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Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum

June 2024
15min read

How Creek Indian number 1501 repaid a debt

In August 1902 a twelve-year-old farm boy named Thomas Gilcrease, being one-eighth Creek Indian on his mother’s side, received a 160-acre allotment in the land of the Creek Nation, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, which occupied what yet remained of Indian Territory in America. Not long before, by act of Congress, the Creeks had ceased to be a self-governing tribe. By 1907 Indian Territory had become the eastern half of the new state of Oklahoma, and forty-two oil rigs were pumping high-grade petroleum out from under Tom Gilcrease’s land, which, by sheer good fortune, sat atop one of the greatest oil strikes in American history, Oklahoma’s fabulous Glenn Pool. Some thirty-two years after that, Thomas Gilcrease, wealthy oilman, began collecting paintings, sketches, artifacts, weapons, costumes, maps, books, and manuscripts bearing on the American West and the American Indian. He went at it so swiftly, so avidly, and so recklessly that in 1954 the city of Tulsa had to take over his incomparable collection in order to shield it from his creditors. Thomas Gilcrease’s lucky Indian allotment had acted on him like some long-delayed time bomb, one whose powerful force and curious timing were very much on my mind when I visited the Gilcrease Museum, which nestles on a well-landscaped hill three miles northwest of downtown Tulsa, self-styled “Oil Capital of the World.”


Like downtown Tulsa, the museum’s modern, low-slung building is handsome, brand-new, and a trifle impersonal, but a few yards to one side of it stands an old stone house that Tom Gilcrease lived in, on and off, for nearly fifty years. Lodged in the hillside itself is Gilcrease’s tomb, which also contains the remains of his mother, who lived on the hilltop until her death in 1935, and those of his father, who was murdered in his country store one night back in 1913. Both house and tomb are powerful reminders that the Gilcrease Museum, despite its modern building and its municipal status, is the highly personal handiwork of a single man. The staff people refer to him as Mr. Gilcrease as though he were still sitting on the stone house’s porch, feeding his birds, looking out on the Osage Hills in the distance, and grumbling over “gawkers” who came to his hilltop museum without comprehending the treasures he had laid before them.

At heart it is the American Indian whom the Gilcrease honors.

And what treasures are on display in the museum’s broad, spacious galleries! There are the incomparable Indian portraits of George Catlin and the delicate genre scenes of Alfred Jacob Miller, the first white artists to lay eyes on the central Rocky Mountains; the breathless panoramas of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; the gaunt, galloping horsemen of Frederic Remington; and the brave, feckless Montana cowhands of Charles Russell, the “cowboy artist.” Connoisseurs have called the Gilcrease Museum America’s finest repository of the art of the Old West, and visitors have no cause to doubt them.

In this great repository a splendid array of trappers, settlers, soldiers, and cowboys passes in review, but at heart it is the American Indian whom the Gilcrease Museum honors, though not in a partisan or sentimental way. In the art of the museum Indians are simply there, inescapable protagonists in the turbulent story of the West. They were noble Romans to the painters of the 1820s and heroic primitives to Catlin in the 1830s. In bloodier decades they appeared as heathen barbarians, stealthy hunters, and mortal enemies and finally as a race broken by defeat yet still disturbing, anomalous, and not a little unearthly. American Indians had been something, not nothing. That is the message, tacit and subliminal, that the Gilcrease Museum conveys and surely was meant to convey, for more than anything else the hilltop museum on the outskirts of Tulsa is one man’s private act of restitution—and, to judge by his life, perhaps an act of repentance as well.

One-eighth Indian by birth, Thomas Gilcrease was much more than that by upbringing. His parents had seen to that when they settled in the Creek Nation subdivision of Indian Territory in 1890, the year Tom Gilcrease was born. The eldest of fourteen children, he lived as other children of Indian Territory lived: farming, hunting, and intermittently attending rude Indian schools “whenever I could go,” as he later put it. His childhood was harsh and toilsome: “When I was four my father taught me how to build fires, carry water and feed the livestock. At the age of six I was taken to the corn fields where I hoed. When the work in the field was done for the day, I would return to the house and help my mother churn, wash the clothes and cook. I might have been in the way some but I helped her. When I reached my eighth birthday I was given the opportunity to plow, plant and harvest....”


