Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 2
GOVERNOR BENJAMIN FRANKLIN OVERTON AND GOVERNOR BENJAMIN CROOKS BURNEY
John Bartlett Meserve
The Progressive party among the Chickasaws, of which Governor Cyrus Harris was the guiding spirit, was boldly challenged in
the fall of 1874, by B. F. Overton. Under this intrepid leader, the full blood Indians who were then in the majority, were
regimented into what became known as the Pullback party. Overton and Harris who were the militant leaders of these two opposing
political parties, were quite the antithesis of each other in their qualities of leadership. Overton was bold, stubborn and
aggressive—there was no laisses faire about his policies; Harris, mild and reserved although none the less adroit and diplomatic; both were astute politicians.
The Chickasaws developed an absorbing interest in tribal politics during those early days. Each political party had a most
thorough and complete organization; each with its platform, its county managers, and its general chairman. Public meetings
were held, barbecue picnics were given and speakers provided to talk and vilify the opposing party and its candidates. No
scheme was omitted to secure the necessary votes by the respective parties. The voter's bearing was studied from every angle;
they knew his church, his neighbors, his kin, his boon companions; they measured up his personal pride, his present need,
his ambition and brought all of this to bear. Inasmuch as the legislature canvassed the gubernatorial returns, attention was
given to a partisan selection of its members. No written or printed ballots were used, no secret expression was possible,
the elector's preference being expressed viva voce. The Chickasaws were among the most advanced of the Indian tribes and their administration of self-government had been highly
successful and this because of
their personal interest. At election time, the Chickasaw Nation was, to them, an entire world in itself, on this earth.
1The Overton family has been one of much prominence in Tennessee from an early date. The initial member of the family in that
state was John Overton, a native of Virginia who came to Kentucky after the close of the Revolution, where he practiced law
for a brief period. He soon removed to Tennessee reaching Nashville in the same month that noted the arrival of Andrew Jackson
from North Carolina. He became a close friend, admirer and business associate of Jackson. In 1794, John Overton purchased
a tract of 5000 acres at Chickasaw Bluffs on the Mississippi for $500 and subsequently conveyed a one-half interest to General
Jackson who later disposed of his interest. He succeeded Jackson upon the Supreme Court bench of Tennessee in 1804 and in
1819 founded the city of Memphis. In 1823, he concluded a final treaty with the Chickasaws whereby they relinquished their
last holdings in Tennessee. The fact that a county in Tennessee is named after the family evidences the prominence of the
family in that state.2
Another member of the family who also bore the name of John Overton and who was probably a son of the founder of Memphis,
was born in the early part of the last century, near Nashville. He was a lumberman and later as a young man, drifted down
to Mississippi where he married Tennessee Allen, a one-fourth blood Chickasaw Indian woman who was a daughter of John Allen
and Elizabeth Love, his wife. In the early forties of the last century this John Overton with his family removed to the old
Indian Territory where he settled upon a farm near what is today the town of Colbert, in Bryan County, Oklahoma. He remained
but a short time, when he abandoned his adventure among the Chickasaws and returned to the scenes of his early life in Tennessee
and never again contacted his family in the West. Benjamin Franklin Overton, a son of John Overton
and Tennessee Allen, his wife, was born in Mississippi on November 2, 1836, being a mere child when his parents removed to
the West. The disappearance of his father, to be followed soon thereafter by the death of his mother left the homeless lad
to be reared and cared for in the homes of his uncles Isaac and Robert Love.3
No high school or college education reenforced the native ability of Benjamin F. Overton. Left an orphan early in life, he
was nurtured in the soil of experience, his educational advantages being limited to an attendance of six months at the old
Chickasaw Male Academy at Tishomingo. When a young man, he established himself upon a farm on the Red River near the town
of Willis in Pickens County and in what is today, Marshall County, Oklahoma. This constituted his residence for the remainder
of his life and the comfortable farm house, erected by him is still standing.
