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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 19, No. 3
September, 1941

By John Bartlett Meserve.

Page 213

Chief B.F. Smallwood

The McCurtain family was highly influential in the political affairs of the Choctaw Nation during its concluding decades. This influence, having its inception in August, 1880 with the election of Jackson F. McCurtain as Principal Chief of the tribe continued until the independent status of the Choctaws was completely folded up. This political power was exerted through the Progressive Party, the policies and leadership of which the McCurtains controlled. Chief Jackson F. McCurtain served through two terms, being succeeded by Edmund McCurtain, his younger brother but who apparently declined a reelection. The Progressive Party again triumphed in the fall of 1886 through the election of Thompson McKinney. The McCurtains suffered a temporary defeat in August, 1888 when Benjamin F. Smallwood of the National Party defeated the Progressive candidate.

1Elijah Smallwood, an Englishman born in South Carolina, journeyed to the Choctaw country in Mississippi when a young man, where he married a Choctaw woman. His son William Smallwood was born in Mississippi and attended school at the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky. He married Mary Le Flore of French-Choctaw origin, who was a sister of Thomas Le Flore. William Smallwood with his family removed to the old Indian Territory with one of the numerous removal parties in the thirties of the last century and settled in Kiamichi County, Choctaw Nation and in what is today Choctaw County, Oklahoma, where he engaged in farming. He was a member of the Choctaw Council in 1863.

Benjamin Franklin Smallwood a son of William Smallwood and Mary Le Flore, his wife was born in the old Greenwood Le Flore District in the Choctaw country in Mississippi in 1829 and as a mere child came with his parents to the old Indian Territory. He attended school at Shawneetown on the Red River and later at Spencer Academy. After leaving school he aided his father in his farming operations and in 1847 embarked in farming and stockraising for himself. Young Smallwood opened a mercantile store in Kiamichi County in 1862 but in the following year removed to the vicinity of Lehigh where he entered more extensively into the cattle business and enlarged his store. It was quite a uniform practice among the Indian cattle men during those days to operate a trading post where they assembled their herds by conveniently exchanging their merchandise for cattle. Money was a rare medium

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of exchange among the Indians during those early days. B. F. Smallwood was shrewd in business, success rewarded his efforts and in due time he ranked among the wealthiest men in the Choctaw Nation.

The political career of B. F. Smallwood dates back to his early life when as a young man in 1847 he served as a ranger in Kiamichi County. When barely of age, he was chosen as a representative to the Choctaw Council, serving as speaker of the lower house upon four different occasions. In 1881 as speaker of the house he opposed the granting of a right of way to the Frisco Railway. From 1847 to 1890, save the years of his service in the Civil War, he functioned in an official capacity in the political life of the Choctaw Nation and made numerous trips to Washington as a delegate from the tribe. The range of his service vested him with much influence among his people. He entered the race for the chieftainship in the fall of 1886 as the candidate of the National Party but suffered defeat and Thompson McKinney of the Progressive Party was elected. He again was offered by the National Party as its candidate in August, 1888 in a campaign which was memorable for its bitterness. He was pitched against Wilson N. Jones of the Progressive Party. The popularity of Smallwood occasioned by his extended career in the house of representatives of the council, enabled him to defeat the McCurtain-Jones machine although the Progressives secured a majority in both houses of the Choctaw Council. This situation was to occasion him much embarrassment during his tenure as chief. Much feeling was engendered and in anticipation of trouble from the defeated faction, the new chief took the oath of office at the Roebuck Hotel in Tuskahoma rather than at the capitol where the adverse council was in session. The oath of office was administered by Supreme Court Judge Henry C. Harris.

Little was accomplished during his administration due in a measure to the cleavage between the Chief and his council. Initial steps were taken by the Chief in 1890 touching the sale of the so-called Leased District lands in the western part of the old Territory, to the Government. This movement has never terminated but the controversy over the question of the right of the tribes for compensation for these lands is still pending in the Court of Claims and before the Congress. The Choctaw country was growing rapidly. Towns were springing up but because of no express provisions of Choctaw law, all rights of corporate capacity for local self-government were denied these communities. These towns were enabled to make no provision for water, sewer or fire protection because of a denial by Chief Smallwood of such permission due to the absence of specific provisions. The Chief evidently believed in the letter of the law and that no inherent common law principles obtained among the Indians. During his administration an effort was made to vest ownership of

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Smallwood home

the coal mines in the Nation but was defeated by the veto of Chief Smallwood.