He toiled in a fast-dying world. In 1896 the Five Civilized Tribes were ordered by Congress to compile a roll of their members in preparation for dividing the tribal land into individual holdings and consigning the tribes themselves to oblivion. At the age of nine the slightly built, sandy-haired Tom Gilcrease, who bore no physical resemblance to the American Indian, became part of the Creek Nation with membership roll number 1505, a lucky number, indeed, rather like the winning ticket in a lottery. Tom Gilcrease was eleven years old when Creek Indian full bloods rose up angrily to demand independence for the dying Creek Nation on the eve of the division of its land. He was fifteen when the desperate leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes called upon the United States to establish Indian Territory as the state of Sequoyah instead of turning it into eastern Oklahoma. Petitions, protests, calls for defiance all proved vain, as usual.

“Young Gilcrease saw his people thus disintegrate,” the Tulsa Daily World was to report in 1946. “He dreamed about giving the Indian a chance to retrieve his latent race pride.” That is how the great collector remembered his youth four decades later, but in fact, Thomas Gilcrease grew more and more estranged from American Indians during those years of disintegration, and it was the Glenn Pool oil royalties he gained as Creek Indian number 1505 that allowed him to go his own way.

That did not happen all at once. With his first royalties in hand, the seventeen-year-old Gilcrease sent himself for a term to Bacone Indian School in nearby Muskogee. There he met, and in 1908 married, a fellow student named Belle Harlow, a member of the Osage tribe, whose oil-rich lands just north of the Creeks were by 1921 to make the Usages the richest ethnic group, per capita, in the world. The affluent young couple settled in Osage country, and Tom Gilcrease took up ranching, though not without casting eager glances at nearby Tulsa, where wildcatters and lease brokers, shysters and sharpers made millions, lost millions, and talked millions night and day in the lobbies of the boom town’s brand-new hotels. “The fervor for wealth...began to take hold of Tom Gilcrease,” noted his friend and biographer, a Tulsa lawyer named David Randolph Milsten, now in his eighty-seventh year. The ambitious young man tried his hand at banking and then began dabbling in oil leases on his own. A month after his father’s murder—as if to wipe off that sordid stain—Gilcrease bought the stone house and the fine hilltop property and turned the future museum site into a beautiful parklike estate.

With his first oil royalties, young Gilcrease sent himself to school.

The farm boy from Indian Territory became a polished man of the world. The cowboy regalia he had worn as a rancher gave way to natty double-breasted suits, and his quarter horses to smart little roadsters and later to a chauffeur-driven Packard, as befitted the president of the Gilcrease Oil Company. Drawn to Old World culture, he spent nearly half a year touring the Mediterranean from Algiers to Athens with his own personal guide. He scoured the art galleries of New York City so avidly that his wife would fall back exhausted and return to their hotel room alone. She was to recall this four decades later, perhaps because such episodes perfectly epitomized her marriage to a gifted, ambitious man who was leaving her behind in every way—they divorced in 1924—just as he was leaving behind all the rusticities of the now-defunct Indian Territory.

Oil-rich Oklahoma Indians were producing national laughingstocks during the 1920s. The nation’s newspapers carried countless stories of such figures of fun as the Creek Indian woman who spent a fortune buying blooded cattle only to slaughter a prize bull when she happened to want some beef. Americans chuckled over the Creek Indian from Muskogee who took a seven-hundred-mile taxicab ride to see the Chicago stockyards and another Creek Indian who reportedly bought two phonographs because he owned two records. If Thomas Gilcrease felt ashamed of such folly and ignorance or grew angry over the mockery they inspired, he gave no outward sign of it in the 1920s. The opposite may well have been true during those booming, acquisitive years. Of this there is no direct evidence, because a veil hangs over the business activities of the Gilcrease Oil Company and its millionaire president. Nevertheless, there are those who believe—so I was told—that were the veil parted, there would be seen the figure of Creek tribal member number 1505 among those who practiced sharply on Indians with oil leases to sell.


Then, in 1927, Tom Gilcrease fell furiously in love with an eighteen-year-old beauty named Norma Des Cygne Smallwood and joined the ranks of the oil-rich laughingstocks. Norma Smallwood was not only a beauty but a celebrated beauty queen, Miss America 1926 and a former Miss Tulsa as well. Standing behind her was her ambitious, pushing mother, author of a little book called Magic Power—Beauty. The two together had the unmistakable air of adventurers about them. As David Milsten remarked to me in his careful lawyerly way, “There was not that much reason for Norma to marry Tom Gilcrease without the presence of wealth.”