Benjamin F. Overton early evidenced an interest in the political affairs of the Chickasaw Nation and served in both the house
and senate of the legislature. He functioned as a delegate from the tribe to Washington upon numerous occasions. In the fall
of 1874, he became the candidate of the Pullback party for the governorship and opposed Gov. Cyrus Harris who was running
for re-election upon the Progressive ticket. Overton had behind him the support of the full bloods and non-progressives. Among
the latter class, was the influence of some of the white citizens who were engaged extensively in the cattle business and
who looked with much disfavor upon the possible allotment of tribal lands, because such action would destroy the open cattle
range. Harris drew to his support the influence of the progressive whites, both intermarried and adopted, the mixed bloods
and such of the full bloods as were able to appraise the onward trend of their tribal status. Overton was elected and again
was elected in the fall of 1876. During the first two terms of Governor
Overton, the cattle business was the overshadowing industry. Over the Texas and the famous Chisholm trails, vast herds of
Texas longhorns were driven through the Chickasaw country to shipping points in Kansas. Convenience was made of the open range
in the Chickasaw Nation by the stockmen en route, for the pasturage of their herds. The Chickasaw legislature required a permit
for this privilege and a tax was exacted, but much difficulty was experienced in its collection. Through the influence of
the aggressive governor, a tribal militia was formed in 1876 and by the use of this executive force, the revenue was promptly
collected and the lawlessness occasioned by the herders was mitigated.
Trouble between the Federal Government and the Sioux Indians in the Northwest broke in the summer of 1876. The massacre of
General Custer and his entire command was accomplished by these Indians led by Chief Sitting Bull. Governor Overton, in his
second inaugural message to the Chickasaw legislature on September 5, 1876, urges forth sentiment for uniting all of the various
Indian tribes as a necessary step toward the preservation of the American Indian. Tribal unity was a venture most worthy of
consideration. The governor comments upon the status of the Sioux Indians and expresses his deep sympathy with them.
"The Sioux Indians, the largest tribe—being one-sixth of the present estimate of the Indian population—are now engaged in
a bloody war with the United States, not as a matter of choice on their part, but in defense of their tribal and individual
rights. Their country has been invaded by the whites for the purpose of conquest and plunder, and they like other races are
acting the first laws of nature in the preservation of their lives and the maintenance of their property rights and corporate
capacities, by taking up arms against their destroyers. And for this spirit of resentment, the Federal Government has sent
her armies into their country for the purpose of making them submit to as open and high-handed a robbery as was ever committed
upon a weak and defenseless people.
"Fellow countrymen, in the name and behalf of our persecuted brothers of the Black Hills, I appeal to you this day to raise
your voice of protestation against the prosecution of such an unjust, unholy and unChristian warfare upon our race. God forbid
that you, the representatives of our own common Indian interests should be unmindful of this great and impor-
tant crisis. Your political and material interests as Chickasaws is hinged upon the termination of the Sioux question. We
have no better rights to territory than they and are no better able to defend them although we have bought and paid for our
country. * * * and we have but one or two things to consider; either make a shameful and disgraceful surrender of our national
pride, together with all rights, privileges and immunities acquired by us or perish like brutes in a war of extermination.
This is no fanciful or imaginary working of the brain."4
The governor was very dolorous over the situation but the ensuing years have displayed the utter fallacy of his fears. He
gravely magnified the situation in its application to the Chickasaws and confused them with the savage tribes in the Northwest.
He concludes this message in an appeal, in emotional language, to the moral teaching of the Chickasaw youth.
"Let them be taught those principles calculated to elevate them in social standing and enable them to reach a higher place
in politics. Then we can safely give to them the government which we have inherited from our fathers and which of necessity
must be theirs, when one by one we shall have been called to render account of the deeds, official as well as private which
have marked our course on earth. Let me express the hope, gentlemen, that when that great day comes to each and all of us
we may be able to exhibit a pure record and an unblemished official life and that none of us may be missing from that Eternal
Home which is not by treaty, nor subject to the cupidity of man, but a gracious gift from the Great Father of Nations to such
of His children as have done His will according to the lights before them."
Governor Benjamin F. Overton held a deep and abiding interest in the social, spiritual, and political welfare of his people.
Even though he was unremitting in his loyalty to the Chickasaws and, at times, somewhat primitive in his ideas, he was not
unfriendly or hostile toward the white members of the tribe. This is evidenced by his approval, in 1876, of an act of the
legislature enfranchising these citizens and conferring upon them full rights of tribal membership. This act although repealed
in 1887 was ultimately to provoke the retirement of the old Pullback party from Chickasaw Nation politics. Although lacking
in the rudi-
ments of scholastic training, he was interested in all matters of education and on October 9, 1876, approved the establishment
of the Chickasaw neighborhood schools and the extended improvement of the boarding schools.
The tenure of Governor Overton drew to a close in the fall of 1878 and he yielded the governorship to Benjamin C. Burney,
who had served as his national treasurer. We pause to meet Governor Burney.