The Net Proceeds Claim which had its inception back in 1853 still remained a controversial issue. Numerous profligate engagements had been made through the years with the delegations which had been sent to Washington to induce the Government to liquidate the claim. Many corrupt practices were indulged and as the possibility of a pay-off by the Government seemed to appear, aspiring Choctaw politicians evidenced a manifest interest in the disbursement of the monies. The matter became a paramount issue in the fall of 1888 when Chief Smallwood was elected, because the Government had declared its purpose to pay certain of the monies over to the Nation for its disbursement. Although the Net Proceeds matter was not fully adjusted until 1896, a payment was made to the Nation during the administration of Chief Smallwood and a distribution was undertaken. The Chief called a special session of the Council to authorize a distribution of the monies to be made without an audit by the Net Proceeds Commission. For this rather unseemly action, it appears that the Chief was paid the sum of $5,500 from the monies so received. The collection and disbursement of this old claim constitutes one of the dark pages in Choctaw history and bears heavily upon the integrity and efficiency of the political life of the Choctaw Nation.

The Chief evidenced a marked interest in the extension of educational advantages and upon this question addressed the Council at length upon numerous occasions. He was of the conservative element among the Choctaws and manifestly jealous of the hereditary rights of the Indian to regulate his own tribal affairs without reference of matters to the United States Government. To him, the Choctaw Nation was not a mere gesture. In his message to the Council on October 9, 1889, he offers this thought;—

2"The law authorizing an appeal to the United States authority in cases where the matter of citizenship in the Choctaw Nation has been passed upon by the authorities of this Nation, should receive your attention. As it now stands it appears that any action by this Nation is useless because it determines nothing, but allows the claimant to set aside the findings arrived at and appeal the case to another tribunal. The action of the Choctaw Nation should be declared a finality in the matter. Interference with this right to determine the question of citizenship for our people cannot be safely conceded to any other authority."

Two strenuous years of executive administration had cooled the ardor of Chief Smallwood for another term although he became the rather passive candidate of the National Party for reelection in the fall of 1890. The Progressives again backed the candidacy of Wilson N. Jones who waged a spectacular campaign and was elected. The biennial elections, in the Choctaw Nation were bitterly contested. There were no dividing issues to provoke discussion and so the controversy became largely one of personal vili-

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fication of the opposing candidates. Each campaign became an arena of fierce controversy in which many sordid and illogical things were said and done. Appeals were made to passion and prejudice by the use of buncomb and whispered slander. Politics in the Choctaw Nation were rotten to the core. With the election of Jones the McCurtains resumed their leadership.

Upon his retirement from Office, Chief Smallwood retired to his farm west of Lehigh in what is today Coal County, Oklahoma where he passed away on December 15, 1891 and where he is buried in a family burying ground. His grave is suitably marked. The home where the Hon. Patrick J. Hurley was born is about 500 feet distant from the old home of Chief Smallwood.

Chief Smallwood married Annie Burney in 1849. She was a Chickasaw Indian woman of the house of Ima-te-po of the family of Okla-pa-nubbii and died during the Civil War. The governor later married Abbie James. The chief served as a captain in the 2nd Choctaw regiment in the Confederate army in the Civil War. He enjoyed the favor and acquaintance of Gov. Throckmorton of Texas with whom he engaged in occasional hunting expeditions. Chief Smallwood was slightly above the average in stature and evidenced a strong physical appearance. He was well educated and an evenly balanced character. He joined with the Rev. J. S. Morrow in locating the site of the present cemetery at Tishomingo. Rev. Morrow conducted the funeral rites of Chief Smallwood. The chief assembled his own personal affairs in a most capable manner and had he received the support of his official circle, his program for the enlargement of the educational facilities of the Choctaws would have been realized. His recommendations were repeatedly ignored by the council but under the succeeding administration, the council and the new chief carried out his recommendations in matters affecting education but Chief Smallwood was excluded from the credit which was his due.2a

