Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum


It also left Thomas Gilcrease, to all intents and purposes, an Indian. Aggrieved and unhappy himself, he began identifying strongly with the griefs and wrongs of American Indians, almost as though Miss America’s betrayal of Tom Gilcrease somehow epitomized America’s betrayal of Indians. He began to look to his fractional Indian heritage for personal solace and strength. Drawing close to nature, the Paris boulevardier took delight in his birds, in his wilderness cabin in Wyoming, and in loving recollection of the old half-tamed Indian Territory. The sharp-witted Tulsa oilman grew attached to magical thinking, mythic tales, and the dream side of life in general. It was this “Indian” side of Gilcrease that was to impress J. Frank Dobie most in later years. “I’ve hardly known another human being,” said Dobie, “who had the mysteries and beyonds deep inside himself that Tom Gilcrease had.” In letters to friends Gilcrease took to signing himself “Injun Tom,” only half-jokingly, if that.

The divorce left Gilcrease bitter—and, essentially, an Indian.

In 1939 Gilcrease began collecting the art of the American West, but it was not a hobby. It was a personal mission, for a grand visionary scheme had taken hold of his mind. He would turn the hilltop property into “a home for deserving boys and girls who are descendants of members of any of the Indian tribes,” to quote the charter of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation. There Indian children would enjoy comfort, good treatment, and beautiful landscaped surroundings. NEW CHILDREN’S PARADISE REALITY SOON, the Tulsa Tribune was to report in 1943. To lift their spirits, the children would have access to a library whose unique collection of books and documents—as yet ungathered—would show the West and the Indian to them in a fresh, new light. They would have access to a museum that would show them through the powerful medium of art what their ancestors had been and done and suffered. The hilltop was to be, in Milsten’s words, a “haven of perfectibility” or, perhaps more accurately, an experimental hospital for the mending of broken Indian hearts. There was to be no racial bitterness; Gilcrease was bitter enough himself. Everyone in the Western saga who stood for justice and equity would find a place in the future museum: John Smith, Roger Williams, William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Diego Columbus, son of the admiral, whose 1519 letter to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V calling for better treatment of Indian slaves sits proudly on display in the museum’s documents room, alongside a rare certified copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Like a man who has found the lost key to happiness, Gilcrease plunged into his visionary enterprise with all-consuming zeal. Milsten recalls hearing a business associate of Gilcrease’s tell him that the man “constantly studied catalogues, talked with art dealers by long distance telephone, visited every museum in every city where he traveled, inspected collections whenever they were advertised.” With an Indian artist named Woody Crumbo as his adviser and companion he scoured the countryside by car. “If they heard that someone or a gallery had a fine collection of Indian paintings or sculpture depicting the pioneer West,” said Milsten, “off they would go; distance was not an object and time was not of the essence.” Gilcrease came and went as he pleased, beholden to no one, exalted by his mission.


“His one interest in life is the assembling of material that will serve to inspire the Indians of the present day,” a New York rare-books dealer reported in Harper’s magazine. And New York’s art dealers gladly flung wide their doors to this “Oklahoma Indian”—as they thought of him—who was so determined to buy what almost nobody else wanted at all: old Spanish colonial documents, the works of forgotten Western genre painters, watercolor sketches done by humble illustrators attached to nineteenth-century surveying expeditions. Ducal doors in England opened wide for Gilcrease, too, after he had acquired from an English family its magnificent collection of Catlins. At the Duke of Northumberland’s ancestral castle the duke tried to sell Gilcrease a portrait of Joseph Brant, the Mohican war chief. At Eaton Hall the Duke of Westminster was taken aback by his bespectacled “Indian” visitor. The duke later told his friend Philip Robinson that he “had not expected to see a person so sweet and gentle and charming as Tom Gilcrease but had rather envisioned a Red Indian Chief complete with feathered headdress.”