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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 4
December, 1939
GOVERNOR ROBERT MAXWELL HARRIS

By
JOHN BARTLETT MESERVE

Page 361

Gov. Harris

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 S. Mosely.

Page 362

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."

Page 363

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 marked.

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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