3Jefferson Gardner became the Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation in October, 1894 succeeding Chief Wilson N. Jones. He was a son of Noel and Hannah Gardner and was born near Wheelock, Choctaw Nation on July 12, 1847.4 His parents were both mixed blood Choctaws and natives of Mississippi. The father of Jefferson Gardner had been a student at Choctaw Academy, Kentucky and was, at one time, an interpreter for the missionaries. Farming and stockraising were his gainful pursuits. The young lad was placed in Norfolk School in old Towson County in the fall

grave marker

Page 217

Chief J. Gardner

of 1855 and in the succeeding year entered Spencer Academy where he remained for two years. He married Lucy James in 1862 who survived but for a brief period. She died at Wheelock. He removed to Eagletown and in 1864, married Lucy Christy, a daughter of Joseph Christy. Upon her death he married Julia, a sister of his second wife who survived him.

5The public career of Jefferson Gardner had its inception in his early life. In 1864 he was appointed county clerk of Eagle County and in the following year became district clerk. He was chosen in 1873 to represent Eagle and Wolf (Norashaba) Counties in the tribal senate. He engaged in farming and stockraising quite extensively upon lands along the Mountain Fork (Nani-hutcha) in the immediate vicinity of Eagletown and in what is today the southeastern part of McCurtain County, Oklahoma. The old farm home of Jefferson Gardner still remains, is in good repair and occupied. It is situated about 200 yards from the famous big cypress tree upon his farm and which is reputed to be the largest tree in the State of Oklahoma. In 1878 he embarked in the mercantile business at Eagletown serving as postmaster6 at the same time which position he occupied for many years. He enlarged his store in 1884 and also at the same time conducted stores at Sulphur Springs (Alikashi) and at Bon-ton on the Red River. He operated a cotton gin at Eagletown in connection with his other business activities. Jefferson Gardner became treasurer of the Choctaw Nation in 1884 and in 1888 was chosen circuit judge of the 2nd judicial district and served until the fall of 1894. He rendered material service in the Federal census of the Choctaw Nation7 which was taken in 1890. His business engagements were very successful and in his political ventures he evidenced the highest integrity.

The span of years accorded to Jefferson Gardner were spent amid environs which are of historic moment. The extreme southeastern segment of the State of Oklahoma is a Land of Memories. Here, early caravans of the immigrating Choctaws came finally to repose but there are few peek-holes left through which we may vision them during those struggling years. Doaksville, Wheelock, Armstrong Academy, Pine Ridge, Spencer Academy8 and others are today but ghost towns and linger only in legends of a most interesting long ago. Eagletown, the home of Jefferson Gardner still survives. Associated with those landmarks are memories of

Page 218

the early missionaries who labored during those pristine years and brought an intimacy of the Christian faith to these people, influencing their secular as well as their spiritual lives. The years have canonized these historic souls in the hearts of the thoughtful Choctaws.

9Jefferson Gardner was elected Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation in August, 1894 as the candidate of the Progressive Party defeating Jacob B. Jackson10 of the National Party. Many of his administrative efforts were postponed through the unfriendly attitude of the General Council, a majority of whom were of the opposing political party. The government of which he assumed charge was a minority government in as much as the Federal census of 1890 had disclosed that the Choctaws constituted only about one-fourth of the population. This situation was not so alarming as was that disclosed among the Chickasaws where only about nine per cent of the population of the Chickasaw Nation were Chickasaws. The immigration of the whites continued rapidly after 1890. The Dawes Commission and the allotment of the tribal domain in severalty absorbed the interest of the Choctaws when Gardner assumed the reins of office but were not issues in the campaign which resulted in his election. The Choctaws with few exceptions were vigorously opposed to allotment and the consequent destruction of their autonomous government. Chief Gardner shared this vision with them. He evidenced a sense of the collection destiny of his people insisting that they be permitted to pursue their established habits of life.

