Of him who writes, it shall be written. The chronicler himself passes into history. William P. Campbell, the real founder, nestor and for many years the custodian in active charge of the collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is no more, his death having occurred at the home of his son, Wayne Campbell, in Oklahoma City, on Sunday morning, May 4, 1924.
William Parker Campbell was born at St. Joseph, Missouri, December 17, 1843. He was the second son of Elisha and Nancy (Dillon) Campbell. In the paternal line he was of Scottish extraction though the family had long been resident in America. His great-grandfather, John Campbell, was a Virginian who rendered conspicious service in the American army during the Revolutionary War. His mother’s people were from the South. Her father was a pioneer Methodist preacher, who was a circuit rider in the southern states and in Illinois for more than sixty years, serving as a contemporary and fellow laborer of Peter Cartright and other scarcely less noted prophets of homespun righteousness of that period.
When William P. Campbell was a lad in his middle ’teens, his parents moved back to Illinois and Indiana, driving through in a wagon, just as nearly everybody else moved in those days. Several years later, they returned to Missouri, where they continued to live until the outbreak of the Civil War. They then moved again, settling at Nemaha, Nebraska. Living on the extreme frontier of that period, it was not strange that the wild life of the Great Plains should have beckoned to young Campbell. In company with a cousin of his own age, he entered the overland freighting service as a "bull-whacker" with a wagon train. He soon tired of the roughness and brutality of
such a life, however, and he was glad to return to the more quiet pursuits of a journeyman printer, for he had served an apprenticeship in "the art preservative of arts" in his early youth. It was at this period that he was in the employment of Col. R. W. Furnas, a publisher at Brownville, Nebraska, who was afterward elected governor of the state.
His father’s family having returned again to Illinois, he followed thither, where he embarked in the newspaper business on his own account, as the publisher of the Home Banner, at Augusta. Shortly after the close of the Civil War, he moved to Iowa, where he was engaged in the newspaper business successively at Tama City, Vinton, Brooklyn and Newton for brief periods. In 1869, he moved to Kansas, settling in Washington County. For a time he was a pioneer homesteader and then a town-site projector. But soon the old longing for the smell of printer’s ink became too strong to be resisted and he was back in the harness as editor and publisher of the Waterville Telegraph. Thence, in 1877, he moved to Wamego, Kansas, where he established the Tribune, which he published for many years.
While living in Kansas, Mr. Campbell took an active part in politics and he served two terms as register of deeds of Pottawatomie County. Incidentally, he had some experience as a railroad promoter, wrote several books and an occasional poem or play on the side. He served as a division chief of the Census Bureau for a year during the compilation of the results of the eleventh census of the United States, living at Washington during that time.
He came to Oklahoma in 1892 and, the following year, assumed the duties of deputy register of deeds of Kingfisher County, his brother, J. B. Campbell, then a resident of Hennessey, being register. While publishing a newspaper in Kansas, nearly fifty years ago, he had been interested, if not partially instrumental, in helping to institute the Kansas State Historical Society. A few months after beginning his work in the court house at Kingfisher, the Oklahoma Territorial Press Association convened, for its annual session, in that town. Of course, it was but natural for William P. Campbell to mingle in such a crowd. Indeed, there were several "formerly of Kansas" men in the newspaper fraternity in Oklahoma in those days. It was during one of the sessions of that meeting that Mr. Campbell
obtained recognition to propose the organization of a historical society for Oklahoma. And so it was that the Oklahoma Press Association sponsored the institution of the Oklahoma Historical Society, May 27th, 1893. Mr. Campbell was elected as the custodian of the Society.
The county commissioners of Kingfisher County furnished a room in which the beginnings of the collections of the new Society could be assembled. The custodian and his brother furnished stationery and postage and means for other small incidental expenses and thus the newly created "institution" made its bid for popular interest and support. What was lacking in the way of support was more than made up by the never failing enthusiasm of the Society’s projector and custodian. A year and a half later, a report was rendered to the Territorial Legislative Assembly and it was asked to make a modest appropriation for the support of the Society’s work. A bill was accordingly introduced. Later on, certain amendments, innocent enough in appearance, were tacked on and the measure was passed. Custodian Campbell was instructed to ship the collections of the Society to the Territorial University, at Norman, which he did. After the collections were duly installed, he was informed that his services were no longer needed. So much for heartless politics!
When Mr. Campbell left Norman, he left Oklahoma and it knew him no more for nearly nine years. During that time he was engaged in newspaper work at Topeka, Atchison, St. Joseph, Kansas City and elsewhere. The collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society were moved from Norman to Oklahoma City in the latter part of 1901. Something over two years later, it became apparent that the work of the Society was making no headway. The custodianship went begging for the reason that it did not pay enough to justify any one devoting all his or her attention to its affairs. At this juncture, William P. Campbell was called back to Oklahoma to take up the work—a work to which his life was so whole-heartedly devoted throughout its remaining twenty years.
When the fact is recalled that Mr. Campbell’s education was such as the lads of sixty to seventy years ago could obtain in the district school and the country printing office, it is not necessary to state that he was not technically trained for the
work which he was called upon to do in blazing the trail for the beginnings of the Oklahoma Historical Society. But not all the technical training in the world can make a pioneer and William P. Campbell was a very real pioneer. Some of the work which he did was crude but crudeness is distinctive of pioneering. Had Oklahoma had to await the day of a technically trained effeciency before inaugurating the effort to gather and save her historical data, much of it which he gathered and saved might have been lost beyond recovery. That the gathered grain may not be entirely free from chaff is no discredit to the hand that made it safe and secure—others may winnow but he was the harvester.
Mr. Campbell was married in 1867, to Miss Mollie E. Wayne, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Campbell died in 1918. To this union there were born three sons and three daughters. Two children died in infancy. One daughter died in California, two years ago. Two sons and one daughter—Wayne Campbell, who is at the head of the department of public expression in Oklahoma City University, Robert M. Campbell, of Kansas City, and Mrs. Coila Duncan, of Los Angeles—survive.
The world was not always kind to William P. Campbell. His faith in his fellow men had been shaken, not once, but many times. Yet he was not embittered in consequence of this. At times disposed to be somewhat cynical because of inconsistencies which are all too prevailent, he never became selfish in turn. On the contrary, he persistently refused to judge all of humanity by the deeds of its baser individual specimens. He was not merely a friend to his fellow men in the mass but he always insistently tried to find something good in the "down and outer" whom nearly everyone else held in contempt. It was impossible for him to turn a deaf ear to an appeal for help when it came from one in distress. Indeed, it has been truly said that he was better to everyone else than he was to himself. So he went to his reward, poor in purse but rich in the spirit of charity and helpfulness.
His fellow workers in the Oklahoma Historical Society will miss him, for not only did he come and go with clock-like regularity but his interest in all that pertained to the Society remained undimmed to the end. He had some vagaries and
Hobbies—there are few of us who have not. For more than a dozen years he published a little quarterly periodical which he called Historia. As a historical society publication, it was so utterly unlike any other as to be in a class of its own. But, while it is being replaced by a publication of more conventional form and makeup, the files of Historia will be treasured with other priceless items in the Society’s library.
In bidding a final farewell to this worthy old pioneer, who has followed his pioneer forebears across "the Great Divide," the officers, directors and workers of the Oklahoma Historical Society take this means of testifying their affectionate and appreciative regard for his memory and giving expression to a justly merited recognition of his achievements.
THOMAS H. DOYLE