By John Bartlett Meserve
When the crowned head of Charles Stuart rolled from the scaffold and the Cavalier cause collapsed, Captain Thomas Stegg shook the dust of Puritan England from his feet and fled to Virginia, where he acquired a considerable estate and died quite opportunely to endow his recently wedded young grandson with a good start in life. It was to inherit his grandfather's estate, that William Byrd and his young bride came from Broxton, Cheshire, England to Virginia in 1674. Although born in London in 1652, good Cheshire blood flowed in his veins. He could trace his descent from one William le Bird of the old Norman days in England. Mary, the demure wife of William Byrd, also came of an aristocratic family her father being a Kentish Cavalier, who traced his descent in a direct line from Edward III. These youthful emigrants settled upon lands at the falls of the James River, where now stands the city of Richmond, and in them we have the inception of the famous Byrd family of Virginia and the South. The contribution of this family to the social, military, scientific and political life of the Old Dominion and of the Nation has been wonderful and probably unparalleled in the history of Virginia. Our interest is quickened to know that William Leander Byrd, erstwhile Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in the old Indian Territory, came in a direct line of descent from the Cheshire emigrant.
As wealth accumulated and acres were added to the already expansive estate on the James, the famous Westover home was built and lingers today, symbolic of the aristocratic, refined and romantic life that was Virginia's during the rich and rare Colonial days. William Byrd, the emigrant, entered actively into the political life of the colony. He served as high sheriff. of Henrico County, member of the House of Burgesses, Councilor and, in 1687, the king appointed him, "Receiver-general of His Majesty's Revenues for the Colony", a position of trust which he held until his death in 1704 and which, it seems, he transmitted to his son, William Byrd II, who was born in 1674 and succeeded
to his vast Westover holdings amounting to over twenty-six thousand acres. Rich, handsome, witty and influential was William Byrd II, also known as Colonel Byrd, or at least so thought Lucy Parke whom he married in 1706 and who died in 1716. She was the mother of Evelyn Byrd, a much revered member of the family. While in England in 1724, Col. Byrd married Maria Taylor and, returning to Virginia shortly thereafter, reestablished his home at famous Westover and incidentally served for thirty-seven years as a member of the House of Burgesses. Colonel Byrd was the first gentleman of Virginia, a man of oldworld education and some literary taste, polished in manners and his comfortable old Southern home at Westover became the center of culture and refinement of the old South. Upon his death in 1744, the family prestige and his Virginia estate which had then grown to one hundred and eighty thousand acres, passed to his eldest son, William Byrd, III, who was born in 1728 also served in the House of Burgesses and died in 1777, a loyal subject of the king and a foe of the Revolution. William Byrd III was also known as Commodore Byrd and during the years preceding the Revolution was a most intimate friend and associate of Washington.
As was a custom throughout the Colonies, members of the Byrd family intermarried among other leading families of Virginia. The Byrds were allied by intermarriage with the Parke, Custis, Harrison, Carter and other families. In the social and political affairs of the O1d Dominion, outstanding members of the Byrd family have ever exercised a most engaging part, because manifestly, in governmental concerns, a few allied families obtained and retained control of Colonial politics. This posture of affairs obtained throughout the Colonies and while much might be offered against the dominance of a political caste, it was, perhaps not only innocuous but highly beneficial as a settled and acknowledged policy, because it produced a coterie of trained, competent men to administer public business. When the Revolution broke, it was to the representatives of these powerful families throughout the Colonies, that the people turned for leadership and in very few instances were they disappointed. The conventional, feudalistic life of Colonial Virginia had nothing to offer to the amateurish, political eunuch. The stout-hearted
gentleman of the Old Dominion wore the armour of good faith and devotion to public duty, gave unalloyed adherence to the prosaic processes of government which reason, common sense and the past experiences of mankind had marked out and was never perturbed about birth pangs of a "new era."
