Published on March 7, 2011 by Alice
Born in January 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory prior to the arrival of statehood in January 1861, Vice President Curtis is notable as an Executive Branch officer born in a territory rather than state of the Union. Curtis was nearly half American Indian in ancestry. His mother, Ellen Papin (also spelled Pappan), was one-fourth French, one-fourth Kaw, one-fourth Osage, and one-fourth Pottawatomie. His father, Orren Curtis, was an American of English, Scots and Welsh ancestry. On his mother’s side, Curtis was a descendant of Kaw Chief White Plume and Osage Chief Pawhuska.
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From his mother, Curtis first learned French and Kansa. As a boy living with his mother and her family on the Kaw reservation, he started racing horses. Curtis was a highly successful jockey in prairie horse races. A colorful incident occurred on June 1, 1868, when one hundred Cheyenne warriors invaded the Kaw Reservation. Terrified White settlers took refuge in nearby Council Grove. The Kaw men painted their faces, donned their finery, and sallied forth on horseback to meet the Cheyenne. The two Indian armies put on a military pageant featuring horsemanship, fearsome howls and curses, and volleys of bullets and arrows. After four hours, the Cheyenne retired with a few stolen horses and a peace offering of coffee and sugar by the Council Grove merchants. Nobody was hurt on either side. During the battle, the mixed-blood Kaw interpreter, Joe Jim, galloped 60 miles to Topeka to request assistance from the Governor. Riding along with Joe Jim was eight-year old Curtis or “Indian Charley” as he was called.
Curtis’ mother died in 1863 when the boy was three. His father remarried and divorced, then married again. The elder Curtis was imprisoned because of an event during his service in the American Civil War. During this time, Charles was taken care of by his paternal Curtis grandparents, especially during high school. They helped him gain possession of his mother’s land in North Topeka, which he inherited despite his father’s attempt to gain control of the land.
Curtis was strongly influenced by both sets of grandparents. After living with his maternal grandparents on the reservation, Curtis returned to Topeka to live with his paternal grandparents and to attend Topeka High School. Both his grandmothers encouraged him to get an education.
Afterward Curtis studied (“read”) law and worked part-time. Curtis was admitted to the bar in 1881. He commenced practice in Topeka and served as prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas from 1885 to 1889.
Curtis married Annie Elizabeth Baird (1860–1924), with whom he had three children: Permelia Jeannette, Henry “aka Harry” King and Leona Virginia Curtis. They also provided a home for his half-sister Permelia aka “Dolly” Curtis after her mother died.
A widower when elected Vice President in 1928, Curtis had his half-sister “Dolly” Curtis Gann live with him in Washington, DC and act as his hostess for social events.