Age apart, Gilcrease was a difficult man, self-absorbed, secretive, and painfully sparing with words. His wit was keen but sardonic, as when he described a bullfight in Madrid as “bulls, matadors, picadors & horses all mixed up together. They all got the worst of it.” His temper was sharp and caustic. When someone asked him, “How did you get your money?” Gilcrease curtly replied, “I didn’t get it; it came to me.” He was, says Milsten, a withdrawn and puzzling figure who “often lived in an imaginary country of his own.” As the Texas historian J. Frank Dobie was to say of Gilcrease, “The longer I knew him, the more he gave me the impression of having made not only long journeys to lone places on this earth but of longer voyages into deep and lone places within himself.” Altogether he was an uncomfortable sort of person, evidently made attractive to a reigning beauty and her ubiquitous mother by three million dollars in personal assets and an outwardly meek and gentle manner.

In 1927 Tom Gilcrease fell furiously in love with a beauty queen.

The danger signals went unheeded. Gilcrease was far too infatuated with the teen-aged beauty whom all America, as it were, had chosen to honor. He was infatuated, too, with Pygmalion-like visions of their happy future state: he and Norma living part of each year in Europe steeping themselves in Old World culture and strenuous programs of self-improvement, Norma’s especially. In September 1928 the two were married in Tulsa; nine months later a daughter was born to them, and shortly thereafter the Gilcrease family took up residence in a large, luxurious Paris flat.

The situation held the elements of farce. For his own self-improvement Gilcrease found an informal tutor—and lifelong adviser—in Dr. Robert Lee Humber of North Carolina, who taught him French history while the two men walked through Paris streets, gardens, parks, and palaces. Norma’s program was far more onerous: French lessons from eight to nine-thirty; Spanish lessons from ten to eleven-thirty; art lessons after lunch, “with English studies added in the evening,” she recalled, which ended “around the first of June in 1930,” when she threw over her studies and soon enough much else in her marriage to Gilcrease. While she toured the Continent with her mother, Gilcrease was scourged by jealousy: Who were the two men who assisted her and her mother when their car broke down en route to Geneva? Why, on her return to America, did she have cocktails with the ship’s captain?

From Paris Gilcrease wrote Norma pathetic lovelorn letters, piling question on pleading question: “Do I please you? If so in what manner? Do I displease you? If so, in what manner? Can I do anything to make you happier? If so what is it?” And so on and on, quite in vain. Norma’s response, says Milsten, was “complete indifference.” The couple began living apart for long months at a stretch. Gilcrease stayed mainly in Paris, where he opened an investment company on the Champs Elysées. Norma lived in the stone house on the hilltop, a voluptuous grass widow attended by her mother, who encouraged her daughter to spend lavishly, throw parties, have fun. Gilcrease tried to remove the author of Magic Power—Beauty from his property, but he failed even there. Marriage to the former Miss America became a nightmare of private betrayal and public humiliation. Finally, in October 1933, Gilcrease filed for divorce from his wife on grounds of “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty,” with his mother-in-law as a secondary defendant. Norma countersued, and the stage was set for a bitter struggle. The Gilcrease divorce trial lasted from April 17 until May 2, 1934; eighty-four witnesses were called to the stand, private detectives included. The whole proceeding was “more sordid than anything you can imagine,” says Milsten, and the local papers, eager to follow the career of Miss Tulsa, reported it in detail.


Gilcrease won his divorce and custody of his daughter, but it was the most wretched of victories. He felt himself degraded and disgraced. “My name has been dragged through the courts,” he told his Indian gardener, to whom he spoke more freely than to almost anyone else. When a local preacher denounced him for refusing to donate ten thousand dollars for his church fund, Gilcrease could only conclude that Tulsans, in the aftermath of the sordid trial, regarded him as little more than a wealthy dupe. The whole wrenching Smallwood episode, which took up seven years of his life, “left Tom a very bitter man,” says Milsten. “It left him a mental recluse. I don’t think he had any real happiness after that.”