It was not until the winter of 1844 that David C. Burney and Lucy James, his wife, Chickasaw Indians and natives of Mississippi,
accompanied by their family and some eighteen negro slaves, undertook the removal from the Chickasaw country in Northern Mississippi
to the old Indian Territory. The approach to the West was made by steamboat up the Red River. The boat bearing the emigrees
paused at Shreveport, Louisiana, where a son was born to the Burneys on January 15, 1844. This son was Benjamin Crooks Burney,
named after Capt. Benjamin Crooks, the ship's genial captain. The Burneys settled at what is today, Burneyville, Love County,
Oklahoma, where the father engaged in farming. The mother passed away in 1845 and the father died shortly after the Civil
Benjamin C. Burney was modestly educated at the Chickasaw Orphans School at Tishomingo and when the Civil War came, enlisted
as a private in Shocoe's Chickasaw Battalion of Mounted Volunteers for service in the Confederate Army. After the war, he
returned to the hone of his father at Burneyville. He later became a farmer and stockraiser and established himself upon a
comfortable farm near Aylesworth in what is today Marshall County, Oklahoma. Early in life he evidenced an interest in the
political affairs of the Chickasaw Nation and served as National Treasurer from 1876 to 1878. He entered the race for the
governorship of the Chickasaws in the fall of 1878.
Governor B. F. Overton concluded his second term as governor of the Chickasaws in the fall of 1878 and, because of constitutional
inhibitions, was ineligible to a third consecutive term. In
his two campaigns for election he had been opposed by former Governor Cyrus Harris who again became the candidate of the Progressive
party to succeed Governor Overton. The Pullback party nominated Benjamin C. Burney, whose candidacy was sponsored by Governor
Overton, his brother-in-law. The campaign was quite exciting and much bad feeling was engendered and the issue became one
of preference between Overton and Harris with the candidacy of Burney very much in the background. It developed into a contest
between the two outstanding leaders for the preservation of personal prestige and in the final count, Overton won through
the election of Burney. The candidacy of Burney was manifestly a convenience to enable Overton to resume the executive functions
of the Chickasaw government, later.
The result of the election held in August, 1878, appeared doubtful although, on the face of the returns, Harris seemed to
have won, but a canvass of the returns by the legislature, after a stormy session over which Governor Overton presided, resulted
in the election of Burney. Some bitterness lingered after the declaration by the legislature but all potential trouble was
averted by the prompt acquiescence of Governor Harris, in the result.
The one term of Governor Burney was uneventful. With his induction into office, affairs shifted into neutral and coasted along
abiding the time when the aggressive Overton might again take over the reins of Government. The new governor addressed the
legislature upon the Leased Land question which remained a problem in the political affairs of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations
for so many years. Allied closely with this question was the status of the negro among the Chickasaws. The governor evidenced
a strong interest in the improvement of the public schools and in his message to the legislature on September 1, 1879, concludes
his counsel in thoughtful language.
"Education is the lever by which our people are to be raised to a mental level with our surroundings and I desire to impress
seriously upon you how important it is that you use your influence in getting our people to see to the education of the young."
In the same message, speaking as it were, over the heads of the members of the legislature and addressing his people as a
whole, he admonishes,
"But while we have been the recipients of so many blessings we have not been grateful. Our young men (many of them at least)
forgetful of the grave and responsible duties of life, have given themselves over to dissipation and strife to a degree rarely,
if ever witnessed before. Chickasaws, this should not be and must not continue. Remember that we are a small and feeble race
of people, to whom God until recently has denied the lights which for so long a time have illuminated the minds of other races.
And now that He has at last granted to us the blessings of civilization and Christianity, let us not reject them nor drive
Him from us by ingratitude and rebellion."5
These words came from the heart of a Christian gentleman and such was Governor Burney.6
6Rev. J. H. Dickerson of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, under date of February 2, 1938 writes:—"When I came a missionary to the Choctaw
and Chickasaw Indians in Oct., 1882, under commission from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, without salary, the first donation
I received for my support was a bale of cotton from Ben C. Burney. I hauled the cotton to Denison, Texas and sold it. There
was a small congregation on his farm in which he was a ruling elder. When I came and some time after, he was out of Christian
duty and service. He came back to the work of the church with full penitence and consecration. From then to his death he lived
a most careful and devoted Christian life. To illustrate his conscientiousness I give the following. When I came to the work
he had just built a large two story residence, his former home having burned. After I had stopped with the family many times
and was given a bed up stairs, he said to me one day, 'Brother Dickerson, have you noticed that one room up there has not
been finished? 'Yes, I have seen it,' I said. 'When I started to build this house,' he said, 'I promised the Lord that when
it was finished I would begin to hold family worship and pray in my home. I could not get up the courage to pray out loud
so the house was never finished.' He afterwards took up the habit of family worship, also leading in public prayer. How he
came to begin leading in public prayer was on this wise. I was holding a revival meeting on his farm at the little school
house. Just before the preaching hour one evening, I asked the Christians to go separately into the woods, get upon their
knees and promise the Lord that they would do just what the Holy Spirit seemed to point out. When they came back and I had
preached and called for penitents, Bro. Burney arose and said, 'When you sent us out I knew what I would have to promise the
Lord, that I would lead in prayer—let us pray.' Down on our knees we went and Bro. Burney would pray awhile and cry awhile.