Before the shadow years of the Revolution came, the members of the Byrd family had become quite numerous and had scattered throughout Virginia and further south and into the Carolinas and Georgia. Within a few years after the close of the Revolution, Michael Byrd, a son of Commodore Byrd, settled in what was later to become the State of Alabama. It was then an Indian country. A few years later, he removed with his family to Mississippi and settled in what is now, Marshall County, which was then the home of the Chickasaw Indians. The complete life story of Michael Byrd is a closed chapter. He doubtless accumulated a wealth of frontier experiences living among a people whose early history consists mainly of quarrels, intrigues and misadventures. John Byrd, a son of Michael Byrd, was born in Alabama, but was reared and modestly educated in Marshall County, Mississippi, where he married Mary Moore, about 1840. She was a daughter of John B. and Delilah (Love) Moore. Mrs. Moore was a member of the Chickasaw tribe of Indians of Mississippi. Her father, John B. Moore died in Marshall County, Mississippi and her mother died near Fort Washita, in the Chickasaw Nation in the old Indian Territory. In the latter part of 1844, John Byrd came with his family to the Indian Territory, locating in the Choctaw Nation, at Doaksville, where he continued to reside until his death in 1864. His wife later removed to Stonewall, where she died in 1878, survived by her four children, Hattie, William Leander, Jennie and Benjamin Franklin.
The old town of Doaksville sprang up about a mile and one-half west of Fort Towson. It was an important commercial center in the vast territory between Natchitoches, Louisiana and Fort Gibson, became the site of the Indian Agency and from 1850 to 1860 was the capital of the Choctaw Nation. It was at Doaksville, in 1837, that the Choctaws and Chickasaws entered into a joint treaty with the United States, by the terms of which the Chickasaws acquired homes in the Choctaw territory
and shortly thereafter began their removal to the West. Doaksville was one of the most active centers in the old Indian Territory in 1844, when John Byrd with his family arrived to reestablish a new home. The ravages of time have quite destroyed the old town and only a few gaunt rock chimneys now remain, but at Fort Towson, there yet remain the ruins, of many of the old buildings. These historic sites are situated in the southeastern portion of what is now, Choctaw County, Oklahoma.
Thus is prefaced the active, worthwhile life story of William Leander Byrd, a son of John Byrd, who was born in Marshall County, Mississippi on August 1, 1844. Three months later, his parents removed to the Indian Territory. His mother was a mixed blood Chickasaw Indian woman of the one-sixteenth blood and it was to a vindication of this strain of Indian blood coursing through his veins, that the highest purposes of his life became dedicated in the years to come. Young Byrd passed his early youth upon his father's farm near Doaksville and was attending the Chickasaw Academy near Tishomingo, when the Civil War broke. Because of his youth, his participation in the war was deferred until January 1864, when the First Choctaw-Chickasaw Indian Brigade was formed with Col. Tandy Walker in command. The young man enlisted and became adjutant in the company commanded by Captain Edmund Gardner, part of the regiment of Colonel Sampson Folsom in Walker's brigade. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations in their alliance with the Confederate government had reserved the privilege of limiting their activities to the Indian Territory. Regardless of this reservation, in the spring of 1864, of its own volition, Colonel Walker's brigade was transferred to Arkansas for service with the army of General Sterling Price and actively participated in the battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas, on April 18, 1864. Upon the conclusion of the war, our soldier returned to Doaksville and during the last five years of his residence there, became engaged in the mercantile business.
William Leander Byrd was married to Susan Folsom, at Doaksville, on January 1, 1863. She was a daughter of Colonel David Folsom, a former chief of the Choctaws. She was born in Mississippi on December 9, 1843 and died at Ada, Oklahoma, on August 6, 1916. No children blessed this union.
In 1875, Mr. Byrd removed to Stonewall (now Frisco) and it was here that the chief financial and political attainments of his eventful life were achieved. A general merchandise store was established at Stonewall, operated by Mr. Byrd. When the M. K. & T. Ry. branch line was extended from Coalgate to Oklahoma City, in 1900, a new town sprang up on this new line, some three miles east of old Stonewall. The enterprising citizenship of this new town surreptitiously removed the post office building and its contents, at night, from, old Stonewall to this new settlement, which then became known as Stonewall. When the Oklahoma Central Ry. came through shortly thereafter, the old town acquired the name of Frisco, by which it is now known.
