Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum

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In August 1902 a twelve-year-old farm boy named Thomas Gilcrease, being one-eighth Creek Indian on his mother’s side, received a 160-acre allotment in the land of the Creek Nation, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, which occupied what yet remained of Indian Territory in America. Not long before, by act of Congress, the Creeks had ceased to be a self-governing tribe. By 1907 Indian Territory had become the eastern half of the new state of Oklahoma, and forty-two oil rigs were pumping high-grade petroleum out from under Tom Gilcrease’s land, which, by sheer good fortune, sat atop one of the greatest oil strikes in American history, Oklahoma’s fabulous Glenn Pool. Some thirty-two years after that, Thomas Gilcrease, wealthy oilman, began collecting paintings, sketches, artifacts, weapons, costumes, maps, books, and manuscripts bearing on the American West and the American Indian. He went at it so swiftly, so avidly, and so recklessly that in 1954 the city of Tulsa had to take over his incomparable collection in order to shield it from his creditors. Thomas Gilcrease’s lucky Indian allotment had acted on him like some long-delayed time bomb, one whose powerful force and curious timing were very much on my mind when I visited the Gilcrease Museum, which nestles on a well-landscaped hill three miles northwest of downtown Tulsa, self-styled “Oil Capital of the World.”

 
 

Like downtown Tulsa, the museum’s modern, low-slung building is handsome, brand-new, and a trifle impersonal, but a few yards to one side of it stands an old stone house that Tom Gilcrease lived in, on and off, for nearly fifty years. Lodged in the hillside itself is Gilcrease’s tomb, which also contains the remains of his mother, who lived on the hilltop until her death in 1935, and those of his father, who was murdered in his country store one night back in 1913. Both house and tomb are powerful reminders that the Gilcrease Museum, despite its modern building and its municipal status, is the highly personal handiwork of a single man. The staff people refer to him as Mr. Gilcrease as though he were still sitting on the stone house’s porch, feeding his birds, looking out on the Osage Hills in the distance, and grumbling over “gawkers” who came to his hilltop museum without comprehending the treasures he had laid before them.

 
 
 
 
At heart it is the American Indian whom the Gilcrease honors.

And what treasures are on display in the museum’s broad, spacious galleries! There are the incomparable Indian portraits of George Catlin and the delicate genre scenes of Alfred Jacob Miller, the first white artists to lay eyes on the central Rocky Mountains; the breathless panoramas of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; the gaunt, galloping horsemen of Frederic Remington; and the brave, feckless Montana cowhands of Charles Russell, the “cowboy artist.” Connoisseurs have called the Gilcrease Museum America’s finest repository of the art of the Old West, and visitors have no cause to doubt them.

In this great repository a splendid array of trappers, settlers, soldiers, and cowboys passes in review, but at heart it is the American Indian whom the Gilcrease Museum honors, though not in a partisan or sentimental way. In the art of the museum Indians are simply there, inescapable protagonists in the turbulent story of the West. They were noble Romans to the painters of the 1820s and heroic primitives to Catlin in the 1830s. In bloodier decades they appeared as heathen barbarians, stealthy hunters, and mortal enemies and finally as a race broken by defeat yet still disturbing, anomalous, and not a little unearthly. American Indians had been something, not nothing. That is the message, tacit and subliminal, that the Gilcrease Museum conveys and surely was meant to convey, for more than anything else the hilltop museum on the outskirts of Tulsa is one man’s private act of restitution—and, to judge by his life, perhaps an act of repentance as well.

One-eighth Indian by birth, Thomas Gilcrease was much more than that by upbringing. His parents had seen to that when they settled in the Creek Nation subdivision of Indian Territory in 1890, the year Tom Gilcrease was born. The eldest of fourteen children, he lived as other children of Indian Territory lived: farming, hunting, and intermittently attending rude Indian schools “whenever I could go,” as he later put it. His childhood was harsh and toilsome: “When I was four my father taught me how to build fires, carry water and feed the livestock. At the age of six I was taken to the corn fields where I hoed. When the work in the field was done for the day, I would return to the house and help my mother churn, wash the clothes and cook. I might have been in the way some but I helped her. When I reached my eighth birthday I was given the opportunity to plow, plant and harvest....”