Looking back on our nation’s history, few can argue that the US government bore little reputation for civility when it came to Native Americans. Though perhaps not intentionally cruel, early lawmakers used both brain and brawn to bend Native tribes to their will, and even ostensibly reasonable negotiations invariably ended with Native tribes clutching the short straw.
Every once in a great while, however, one stumbles upon a silver lining, a story of such delicious irony that for a split-second, the scales almost seem to balance. Take, for instance, the story of Thomas Gilcrease, son of a Scots-Irish father and a Native American mother. At ⅛ Creek, Gilcrease’s lineage was more than enough to satisfy the “one drop of blood” rule, making him—for all legal purposes—a Native American. This judgment was sufficient enough to subject him to the Dawes Commission rulings, and that, ironically, was just enough to make him a millionaire.
By all accounts, the Dawes Commission was a bum deal. In short, the ruling stripped Native Americans of their tribal lands, forced even of those of mixed heritage to choose and register with a single tribe, and gave each registered Indian a personal parcel of land. Any “surplus” was sold by the government to European settlers. Little could they have known, however, that the particular 160 acres that was allotted to nine year-old Thomas Gilcrease happened to sit upon one of the biggest oil reserves the country had ever seen. Less than six years after his name was recorded in tribal registers, Gilcrease had struck oil, and by 1917, over thirty wells had sprouted and spouted black gold across his land.
Though he’d never had much in the way of formal education, young Thomas—affectionately called Indian Tom—caught on to the oil business quickly. Suddenly faced with a seemingly bottomless fount of cash and expansive amount of time, Gilcrease followed in the footsteps of many oil barons of the day, seeking distraction on long and luxurious tours of Europe. Unlike his peers, however, Gilcrease had little desire to come home and affect the grandeur and pomp of the Old World. He instead looked to invest in the preservation of his own culture, the culture of the Indian and the American West.
What began as a small collection—a painting here, a manuscript there—quickly took on a life of its own. He began purchasing entire estates, acquiring vast collections of paintings, sculpture, textile-work, and pottery; discovering unheard-of Native American masters and personally funding their craft; excavating mounds and mountains across the Americas, and hunting down rare books, manuscripts, and minutiae. All of this he boxed up and brought home to Tulsa, to be proudly displayed in a small museum that sat humbly just outside his own front door.
Unfortunately, a well-fed passion knows little restraint, and despite the fact that the oil fields that funded his collection eventually dried up, Gilcrease’s voracious appetite for art and archives did not, and by 1953, scavengers were circling. Afraid that the collection would be relocated, or—even worse—sold off piecemeal to the highest bidder, the city of Tulsa drew up a bond to pay Gilcrease’s debt. In exchange, his collection was deeded to the city.
Today the Gilcrease Museum’s vast collection remains the largest of its kind. It spans 1494 to the present and is home to 10,000 works of art and 100,000 rare books. It houses archival material ranging from the expansive masterpieces of Thomas Moran to petite bolero ties, 100,000 rare books, archival materials, and manuscripts, letters referencing Columbus, Cortez, and the Spanish Inquisition in Americas to leaflets from Wild West shows. What began with a serendipitous spurt of oil at the turn of the century has grown into the largest, most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts from Native American culture in the world, the crown jewel of Tulsa, and an unrivaled testament to the history of the American West, giving it full right to its nickname, The Smithsonian of the West.
See More Gilcrease Museum Photos Here