The business efforts of Mr. Byrd at old Stonewall were highly successful. In those days, the Chickasaw Indians were in better circumstances than were the members of the other tribes. They had plenty of live stock, and Byrd exchanged with the Indians, his merchandise for cattle and horses and in the course of a few years, he had large herds of cattle and many horses and mules running upon the common range of the country. He was soon recognized as one of the wealthiest men in the Chickasaw Nation. The old Byrd mansion still stands, but in a rather delapidated condition at Frisco. This "Westover" of the Chickasaw Byrds, when constructed and occupied by him, was considered the finest mansion in that part of the Nation.
Within a few years after the removal from Doaksville to Stonewall, Mr. Byrd began taking an interest in the political life of the tribe. The Chickasaw Indians had made remarkable progress since their separation from the Choctaws, in 1855. The capital of the Chickasaw Nation was Tishomingo and it was there, in the old Council House, that a constitution was promulgated on August 30, 1856. This instrument declared a bill of rights, guaranteed trial by jury and provided for the distribution of powers of government in the regular legislative, executive and judicial departments. The chief executive, to be called the "governor", was elected by the qualified electors of the Nation for a term of two years, being eligible to hold this office for only four years out of six. The legislative branch was called the "legislature" and was composed of a senate and house of representatives. The judicial branch was made up of a supreme court,
circuit courts and county courts. The analogy between the Chickasaw constitution and the constitution of the States was quite complete and evidenced the high standard of tribal leadership which obtained among these Indians.
A disturbing factor in the hitherto peaceful conditions among the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, was provoked by the influx of white intruders, during the years succeeding the Civil War. The intermarriage of many of these whites into the tribal membership became common and the pathway became paved for the more complete amalgamation of the races, as obtains today. This situation was peculiarly true in the Chickasaw Nation and ultimately created trouble in the political affairs of the Nation, In 1876, the Chickasaw tribal government, by law, conferred full rights of membership in the tribe, upon all white persons who intermarried among their members. No particular disadvantage arose at first but as time progressed, these "white" Indians began to gather control. By the laws of the Nation, any Indian was enabled to occupy any of the unoccupied lands in the Nation and it was not long before the "white" Indians occupied the most valuable lands. The Chickasaws had experienced difficulties with the white settlers back in Mississippi and it was to escape the infringements which they had suffered, that they bargained for their removal to the Indian Territory. They understood that their lands in the West were to be theirs, free from interference by the white man, but the growing presence of these white members of the tribe, began to imperil their political life. The Chickasaws had provoked this situation by admitting these white settlers, to full tribal membership. In an address before the United States Senate made by Senator Platt at a time when the matter of white aggressions in the Indian Territory, was at its height, he offered a most compelling illustration.
"A single instance will show how the white people have absorbed the lands in the Indian Territory to the exclusion of the Indians. At a town named Duncan (in the Chickasaw Nation) there was a Scotchman by the name of Duncan who had a trading post. There was also a white woman there who had been the wife of an Indian, but whose husband had died. The white
woman, by marrying the Indian, became an Indian citizen. Then, when she became a widow, the Scotchman married her. By that means he became an Indian.
Mr. Peffer: Both white?
Mr. Platt: Both white; not a drop of Indian blood in the veins of either. These two persons, husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan have 7,000 acres of land under cultivation and grazing by their right of occupancy as Indians. They have also a town of 1,500 inhabitants, the right to occupy which is conveyed by Mr. Duncan and the yearly rentals for occupancy amount, I suppose, to from five to seven thousand dollars."