There was great rejoicing in that little congregation for everybody loved Burney. Ever after he graciously led in prayer.
He would take his Bible and visit the tenants on his farm, read, talk and pray with them. I think he said less about those
who injured him than any man I ever associated with. He did get riled up once. His cattle began breaking into the farm. Some
of the tenants began shooting his cattle. He had told his tenants to watch the fences and keep them in repair and he would
meet the expense. Instead of fixing fences they shot the cattle. Burney took up his gun and started for the farm to settle
with the tenants. Afterward he and I were walking along this path. He pointed out a certain fence corner where he got on his
knees and turned the cattle matter over to the Lord and went back to the house. He worked much for the welfare of the Chickasaws.
I have often said that Ben Burney was my best friend among the Indians in my missionary efforts. I am too old and nervous,
will be 85, April 12, if allowed to continue."
Came the biennial election in the fall of 1880 and Governor Burney not being a candidate for re-election, conveniently retired
and was succeeded by Governor Overton. In dignified language addressed to the legislature, he yielded his executive powers
to his successor, whom he held in high regard.
"The never ceasing flight of time has brought my administration to a close and I am here today to surrender up to you the
office powers which you conferred upon me two years ago. The honorable gentleman whom, you will inaugurate today as governor,
laid down for a time the insignia of power and retired to the quiet and pleasures of private life and I was installed into
the responsible duties of the office. I had his cordial support and co-operation then as he has my cordial support and co-operation
now; and I congratulate him and you that he has been spared to take charge again of the destinies of our little Nation."7
Governor Burney yielded any aspirations he may have had for a re-election to Governor Overton in a spirit of appreciation
of the favors the governor had made it possible for him to attain. He, obviously, kept a gentleman's agreement. The governor
was perhaps the youngest governor the Chickasaws had ever had. He was a man of ability far above the average of his people
and had improved his native talents by self-education.
The governor was a consistent member of the Presbyterian church and of the Odd Fellows Society. His high regard for Governor
Overton was perhaps emphasized by the fact that his sister, Mary, became the second wife of Governor Overton. Rebecca, another
sister of Governor Burney, married Col. J. J. McAlester on August 22, 1872. Governor Burney married Louisa Gaines, a
daughter of James Gaines at Tishomingo in the early seventies. She passed away on June 25, 1904.8
Governor Burney was erect in carriage, stood about five feet nine, and weighed around 165 pounds. He was pleasant and agreeable
and generally revered by all who knew him. Upon his retirement from office, the governor retired to his old farm near Aylsworth,
where he answered the last summons on November 25, 1892. He rests in the old Burney cemetery near the farm place where his
grave is suitably marked.
In the autumn of 1880, Governor B. F. Overton again was chosen governor of the Chickasaw Nation to succeed the one term of
Governor B. C. Burney and, with true Jacksonian energy entered upon his concluding years. He was re-elected in 1882. Not much
of importance transpired during these years of his tenure. He addressed the legislature on September 4, 1883, in terms which
would indicate growing sentiments of lethargy among his people toward their own government. He boldly challenged the patriotism
of the Chickasaws and made dire predictions of their ultimate status, should they fail or refuse to heed his words of admonition.
He sought to stimulate their interest in the perpetuation of their independent tribal status.