In his first message delivered to the General Council on October 5, 1894, Chief Gardner expressed himself:—

"* * * your attention is invited to the fact under all of our treaties with the United States Government, * * * forever secures and guarantees the lands embraced within the limits as described * * * to the members of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, their heirs and successors, to be held in common. * * * But, as has been expressed by an almost unanimous vote or expression of the people, we do not desire any change in the tenure of our lands or any change in our tribal government. Therefore let me impress upon you that it is your duty that you act in accordance with the wishes and desires of the people whom you represent in which was fully shown in the protest against any change whatever. I suggest that you carefully consider this matter as it is of grave importance to our people. Knowing that at this time a change of any kind would be detrimental to our people, I earnestly ask that if a change must come, let us stand firm and plead for that which our people have elected us to do. Plead for a continuance of our present government on which depends the happiness of our people. Therefore with all candor and courtesy to the Dawes Commission, I am opposed to a change, knowing that our people are not prepared for it and that a consent will never be given, I beg that this embarrassing proposition be withdrawn and that you make haste in business."11

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grave marker

12Sentiments favorable to allotment began to crystalize among the Choctaws in 1895-6 under the active leadership of Green McCurtain'13 supported by Dr. E. N. Wright,14 A. R. Durant and other outstanding leaders. The expressions offered by Mrs. Jackson F. McCurtain before the Dawes Commission at Tuskahoma in June, 1896 fairly epitomize the growing sentiments among the thoughtful Choctaws,

"I am glad the Commission has been appointed and I want to see the land allotted and the United States protect us before it is too late. If we could live in quiet and peace and have our affairs administered as it was originally intended and as we did in the early days, I would prefer that; but there has been a change and allotment and United States citizenship must come and tribal relations cease."15

Chief Gardner withdrew to his home at Eagletown and assumed a passive posture toward the efforts of the Dawes Commission to contact him, by ignoring its correspondence. He not only declined to summon a special session of the council in March, 1896, but stubbornly refused to initiate any action whatever. He failed to meet the members of the Commission at Tuskahoma on July 27th when they sought a personal interview and declined to furnish the Commission with a copy of the tribal rolls. Concretely, he sought to carry out the sentiments expressed by the Choctaw electorate in August, 1894 and refused to acknowledge the change in sentiment. He declined to be persuaded that the Choctaws were prepared for the drastic change.

The tribal election held in August, 1896 was bitterly contested. The forces opposing allotment were divided into three parties each of which presented a candidate for the chieftainship and although the combined vote of these three candidates cast a majority, Green McCurtain who favored allotment was elected and in the ensuing October qualified as Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation. Chief Gardner was among the defeated candidates.

Chief Gardner accepted the result as a vindication of the efforts of the Dawes Commission and immediately summoned the council in special session to meet on September 8th to arrange for the taking of a census of the tribe to supply that body with a citizenship roll and employed counsel to represent the tribe before the Commission.

During his two years as Chief, the financial affairs of Jefferson Gardner had suffered heavy losses. He resumed his residence at Eagletown, but his business ventures had been liquidated and passed into the hands of white men. He accepted a position as a postal clerk under Postmaster Pinckett at Eagletown. In April, 1906 the old chief attended court at Antlers where he contracted pneumonia and hastened toward home. Becoming severely ill, he

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was taken from the train at Idabel where he passed away on April 6th. His remains rest in the old Joe Christy cemetery about three miles southeast of Eagletown where his grave marker bears the inscription, "Jefferson, the Husband of Judy Gardner. Born July 12, 1847. Died April 6, 1906."

Chief Gardner, a man standing about five feet, six inches and bald headed, was a Choctaw of the one-half blood but had the vision of the full blood in tribal affairs. He lingered from an age which was rapidly departing, being the last chief of the old regime. His opposition to allotment may have been somewhat awkward and in defiance of modern progress but it is barely possible that that policy was undertaken somewhat prematurely. At least the full blood Choctaws enjoyed the prerogative of protest. Gardner may have been a political misfit during the years of his tenure as chief in so far as the allotment controversy was involved, but be it said to his credit, he stood adamant in his support of the age-old traditions of his people as he understood them. He indulged no wild-eyed reforms. He was vigorously assailed through the press and from the rostrum by public speakers of the mixed blood, intermarried white and intruder classes because of his policy, but many of his detractors bore resemblance to the pot that maligned the kettle. The honesty and integrity of Jefferson Gardner are salvaged from that hectic period.

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