The presence of the whites created controversial issues and culminated in a distinct political cleavage in the life of the Chickasaw Nation. Party lines were formed basing their antagonisms upon the question of the adopted and intermarried whites. The Progressive Party advocated the full participation in tribal government by this class of citizenship, while the Fullblood or Pullback Party, composed of Indians of the full blood, favored the complete disfranchisement of the "white" Indians. The lines upon this issue were most clearly drawn in the election held in August 1886, when William Leander Byrd, the acknowledged leader of the Pullback Party, offered his initial candidacy for the governorship of the Nation. Byrd was a man of unusual ability and commanding influence among the members of the tribe. He fully visualized the aspirations of the full blood Indians and understood their incapacity to compete with the white man in his individualistic mode of life. Although the quantity of Indian blood coursing through his veins was negligible, Byrd stood fearlessly for the rights of these Indians to order their affairs according to their own care-free, pastoral notions. The full blood Chickasaws believed in him and followed his leadership. Byrd was, at that time, not altogether a novice in the political affairs of the Nation. In 1881, he was appointed superintendent of the schools for the Nation and in 1882, made his initial trip to Washington as a delegate from his tribe. He was chosen one of a committee of three, in 1887, to make a revision and codification of the laws of the Nation. In his race for governor in 1886, Byrd was pitched against
William M. Guy, the candidate of the Progressive Party. The result was considerably in Guy's favor, but the election was thrown into the legislature and Guy declared elected by a majority of one vote. The "white" Indians had supported Guy. The new legislature elected at the same time was quite evenly divided between the two factions, but on April 8, 1887, an act was passed disfranchising the adopted and intermarried members of the tribe.
In the fall of 1888, Byrd again became a candidate of the Pullback Party for the governorship and again the race was against Governor Guy who was running for reelection. In this second venture, Byrd easily became the victor, owing to the disfranchisement of the whites. Again in. 1890, he sought reelection and again the race was against Ex-Governor Guy. The contest was spirited, Guy claimed the election and, in fact, it appeared that he had won. The white element in the Nation although denied the right of suffrage, had been extremely active and had omitted no effort to influence the result against the reelection of Governor Byrd. Byrd contested the returns before the legislature, a majority of which he controlled and through its action, the vote of Pickens County was thrown out and Byrd was declared the winner. It was in Pickens County that Guy had received his heaviest vote and where most of the intermarried whites lived. Guy and his adherents were not disposed to recognize the findings of the legislature and in September, the Guy faction, led by Sam Paul, a prominent Progressive leader, organized a force and forcibly entered the legislature halls at Tishomingo, assumed control of the situation, required Byrd to abdicate and Guy was sworn in as Governor.
Governor Byrd immediately carried the matter before Robert L. Owens, United States Indian Agent at Muskogee and in the final adjudication, Byrd was declared to be entitled to the governorship and Guy was ousted. Byrd now took the issue of the "white" members of the Nation, vigorously in hand. Under his inspiration, the legislature enacted laws prohibiting white men from entering the Nation and engaging in the cattle business unless they were intermarried members. The object of this was to prevent an influx of an undesirable class whose in-
terest was wholly at variance with the constituted members of the tribe. Cattlemen were not permitted to employ non-citizens but were required to employ tribal members. The white noncitizens had been overrunning the Chickasaw Nation, just as the coal operators and sawmill men had overrun the Choctaw Nation. This legislation was calculated to preserve the identity of the lands which had been set aside for the exclusive use and enjoyment of the Indians, when they surrendered their lands back in Mississippi.
If the policy of an independent status was to be preserved for the Indians, Governor Byrd acted wisely and for the best concerns of the Indian members of the Nation. The language of President Jefferson in a message to Congress, comes ringing with prophetic vision down through the years, "In truth," said Jefferson, "the ultimate point of rest and happiness for them (the Indians) is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix and become one people. Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, is what the natural progress of things will bring on; it is better to promote than to retard it. It is better for them to be identified with us and preserved in the occupation of their lands than to be exposed to the dangers of being a separate people." The great Jefferson may have been premature, but things have happened just about as he counselled.
Came the election of 1892 and Governor Byrd being ineligible for a third consecutive election, sponsored the candidacy of Jonas Wolf, the Pullback candidate as against Colbert A. Burris of Stonewall, the choice of the Progressives. After a bitter campaign, Burris claimed the election, the contest was again thrown into the legislature and Wolf declared elected by three votes.
After his retirement from office, the Governor resumed his business activities at Stonewall until January 1898, when he disposed of his store and devoted his attention to his farming and stock-raising interests. The extension of the Frisco Railroad and the founding of Ada influenced him to change his residence to that city in 1902 and with the interests of that city, he remained active until his death.
