Charles Brent Curtis (1860-1936) was elected to the United States Congress as a Republican in 1892. He completed 14 years of service in the House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. Curtis was inaugurated as the thirty-first vice president of the United States in March 1929, the first Native American to have achieved this office.
Curtis was born on January 25, 1860 on the Kansa/Kaw Indian-allotted land which would later become part of North Topeka, Kansas. He was the eldest of two children, his sister, Elizabeth, being born in 1861. His father, Orren Armes Curtis, was a white man whose English ancestors originally arrived in America in the early 1600s. Orren Curtis was born in Eugene, Indiana, in 1829. He appears to have been married several times prior to marrying Ellen Pappan, the mixed-blood daughter of his employer, in 1859. Ellen Pappan Curtis' mother, Julie Gonville Pappan, was of Kansa/Kaw, Osage, and remote Potawatomi ancestry. Julie had married three times, her last husband, Louis Pappan, being of French ancestry and born in St. Louis. Mrs. Pappan's mother, Wyhesee, a full-blood Kansa/Osage Indian, was the daughter of the Kansa chief Nomparawarah [White Plume] and the granddaughter of the Osage chief Pawhuska. It was White Plume who had his portrait painted by Charles Bird King in the 1820s. Wyhesee married Louis Gonville who appears to have been of French Canadian and one-quarter Potawatomi ancestry.
Although Charles Curtis was later variously described as being of one-half, one-quarter, and one-eighth Indian ancestry, none of these appears to be correct. Technically, based on his somewhat confused and contradictory genealogy, Curtis was of a little over one-eighth Indian ancestry, and predominantly of English and French extraction. Whatever the case, Curtis identified himself as a Native American, although he was not sentimental about his ancestry and was not above employing his Indianness in whatever manner was most politically useful during his career.
Raised among his numerous Kansa relatives on their Indian allotments along the north shore of the Kansas River, Curtis was influenced by his maternal grandmother, Julie Gonville Pappan. Curtis resided with her on the Kansa reservation near Council Grove some 60 miles west of Topeka, following the death of his mother from cholera in April 1864. However, southern Cheyenne and Arapaho raids and conflicts with the residents of the Kansa reservation, between 1866 and 1868, resulted in Curtis being returned to the relative peace of north Topeka in 1868. On his return to Topeka, Curtis came under the dominant control and influence of his white grandmother, Permelia Curtis, who was to oversee his education and employment. She also laid the groundwork for Curtis' lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party.
In 1878, Curtis was briefly dropped from the Kansa annuity roll because he was not present at the time of the annuity distribution and because he did not have a primary residence on the Kansa reservation. At the time, the registry regarded him as being of one-eighth Indian ancestry. This did not affect his Kansa legal enrollment, however, since his grandmother, Julie Pappan, was recorded in the treaty of 1825.
Completing three years at Topeka High School, Curtis began the study of law in 1879 with A. H. Case, a local attorney, and was admitted to the bar in 1881, at the age of 21. Almost immediately, he involved himself with local political affairs, a field of interest that was to occupy the rest of his life. In 1885 he was elected the county attorney for Shawnee County, Kansas. Curtis was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Republican from the Fourth District in 1892 and remained in the house until January, 1907, completing 14 years of service there.
Passage of the Curtis Act
In the late nineteenth century, Curtis became involved in legislation which resulted in the General Allotment Act. Passed in 1887, the act divided reservation lands among Native Americans and the surplus land went to U.S. settlers. On June 28, 1898, the Curtis Act was passed, extending the disastrous processes of the General Allotment Act (1887) to the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. It had generally been viewed that the application of the allotment was inevitable and Curtis, an avowed assimilationist who was an ardent supporter of allotment, achieved a compromised bill which attempted to somewhat modify the process. Nevertheless, Curtis will be remembered as being the author of the legislation that destroyed tribal sovereignty in the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). Curtis, who held his own 40-acre Kansa allotment jointly with his sister throughout his life, actually reduced his own status as a Native American through the passage of the General Allotment Act. He felt, however, that the acculturative progress of the American Indian was being hindered by the continuation of communal ownership of lands, herds, and other tribal resources.