It also left Thomas Gilcrease, to all intents and purposes, an Indian. Aggrieved and unhappy himself, he began identifying strongly with the griefs and wrongs of American Indians, almost as though Miss America’s betrayal of Tom Gilcrease somehow epitomized America’s betrayal of Indians. He began to look to his fractional Indian heritage for personal solace and strength. Drawing close to nature, the Paris boulevardier took delight in his birds, in his wilderness cabin in Wyoming, and in loving recollection of the old half-tamed Indian Territory. The sharp-witted Tulsa oilman grew attached to magical thinking, mythic tales, and the dream side of life in general. It was this “Indian” side of Gilcrease that was to impress J. Frank Dobie most in later years. “I’ve hardly known another human being,” said Dobie, “who had the mysteries and beyonds deep inside himself that Tom Gilcrease had.” In letters to friends Gilcrease took to signing himself “Injun Tom,” only half-jokingly, if that.

The divorce left Gilcrease bitter—and, essentially, an Indian.

In 1939 Gilcrease began collecting the art of the American West, but it was not a hobby. It was a personal mission, for a grand visionary scheme had taken hold of his mind. He would turn the hilltop property into “a home for deserving boys and girls who are descendants of members of any of the Indian tribes,” to quote the charter of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation. There Indian children would enjoy comfort, good treatment, and beautiful landscaped surroundings. NEW CHILDREN’S PARADISE REALITY SOON, the Tulsa Tribune was to report in 1943. To lift their spirits, the children would have access to a library whose unique collection of books and documents—as yet ungathered—would show the West and the Indian to them in a fresh, new light. They would have access to a museum that would show them through the powerful medium of art what their ancestors had been and done and suffered. The hilltop was to be, in Milsten’s words, a “haven of perfectibility” or, perhaps more accurately, an experimental hospital for the mending of broken Indian hearts. There was to be no racial bitterness; Gilcrease was bitter enough himself. Everyone in the Western saga who stood for justice and equity would find a place in the future museum: John Smith, Roger Williams, William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Diego Columbus, son of the admiral, whose 1519 letter to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V calling for better treatment of Indian slaves sits proudly on display in the museum’s documents room, alongside a rare certified copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Like a man who has found the lost key to happiness, Gilcrease plunged into his visionary enterprise with all-consuming zeal. Milsten recalls hearing a business associate of Gilcrease’s tell him that the man “constantly studied catalogues, talked with art dealers by long distance telephone, visited every museum in every city where he traveled, inspected collections whenever they were advertised.” With an Indian artist named Woody Crumbo as his adviser and companion he scoured the countryside by car. “If they heard that someone or a gallery had a fine collection of Indian paintings or sculpture depicting the pioneer West,” said Milsten, “off they would go; distance was not an object and time was not of the essence.” Gilcrease came and went as he pleased, beholden to no one, exalted by his mission.


“His one interest in life is the assembling of material that will serve to inspire the Indians of the present day,” a New York rare-books dealer reported in Harper’s magazine. And New York’s art dealers gladly flung wide their doors to this “Oklahoma Indian”—as they thought of him—who was so determined to buy what almost nobody else wanted at all: old Spanish colonial documents, the works of forgotten Western genre painters, watercolor sketches done by humble illustrators attached to nineteenth-century surveying expeditions. Ducal doors in England opened wide for Gilcrease, too, after he had acquired from an English family its magnificent collection of Catlins. At the Duke of Northumberland’s ancestral castle the duke tried to sell Gilcrease a portrait of Joseph Brant, the Mohican war chief. At Eaton Hall the Duke of Westminster was taken aback by his bespectacled “Indian” visitor. The duke later told his friend Philip Robinson that he “had not expected to see a person so sweet and gentle and charming as Tom Gilcrease but had rather envisioned a Red Indian Chief complete with feathered headdress.”