Governor Byrd reentered the arena of Chickasaw policies in the fall of 1902, when he again became a candidate for the governorship against Palmer S. Moseley. The political alignments remained as before with Byrd representing the full bloods and Moseley, although himself a full blood Indian, heading the progressive faction. The result of the election was close and Byrd seems to have been elected by a safe majority. Moseley contested the returns, as usual, and the matter was settled by the legislature. The returns from Pontotoc County, where Byrd had received his largest support, were challenged because of many alleged illegal votes cast for him. A hearing was held in the county court of that county at which much excitement prevailed. Through some alleged manipulation, so the story goes, the entire vote of Pontotoc County was thrown out and thereby Moseley easily won his contest before the legislature. When the legislature convened at Tishomingo, on September 1st to dispose of the contest, J. Blair Schoenfelt, the United States Indian Agent, supported by several deputies, was in attendance, in order to forestall any trouble. It is also a significant fact that Ben Colbert, the United States Marshal for the Southern District of the Indian Territory, with a force of deputy marshals was also on hand. He had been an ardent Moseley supporter. The story is related of how Colbert took charge of the situation, closed the doors of the legislative hall to the Byrd men who had been elected from Pontotoc County, and the Moseley faction, then having a majority in the legislature proceeded to declare Moseley duly elected governor of the Chickasaw Nation, thus ringing down the curtain upon the distinguished political career of William L. Byrd.
Considerations of grave moment were involved in the election of 1902. The question of the approval by the Nation, of the Supplemental Choctaw-Chickasaw Agreement was a much debated issue. This agreement was embodied in an Act of Congress of July 1, 1902 and was to come before the electorate of the Chickasaw Nation for an expression of their approval or disapproval at an election to be called by the new governor who was then being elected. The agreement provided for the final allotment of the tribal domain among its individual members.
The election for governor was held in August and the plebescite upon the agreement was to ensue in the succeeding month. The fight for the approval of the agreement was led by Douglas H. Johnston, a former governor and later to become governor again of the Nation-and by Ben Colbert, the United States Marshal. These two men, both of whom were mixed blood Chickasaws were active supporters of Moseley. Governor Byrd led the forces in opposition to Moseley and was bitterly opposed to the ratification of the agreement and it was to defeat the agreement that he came forth from his political retirement and entered the race for governor in 1902. Had Byrd been seated as governor after the election in 1902, it is doubtful if he would have called an election to submit the agreement. He boldly and fearlessly entered the lists to combat for the inherent right of the Indians of his tribe, to live their cloistered, pastoral lives--and lost. It was no driving flames of personal ambition which recalled him to the front trenches for his people. The race was made at a personal sacrifice and no words of criticism may be offered against Governor Byrd because of his posture toward these engrossing questions which he honestly felt so vitally affected the Chickasaw Indians. He possessed the courage of his convictions and the marked ability to marshal his influence. The agreement was approved by the Chickasaws at an election held on September 25, 1902, called by Governor Moseley.
Again, Governor Byrd retired from public life and was destined never to reenter. He accepted the allotment of the tribal lands among his people and the altered political status which ensued, in a most gracious manner. The remaining years of his life were devoted to rounding out his most successful business career. He served as President of the Farmer's State Bank of Ada and was also a stockholder of the State National Bank at Denison, Texas. He had abandoned the extensive cattle business in which he had been engaged so long, when the common range had been destroyed by the allotment of the tribal lands in severalty. He had been regarded as one of the largest cattle men in the territory and it is not unfair to say that the stock interests of Governor Byrd may have been an influencing factor in his marked opposition to the allotment scheme. The Governor enjoyed a marked distinction in Masonic circles, having
been one of the eight members of that fraternity who organized the Grand Lodge of Masons of the Indian Territory at Caddo in 1873. He was also a distinguished member of the Odd Fellows fraternity.
Upon the approved government rolls of the Chickasaw Indians, appears the name of William L. Byrd opposite roll number 1024, as evidenced by census card number 323 and to him was duly allotted his distributive share of the public lands of the tribe. The eventful life of William Leander Byrd was closed by death at Ada, Oklahoma, on April 21, 1915; he rests in the Rosedale Cemetery near that city. Thus closes a worthwhile life of one of the outstanding leaders of Indian history.