"Your weakness which has heretofore been your means of strength in appealing for national existence, has produced in the bosoms
of your countrymen, a feeling of contempt and disrespect for their own nationality and seeing that their lives and property
cannot be protected by the laws of their own country, must naturally seek protection elsewhere. Your government has been very
successful in rearing and educating a class of subjects who are perfectly destitute of that spirit of patriotism which ennobles
man and instills in his bosom a love of country, its laws and customs. * * * History gives no account of a people as little
interested as you do in maintaining a government, particularly when the political fate of the nation depends upon a prompt
and impartial administration of the laws. * * * But, as you have, by close contact with the white race, lost your originality
as Indians, or I might say, your peculiar customs which give prominence of notoriety and which only attracts
the attention of the serious and faithful historian in writing up the foolishness and greatness of all people who have or
may hereafter inhabit this earth, you are now called upon by your wives, sons and daughters to move forward and upward, if
not to excellence, at least to a competing level with the other races of the earth. Nature forbids that you remain in an intermediate
state between the wigwam and the marble palace—the cap-stone of the white man's glory. * * * While viewing with regret our
fruitless attempts to perpetuate our present government, I cannot refrain from commending to you as the ultimatum of our hopes,
the consolidating and confederating of civilized tribes for their mutual welfare and protection. * * * Do not let your individual
interest absorb your national pride. * * * Will you take advantage of and foster these inherent rights? If so, come out of
the Egyptian darkness that seems to enthrall you and meet the future like men."9
His words were not of sudden impulse but reflect his stubborn unwillingness to permit the Chickasaws to be denationalized.
His arguments were peremptory. The governor probably felt the timbers of the Chickasaw Nation cracking; things were in a foment
and his fears were not groundless. The life of the Chickasaws was already taking on new complexities. The destruction of their
communal land tenure and the allotment of their tribal lands in severalty, was openly predicted. The discerning Chickasaw
well knew that as a corollary the white man's laws and courts would, sooner or later, supersede the tribal laws and courts—that
tribal government would vanish. Common sense lifted him to heights of proper appraisal and, as a consequence, his respect
for the law and authority of the Nation, was weakened. Governor Overton was most aggressively opposed to this growing sentiment
and vigorously challenged it. He was no pacifist and was unwilling to compromise his principles. His emotions became heroic
through their intensity. He was ever mindful of the heroic past of the Chickasaws and eagerly sought to recall them to a self-appreciation
of their ability to preserve their own political autonomy with its decadent features. But in the thought of Lord Bacon, "The
past should be made a guiding post, not a hitching post." Governor Overton may have been well intentioned in his objectives
and stubborn to recognize the new light
into which the Chickasaws were rapidly drifting, but his efforts were futile to defy the destiny which awaited his people.
"A new foot on the floor and a new face at the door" was approaching, and the Chickasaws were preparing for its approach.
Death summoned the intrepid leader at his home on the Red River on February 8, 1884. He passed away some months before the
expiration of his fourth term as governor of the Chickasaws and rests in a family burying ground on the old farm near Willis,
where his grave is marked. His term was completed by Ah-chuck-ah-nubbe, a full blood Chickasaw who was president of the senate.
Governor Overton married first Sarah Clementine Jones, who passed away on October 7, 1869. Thereafter, he married Mary C.
Gaines nee Burney who died on July 5, 1872. After her death, he journeyed to Kentucky and married Elizabeth Smith who died
on February 17, 1876. His last wife was Mattie Carter who was born on February 20, 1862, and whom he married on September,
12, 1878. She is now (1938) Mrs. Edward Secra, and lives at Denison, Texas.
The governor, early in life became a member of the Christian church although later his spiritual ideas became somewhat personal.
He voiced his sentiments, "To take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, is my religion." In the fulfillment of
this creed, he was unremitting. He was a member of the Odd Fellows Society. Governor Overton was very slender in build, standing
six feet and weighing 165 pounds. In his private life, he was a combination of mildness and austerity—was both friendly and
severe. He loved his friends but was unrelenting toward his foes. In his public career, some of his political notions may
have been of a weird pattern, but his obligations were solemnly kept. His spirit was of the old regime and to him, it would
seem, that the end justified the means. The governor may have been errant in some of his political concepts; may have grossly
magnified conditions which were seemingly adverse; may have misunderstood or misinterpreted the attitude of the Government
have evidenced an unwillingness to bow to the rising sun of a new day for the Chickasaws, but his integrity was never successfully
questioned. He was bold and unafraid in contending for the things in which he firmly believed. He typifies the thought expressed
by Theodore Roosevelt, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." But the term "right" is
many times a relative term, varying with the observer.
Each one is summoned to answer by the measure of his own worth and Benjamin Franklin Overton contributed his worthwhile hour
to the history of the Chickasaws.10
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