Gilcrease spent and acquired at a feverish pace. He bought up whole collections from private hobbyists. He bought up the entire contents of artists’ studios as well as the work of the famed art colony at Taos, New Mexico, which hearkened back to the turn of the century. As if to set off the “Westernness” of his collection he also bought costly masterpieces by the most “Eastern” of American artists: John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer. The oilman could scarcely keep pace with the collector, recalled Lester Whipple, Gilcrease’s chief business factotum. “There was hardly a day when he did not discuss methods of extricating funds from his oil interests to pay for his acquisitions.” But if his associates were worried, Gilcrease was not. “He would spend $250,000 with the same ease that he would part with a $5 bill—if he had the funds,” said Whipple, “and many times when he was not sure if his canoe would make it to shore.” In time his new hilltop “children’s paradise” was forced to close down, sad victim of the tangle of laws, rules, and regulations involved in boarding and educating Indian children. That did not deter Gilcrease either. The general public still needed “some new thoughts” about Indians, as he put it to a reporter from Life, so he went right on collecting. In the space of ten years Gilcrease acquired some four thousand paintings, ten thousand historic artifacts, and twenty thousand extremely rare books, maps, and documents. When the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art—still the museum’s legal name—opened its doors on May 2, 1949, it was already the finest museum of its kind in America. ‘The best collection of art and literature ever assembled on the American frontier and the Indian,” said Life.

The question for Tulsa voters: Did they want a great museum free?

Then, in mid-1953, Gilcrease telephoned his old friend Dr. Humber and told him that his glorious collecting spree had been badly snagged. He owed the art dealers 2.25 million dollars and “certain creditors were exerting an unrelenting pressure upon him for payment,” recalled Humber. If necessary, he could return the unpaid-for artwork, or he could sell his collection outright, but Gilcrease was determined to do neither. As he struggled to straighten out his neglected oil business, however, his financial situation grew steadily worse. Asked at one point to come up with a mere ten thousand dollars overnight or face imminent court action, Gilcrease was so short of funds he had to call on his friends for the money. By an irony that could not have been lost on the self-conscious Gilcrease, he had become yet another in the long roster of feckless oil-rich Indians from the old oil-rich Indian Territory. Nevertheless, if Gilcrease had not spent well, he had spent wisely.

In the spring of 1954 his friends and admirers organized a rescue mission. Calling themselves the Keep Gilcrease Museum for Tulsa Committee, they came up with a plan and persuaded the city fathers to go along. A proposition was to be put before the voters of Tulsa. If they passed a bond issue to pay off Gilcrease’s art debts, he would turn over the museum to Tulsa gratis. In addition, he would pay back the entire 2.25 million dollars from his producing oil wells in East Texas. So the question for the voters was to be, Did they want to acquire a museum for nothing? An affirmative answer was not very forbidding, but the committee was taking no chances, for no citizenry anywhere had ever voted to accept or reject a museum.

Committee members campaigned for the Gilcrease Museum as if it were a candidate for high office. They made speeches all over the county and secured supporting editorials and favorable news reports. They distributed a brochure that carried eminent endorsements for the Gilcrease Museum: Life magazine—“worth millions”; Time—“a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Western Art” Inez Robb, the nationally syndicated columnist and a resident of Tulsa—“If Tulsa lets it go, the city will, within a few years, want to blow its brains out.” The city wanted its brains intact. In August 1954 it went to the polls and voted 8,905 to 3,188 in favor of making Gilcrease a municipal museum by paying off Tom Gilcrease’s debts. Today in Tulsa countless road signs proudly indicate the way to the hilltop museum.


At this point Tom Gilcrease had nearly eight more years to live, but they were anticlimactic years, tinged not a little with melancholy. The museum had been saved, but it was no longer his. The terms of his debt to Tulsa were easy, but his great collecting days were over. Still, Gilcrease did what he could for the museum that stood so tantalizingly close to his house. At the age of sixty-five he took up archeology and began going on amateur digs, searching for Indian arrowheads, blades, and relics to bring back to the museum in further payment of his inexhaustible debt to “his people.” He called himself a “tired old Indian,” and when he died on May 6, 1962, Indians joined with a Methodist minister in presiding over his funeral service. After the Christian obsequies were over, a Pueblo Indian chief sang a sacred song and said a prayer before the hundreds of people gathered in the hot sun on the hilltop lawn. Then the chief shot an arrow into the Western sky to protect the dead man’s spirit on its way to the happy hunting ground. Present at the scene was a young boy unversed in Indian lore but deeply versed in American helpfulness. He raced down the hill to retrieve the arrow and proudly brought it back to the mourners on the hilltop. That cultural mixup shattered the spell, but it provided a wonderfully apt memorial to the late Thomas Gilcrease, a strange amalgam of Tulsa oilman, modern philanthropist, and Creek Indian.


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