Charles Curtis served under Herbert Hoover and was part Kaw and part white.

Charles Curtis: The first biracial VP hailed from Kansas

As we celebrate another biracial vice president, it’s worth remembering that history doesn’t just get made — it also gets rewritten and reclaimed.

By Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff

Turn onto Fifth Street in Council Grove, Kansas, and follow it as it angles southeast into the tallgrass prairie. In about three miles, hang a left and look for the stone building without a roof. This simple structure from 1861 — now shored up and preserved after decades of neglect — is the last standing reminder that the Kanza, the Indian nation that gave the state its name, once lived here.

Historic places stir the imagination. As we were driving around Missouri and Kansas compiling our list of historic and Civil War sites for our “Big Divide Travel Guide,” this shell of a building was one of our unexpectedly great finds. It is a portal through 200 years of fraught relations between the Kaw Nation, as the Kanza today are known, and white America.

Curtis’ official portrait as 31st Vice President of the U.S. Photo courtesy Strauss Peyton, KCMO, 1931

During this inauguration week, one of those historic moments comes to mind — the swearing-in of Vice President Charles Curtis in 1928. The first and only person of Native American heritage elected to national office and our first biracial VP, Curtis was born in Kansas Territory 161 years ago this week. He was raised by his Kaw grandmother until the age of 13. That’s when the federal government struck a deal to relocate the Kaw from Council Grove to a new reserve in present-day Oklahoma.

Leaving Kansas was something the Kaw bitterly — but peacefully — resisted for years. If you drive up to the stone ruin, you’ll see a plaque announcing that this is the beginnings of the Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, named for the Kanza chief who led that resistance. In 1867, with white settlers pouring into Kansas following the Civil War, treaty negotiators from D.C. were strong-arming the Kanza to make way.

Allegawaho thundered, “You treat my people like a flock of turkeys! You come into our dwelling place and scare us out. We fly over and alight on another stream, but no sooner do we get settled then again you come along and drive us farther and farther.” The man had a point. From the time that Lewis and Clark encountered a camp of Kanza at the convergence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in 1804, this nation that once freely roamed the territory west of Kansas City found the walls closing in on them.

In the 1820s the government created Indian Territory west of the Missouri state line, with allotments for two dozen tribal nations being relocated mostly from the Great Lakes region. The Kanza were assigned a generous 2-million-acre tract near Topeka, but by 1860, white encroachment, treaty creep and a devastating smallpox outbreak had reduced their nation to fewer than 900 souls on just 80,000 acres outside Council Grove.

This was the world Charles Curtis was born into. His father was Orren Curtis, a white man. His mother, Ellen Pappan, of Osage and Kanza blood, died when he was three. With Orren off fighting in the Civil War, Charley was raised by his Kanza grandmother Julie Gonville Pappan.

It’s worth noting that the Kanzas, unlike other Indian nations, threw themselves completely into the Union effort in the Civil War. In 1863 a group of Kanza warriors formed Company L of the Ninth Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. “A finer body of men was never seen,” read an 1864 report. “The officers of this regiment say they are the best and most reliable scouts, and most splendid horsemen.” Meanwhile, Indian agents were pressuring the Kanza to give up their claims and move south — during the war!

Allegawaho continued to push back, but the post-Civil War surge of railroad and town builders proved too much. In 1873 this proud leader signed the treaty and led a remnant of 553 men, women and children out of Kansas and into Oklahoma.

One person not on that sad journey was Charles Curtis. His grandmother wanted her bright, gregarious 13-year-old grandson to have a future, so Charley was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Topeka, where he thrived. Within eight years he was admitted to the bar and by 1885 he was the Shawnee County D.A. From there his political star rose all the way to the United States Senate, where Herbert Hoover would pick him as his running mate in ’28.

Today Charles Curtis is regarded less as a racial pioneer in politics and more as a relic of two failed policies. As a Hoover man, he supported the small government approach to the Great Depression that got the GOP swept out of office in 1932. And as a sponsor of assimilationist laws, like the Curtis Act of 1898, he helped strip Native Americans of their political rights.

Charles Curtis (left) with the 13-tribe United States Indian Band at the U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

But history, we think, will be kinder to Charles Curtis in the future. He had every reason to believe assimilation was the right path. He never abandoned his heritage, taking part in an important Kaw Nation reburial in 1930. No one back then could anticipate future generations rejecting the false choice of being either Native or American and learning to stand confidently with their feet in both worlds.

Since regaining sovereignty in 1959, Kaw Nation have restored their language and traditions and become self-governing and prosperous. They purchased the quarter section of land outside Council Grove in 2000. Two months ago Kaw Nation Chairwoman Lynn Williams sent a letter to the mayor of Lawrence asking that the 23-ton quartzite “prayer rock,” now in a Lawrence city park, be returned to the Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, “to respectfully restore and renew its significance as a sacred item of prayer for our people.”

As we celebrate another biracial vice president, it’s worth remembering that history doesn’t just get made — it also gets rewritten and reclaimed.

Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff are Humanities Kansas presenters who have published several books through their Quindaro Press imprint, including the “Big Divide Travel Guide.”

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