In 1907 Curtis was designated by the Kansas State Legislature to fill an unexpired term in the United States Senate. In the same year he was elected to the Senate, but he lost a reelection campaign in 1912. In 1914, Curtis was reelected to the Senate, defeating Senator Joseph L. Bristow, and continued in that senatorial position until 1926, some 20 years in the Senate. During his years in the Senate, Charles Curtis' name was prominent on a number of bills; however, he was recognized moreso for his politicking on the Senate floor. He was a conservative Republican and party regular who was designated party whip in 1915. Curtis replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as majority leader in 1924. That year also marked the death of his wife.
Curtis was philosophically and politically antagonistic to some forms of traditional Native American tribal government. In his capacity as chairperson of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 1921, Curtis supported the bill of Secretary of the Interior John Barton Payne to minimize the sovereignty of the Pueblo tribal governments by clarifying how federal jurisdiction was to be applied over the Pueblos. With the end of the sixty-sixth Congress, the Payne Bill was not acted upon, although the complex issues involving Native American sovereignty and land title were to be repeatedly addressed in future congresses.
According to William E. Unrau, Charles Curtis' political philosophy can be summarized as follows: "Curtis supported the gold standard, high tariffs, prohibition, restrictive immigration, deportation of aliens, and generous veterans benefits; opposed the League of Nations; and took the view that depressions were natural occurrences that inevitably would be followed by periods of prosperity, championed female suffrage, government assistance to farmers" especially Kansans.
Became Vice President
In 1928, at the Republican national convention, Curtis initially opposed Herbert Hoover's presidential nomination as their candidate. Fellow delegates were able to resolve his objections, and Curtis was designated as the vice-presidential candidate. The Republican victory in the 1928 national elections was achieved after an acrimonious battle.
Curtis was inaugurated as the thirty-first vice president of the United States in March 1929, the first Native American to have achieved this office. During his tenure, Curtis spoke for American Indians whenever the occasion arose. Most political analysts view him as having served a rather lackluster tenure as vice president. Some have disagreed, however, pointing out the effective role that he played in the complex negotiations of policy behind the scenes, and his major place in negotiations with American Indians, although he attempted to avoid controversy where possible.
Although Curtis was re-nominated with Hoover in 1932, they were defeated. Curtis retired from active politics and returned to the practice of law in Washington, D.C.
Curtis married Anna E. Baird of Topeka in 1884. Mrs. Curtis' parents had migrated to Topeka from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and were prominent Baptists in the community. The Curtises had one son and two daughters: Harry, who graduated from Harvard Law School and established a practice in Chicago; Hermelia, who married an army officer; and Leona, who married a prominent industrialist of Providence, Rhode Island. Curtis died of a heart attack on February 8, 1936, in the Washington, D.C., home of his half-sister, Dolly Curtis Gann, who had served as his official hostess during his years as vice president. Curtis' remains were returned to Topeka, the place of his beginnings.
Gann, Dolly, Dolly Gann's Book, Doubleday, Doran, 1933.
Indian Lives: Essays on Nineteen Twentieth Century Native American Leaders, edited by L. G. Moses and Raymond Wilson, University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
Kansas and the West: Bicentennial Essays in Honor of Nyle H. Miller, edited by Forrest R. Blackburn, Kansas State Historical Society, 1976.
Kelly, Lawrence C., The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
Mixed-bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity, University of Kansas Press, 1989.
Seitz, Don C., From Kaw Teepee to Capitol: The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, Who Has Risen to High Estate, Frederick A. Stokes, 1928.
American Mercury, August 1929.
Emporia State Research Studies, 10: (nd).
Kansas Historical Quarterly, 14:15, January 1947.
Literary Digest, January 3, 1925.
Nation, April 7, 1928; August 1, 1928.
Outlook, May 16, 1928.
Saturday Evening Post, February 9, 1907.