration Day. During his term with Hoover, the Washington press of long duration noted that he wasn’t the man he had been. He had hardened and become shrill and querulous, demanding and pompous. His behavior during the “Bonus March” can only be attributed to this ossified and eroded personality, not to the political dynamo he had been for the bulk of his career.

A group of World War I veterans converged on Washington in July 1932, calling themselves the “Bonus March,” seeking to embarrass Washington into issuing them their promised bonuses for service. When the four hundred arrived at the White House, Curtis made a panicky request of the president, asking him to call out the army to arrest them as they paraded in single-file around the building. When Hoover didn’t comply, Curtis contacted the Marines directly, who sent out two companies in trench helmets, riding on the city trolleys to the White House. The story went public, and the press heaped derision on Curtis’ head. He became a national laughingstock.

Hoover and Curtis served only one presidential term. With the inauguration of the Great Depression, the Hoover administration was doomed. The disaster of the bonus march was just one more log on its funeral pyre.

When he left public service at the termination of the Hoover administration, Curtis decided to remain in Washington, DC, where he renewed his legal career.  He died three years later, at age 76, on February 8, 1936, from a heart attack.

Despite the setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations of the last leg of his public service career, his contributions over the course of fifty years cannot be diminished. Charles Curtis was all American, in every sense of the word.

Charles Curtis: Native-American Indian Vice-President  http://www.vpcharlescurtis.net/

United States Senate: Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President (1929-1933) http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_Charles_Curtis.htm

Dorman, Michael, The Second Man: The Changing Role of the Vice Presidency, New York: Delacorte Press, 1968.

Harwood, Michael, In the Shadow of Presidents, Philadelphia, New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1966.

Charles Curtis:  photo from Library of Congress, via Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: Charles Curtis (1860-1936) http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=c001008

Wah-Shun-Gah, Kaw Chief, c. 1900: photo from Chapman, Berlin B., “Charles Curtis and the Kaw Reservation,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Topeka, KS: Kansas Historical Society, November 1947  http://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-charles-curtis-and-the-kaw-reservation/13069

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