Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 4
GOVERNOR ROBERT MAXWELL HARRIS
JOHN BARTLETT MESERVE
The Chickasaws were now approaching the twilight zone of their independent life. Rapid progress had been made through capable
leadership, which fitted them for the responsibilities of full American citizenship which stood at the threshold. The Indians
who gathered to the polling places throughout, the Chickasaw Nation in August, 1896 to invest Robert M. Harris with the governorship
were remote from the Chickasaws of the pristine Mississippi days. The "trail of tears" had led them to a new day.
In the old Mississippi days, Elsie, a daughter of Louis LeFlore and his Chickasaw Indian wife, became the wife of Daniel Harris,
a white man and their son, Joseph married Catharine Nail, a Choctaw. The Nail family was of much prominence among the Choctaws.
Robert Maxwell Harris, a son of Joseph D. Harris and Catharine Nail, his wife, was born upon a farm some ten miles east of
Tishomingo, Chickasaw Nation, on April 1, 1850. Although bearing the same name, he was in no wise related to the celebrated
Chickasaw Governor Cyrus Harris. The young man attended the tribal schools and later was sent to a private school at Paris,
Texas. Such an advantage was most unusual among the Indians and reflects the high, appreciative character of his parents.
Upon the conclusion of his scholastic years he returned to the old farm and later engaged in farming for himself. He entered
quite extensively into the stock business and, as fortune favored his efforts and excellent judgment, in 1890 he established
a general mercantile store at Tishomingo. He became interested in and promoted successfully, the construction of the initial
telephone line connecting Tishomingo, Ardmore and Denison, Texas. Robert M. Harris became a most successful business man and
was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in the Chickasaw Nation.
During the early years after his return from school, he held some minor political positions and served as a county judge and
sheriff and later as a member of the legislature. He was drafted from his business career in the fall of 1896 when he became
a candidate for the governorship. He was pitched against Ex-Governor Janus Wolfe who had reentered the political arena and
whom he defeated at the tribal election held on August 12, 1896. Governor Harris succeeded the first term of Governor Palmer
With the advent of Governor Harris, the controversial allotment policy of the Government as expressed through the Dawes Commission,
became the dominant issue. The governor at first evidenced no defined policy as to the allotment scheme and the consequent
lapse of the tribal government. With few if any suggestions as to a proper course to pursue, he handed the situation over
to the legislature which he convened in special session in January 1897, and in his message to them concludes,
"There are only two things for us to decide. To-wit, shall we undertake negotiations with the Dawes Commission or shall we
do nothing and risk the consequences. * * * * I wish to impress upon you to decide what shall be done, so that I will know
what course to follow and feel easy that I am acting as you will have me to act. * * * * I dislike to set forth any particular
recommendations advising what you should do in the premises, fearing being met with false accusations of learning & favoring
such course, but feeling it my duty to lead out in this great crisis. I venture to say to you and repeat my message of last
September that as an Indian I much prefer to remain as we are but Gentlemen my better judgment teaches me that we cannot maintain
these conditions. We are simply the weak in the hands of the strong. We the weak must submit and therefore I suggest the idea
that why not go to the strong and with them plead under the principles of weakness, Christianity and humanity, to give and
allow us to have that which is ours and which is dear to us. Our government, our property rights, our lands and God, our Nation
Homes and which she (the strong) had so often promised and guaranteed to us and our descendants under solemn obligations but
which we now find ourselves unable to enforce and have no other remedy save what we can gain by being ably represented in
our true condition and begging the best terms possible and with this idea advanced I submit the cause and the plans of operation
to your own device which I shall endeavor to follow and execute."
On January 16, 1897, the legislature dispatched a Commission headed by Governor Harris to Washington to enter a protest against
any unilateral steps by the Government. Upon his return from Washington, Governor Harris again summoned the legislature and
on February 25, counselled that body,
"I would recommend that you so modify the law creating the Commission to Negotiate with the Choctaws and Dawes Commission
passed and approved Jan. 16th 1897 so that an agreement can be effected between the three parties on the best terms that can
be made for the Chickasaw people, which negotiations should be completed at as early a date as possible believing as I do
that a delay will be dangerous."
The powers of the Commission were enlarged as suggested by the governor, on March 1, 1897 and of its final efforts, the governor
advised the legislature on July 23,
"We met according to agreement at Atoka, Choctaw Nation after which I with the Chickasaw Commission duly elected and qualified,
met with the Choctaw Commission and the Dawes Commission at the same place and on the 23rd day of April, 1897, succeeded in
entering into an agreement with the Choctaw and Dawes Commissions, which agreement is herewith submitted to your honorable
body for your consideration as provided for by the act of the legislature of the Chickasaw Nation creating said Commission."
This agreement to become known as the Atoka Agreement became Section 29 of the Curtis Act of June 28, 1898 and provided for
the allotment of the tribal domain, abolished the tribal courts and otherwise divested the Chickasaw government of many of
its ancient prerogatives. The adroit and capable governor throughout the entire negotiations had taken his people into the
fullest confidence. Governor Harris favored the transition, became a signer of the Atoka Agreement and led the understanding
Chickasaws in their adoption of its terms. This was the most forward movement the Chickasaws had taken since their removal
to the West and much credit is due to the patient, understanding efforts of their progressive governor.
Governor Harris omitted no effort to improve the educational advantages for his people. During his administration a new building
for the Orphan School in Pickens county was completed. Many neighborhood schools were repaired and the school at Double Springs
which has been destroyed by fire was rebuilt. Bloomfield Seminary also was rebuilt. In 1896 the legislature under his inspiration
granted a charter to Hargrove College of the Methodist Church, South, at Ardmore and provision was made for the attendance
of twenty tribal pupils at the expense of the Nation. On November 8, 1897, the governor signed a bill authorizing the construction
of the new capitol building at Tishomingo. This was also a crowning achievement of his administration and this historic building
is today the county court house of Johnston County.
Governor Harris was defeated in his efforts for reelection in August, 1898 and the late Governor Douglas H. Johnston was chosen.
He opposed the candidacy of Governor Johnston for reelection in the fall of 1900 and again suffered defeat.
Robert M. Harris gave to the Chickasaws a business administration and upon his retirement from office resumed his business
career at Tishomingo, where he passed away on November 11, 1927. He rests in the Tishomingo cemetery where his grave is suitably
Governor Harris married Incy McCoy, a daughter of Judge James McCoy, on July 4, 1872. After her demise, and in October, 1892,
he married Virginia (Jennie) Wyatt a daughter of J. Wyatt of the Chickasaw Nation. The governor was a member of the Presbyterian
Church and was of the Progressive party in tribal politics. The governor ever stood for the best concerns of his people; he
urged substantial progress and moral advancement. Upon the approved rolls of the Chickasaws, his name appears opposite roll
number 4286 as a one-fourth blood Indian as shown by census card number 1600.
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