Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum


He toiled in a fast-dying world. In 1896 the Five Civilized Tribes were ordered by Congress to compile a roll of their members in preparation for dividing the tribal land into individual holdings and consigning the tribes themselves to oblivion. At the age of nine the slightly built, sandy-haired Tom Gilcrease, who bore no physical resemblance to the American Indian, became part of the Creek Nation with membership roll number 1505, a lucky number, indeed, rather like the winning ticket in a lottery. Tom Gilcrease was eleven years old when Creek Indian full bloods rose up angrily to demand independence for the dying Creek Nation on the eve of the division of its land. He was fifteen when the desperate leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes called upon the United States to establish Indian Territory as the state of Sequoyah instead of turning it into eastern Oklahoma. Petitions, protests, calls for defiance all proved vain, as usual.

“Young Gilcrease saw his people thus disintegrate,” the Tulsa Daily World was to report in 1946. “He dreamed about giving the Indian a chance to retrieve his latent race pride.” That is how the great collector remembered his youth four decades later, but in fact, Thomas Gilcrease grew more and more estranged from American Indians during those years of disintegration, and it was the Glenn Pool oil royalties he gained as Creek Indian number 1505 that allowed him to go his own way.

That did not happen all at once. With his first royalties in hand, the seventeen-year-old Gilcrease sent himself for a term to Bacone Indian School in nearby Muskogee. There he met, and in 1908 married, a fellow student named Belle Harlow, a member of the Osage tribe, whose oil-rich lands just north of the Creeks were by 1921 to make the Usages the richest ethnic group, per capita, in the world. The affluent young couple settled in Osage country, and Tom Gilcrease took up ranching, though not without casting eager glances at nearby Tulsa, where wildcatters and lease brokers, shysters and sharpers made millions, lost millions, and talked millions night and day in the lobbies of the boom town’s brand-new hotels. “The fervor for wealth...began to take hold of Tom Gilcrease,” noted his friend and biographer, a Tulsa lawyer named David Randolph Milsten, now in his eighty-seventh year. The ambitious young man tried his hand at banking and then began dabbling in oil leases on his own. A month after his father’s murder—as if to wipe off that sordid stain—Gilcrease bought the stone house and the fine hilltop property and turned the future museum site into a beautiful parklike estate.

With his first oil royalties, young Gilcrease sent himself to school.

The farm boy from Indian Territory became a polished man of the world. The cowboy regalia he had worn as a rancher gave way to natty double-breasted suits, and his quarter horses to smart little roadsters and later to a chauffeur-driven Packard, as befitted the president of the Gilcrease Oil Company. Drawn to Old World culture, he spent nearly half a year touring the Mediterranean from Algiers to Athens with his own personal guide. He scoured the art galleries of New York City so avidly that his wife would fall back exhausted and return to their hotel room alone. She was to recall this four decades later, perhaps because such episodes perfectly epitomized her marriage to a gifted, ambitious man who was leaving her behind in every way—they divorced in 1924—just as he was leaving behind all the rusticities of the now-defunct Indian Territory.

Oil-rich Oklahoma Indians were producing national laughingstocks during the 1920s. The nation’s newspapers carried countless stories of such figures of fun as the Creek Indian woman who spent a fortune buying blooded cattle only to slaughter a prize bull when she happened to want some beef. Americans chuckled over the Creek Indian from Muskogee who took a seven-hundred-mile taxicab ride to see the Chicago stockyards and another Creek Indian who reportedly bought two phonographs because he owned two records. If Thomas Gilcrease felt ashamed of such folly and ignorance or grew angry over the mockery they inspired, he gave no outward sign of it in the 1920s. The opposite may well have been true during those booming, acquisitive years. Of this there is no direct evidence, because a veil hangs over the business activities of the Gilcrease Oil Company and its millionaire president. Nevertheless, there are those who believe—so I was told—that were the veil parted, there would be seen the figure of Creek tribal member number 1505 among those who practiced sharply on Indians with oil leases to sell.


Then, in 1927, Tom Gilcrease fell furiously in love with an eighteen-year-old beauty named Norma Des Cygne Smallwood and joined the ranks of the oil-rich laughingstocks. Norma Smallwood was not only a beauty but a celebrated beauty queen, Miss America 1926 and a former Miss Tulsa as well. Standing behind her was her ambitious, pushing mother, author of a little book called Magic Power—Beauty. The two together had the unmistakable air of adventurers about them. As David Milsten remarked to me in his careful lawyerly way, “There was not that much reason for Norma to marry Tom Gilcrease without the presence of wealth.”