Published on March 17, 2012 by Amy
Charles Curtis (January 25, 1860 – February 8, 1936) was a United States Representative, a longtime United States Senator from Kansas later chosen as Senate Majority Leader by his Republican colleagues, and the 31st Vice President of the United States (1929–1933). He was the first person with significant acknowledged Native American ancestry and the first person with significant acknowledged non-European ancestry to reach either of the two highest offices in the United States government’s executive branch. His maternal ancestry was three-quarters’ Native American, of ethnic Kaw, Osage andPottawatomie ancestry. Curtis spent years of childhood living with his maternal grandparents on their Kaw reservation.
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As an attorney, Curtis entered political life early, winning multiple terms from his district in Topeka, Kansas, starting in 1892 as a Republican to the US House of Representatives. He was elected to the US Senate first by the Kansas Legislature (in 1906 and 1914), and then by popular vote (in 1920 and 1926), serving one six-year term from 1907 to 1913, and then most of three terms from 1915 to 1929 (when he became Vice President). His long popularity and connections in Kansas and national politics helped make Curtis a strong leader in the Senate; he marshaled support to be elected as Senate Minority Whip from 1915–1925 and then as Senate Majority Leader from 1925–1929. In these positions he was instrumental in managing legislation and accomplishing Republican national goals.
Curtis ran for Vice-President with Herbert Hoover as President in 1928. They won a landslide victory. Although they ran again in 1932, the population saw Hoover as failing to alleviate the Great Depression, and they were defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner.
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. His paternal grandparents were William Curtis and Permelia Hubbard. William’s parents were Thomas Curtis and Eunice Peet from early Conneticut. On his mother’s side, Curtis was a descendant of Kaw Chief White Plume and Osage Chief Pawhuska.
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 Anna Elizabeth Baird (1860–1924), with whom he had three children: Permelia Jeannette Curtis, Henry “Harry” King Curtis and Leona Virginia Curtis. He and his wife also provided a home for his half-sister Theresa Permelia “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.
The zest Curtis showed for horse racing (he was a jockey in his youth) was expressed in his political career. First elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives of the 53rd Congress, Curtis was re-elected for the following six terms. He made the effort to learn about his many constituents and treated them as personal friends.
While serving as a Congressman, Curtis originated and helped pass the Curtis Act of 1898, with provisions that included bringing the Five Civilized Tribesof Oklahoma under land allotment and restructuring provisions. It limited their tribal courts and government. By his own experience, Curtis believed that the Indians could benefit by getting educated, assimilating and joining the main society. The government tried to encourage Indians to accept individual citizenship and lands, and to take up European-American culture. In application of these goals, some administrators went too far in terms of threats and breaking down families. (see Indian Boarding Schools)
With his ties in Congress, Curtis was always abreast of changes in Indian law and programs. He re-enrolled with the Kaw tribe, which had been removed to Oklahoma when he was in his teens. In 1902 the Kaw Allotment Act disbanded the Kaw nation as a legal entity. This was the tribe of Curtis and his mother. The act transferred 160 acres (0.6 km²) of former tribal land to the federal government. Other land held in common was allocated to individual tribal members. Under the terms of the act, as enrolled tribal members, Curtis (and his three children) received about 1,625 acres (6.6 km²) in total of Kaw land in Oklahoma.
Curtis served in the House from March 4, 1893 until January 28, 1907, when he resigned, after being chosen by the Kansas Legislature, to fill the short unexpired term of Senator Joseph R. Burton in the United States Senate. On that same day of January 28, Curtis was also tapped by Kansas’ state lawmakers for the full senatorial term commencing March 4 of that year and ending March 4, 1913. In 1912 he was unsuccessful in trying to be redesignated by the legislature as senator, but his absence from the Senate was brief.
After passage of the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, Curtis was elected by popular vote in 1914 for the six-year Senate term commencing March 4, 1915. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1920 and again in 1926. Curtis served without interruption from March 4, 1915 until his resignation on March 3, 1929, after being elected as Vice-President.
During his tenure in the Senate, Curtis was President pro tempore of the Senate as well as Chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Interior, of the Committee on Indian Depredations, and of the Committee on Coast Defenses, as well as of the Republican Conference.
In 1923 Senator Curtis, together with fellow Kansan, Representative Daniel Read Anthony, Jr., proposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution to each of their Houses. The amendment did not go forward.
Curtis’ leadership abilities were demonstrated by his election as United States Senate Republican Whip from 1915 to 1924 and Majority Leader from 1925 to 1929. He was effective in collaboration and moving legislation forward in the Senate. Idaho Senator William Borah acclaimed Curtis “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.” AsTime magazine reported when featuring him on the cover in December 1926: “It is in the party caucuses, in the committee rooms, in the cloakrooms that he patches up troubles, puts through legislation.”
In 1928 Curtis ran with Herbert Hoover heading the Republican ticket for president and vice-president. Following their landslide 58% to 41% victory, Curtis resigned from the Senate on March 3, 1929 to assume the office of Vice President. The pair was inaugurated on March 4, 1929. Soon after the Great Depression began, Curtis endorsed the five-day work week, with no reduction in wages, as a work-sharing solution to unemployment. (See John Ryan’s book Questions of the Day.)
The problems of the Great Depression led to defeat of the Republican ticket in the next election. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as president by a margin of 57% to 40% in 1932. Curtis’ term as Vice President ended on March 4, 1933.
Curtis decided to stay in Washington, D.C. to resume his legal career. There he had a wide network of professional contacts.
He died there on February 8, 1936 from a heart attack. By his wishes, his body was returned to his beloved Kansas and buried next to his wife at theTopeka Cemetery.