By Grant Foreman
J. George Wright was born January 8, 1860, at Naperville, Du Page County, Illinois. His father James Gregson Wright was born in Liverpool, England, and his mother, Almiral Van Osdel, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Mr. Wright was educated in Naperville, Illinois, and in Ottawa, Canada. He entered the Indian service in July, 1883 at Rosebud Indian Agency in Sioux country. Here he served as farmer under his father who was agent at this agency until his retirement in 1886. Later Mr. Wright was chief clerk at the agency.
So efficiently did he discharge his duties that, in 1889 when but twenty-nine years of age, he was, without his solicitation, on the recommendation of Gen. George Crook, Major William Warner and Hon. Charles Foster, the Commission to treat with the Sioux Indians, appointed by President Harrison as agent in charge of that Agency, one of the most important in the whole Indian service and at that time constituting some 7,600 Sioux Indians.
At the expiration of four years as agent he was re-appointed by President Cleveland, bearing the distinction of having been appointed by presidents of both political parties. He was in charge of the Rosebud Agency until 1896.
Mr. Wright's agency was involved in the serious Sioux disturbance of 1890—a demonstration frequently referred to as the Ghost Dance Uprising. A so-called Messiah appeared among the Sioux and other western Indians claiming to bear a message from the Great Spirit promising that if they would follow his leadership and his instructions, the downtrodden Indians would be restored to the vast property rights the white people had taken away from them. A messenger from the other world would bring to life all the dead Indians, who would take their place on the old hunting grounds and drive the white people out of the country. The messenger would appear with vast numbers of the departed buffalo and beautiful horses, so that the Indians would again enjoy the gifts of the great Spirit. The only condition attached to the realization of this promise was that the Indians would have faith in it, which was to be demonstrated by their indulgence in ceremonial dances. The Indians responded by joining in these dances on the various reservations, where they danced interminably to the point of exhaustion. This was carried on to such an extent that the Indians abandoned the pursuits the government was trying to encourage them to follow, neglected their herds, and at times assumed a hostile attitude toward the white people. This situation became a matter of deep concern to the administration, and Mr. Wright, in his
capacity of Indian Agent of Rosebud Agency, exercised his strong influence with the Indians to pursuade them to abandon their excesses as expressed in what were known as ghost dances—dancing to invoke the ghosts of their dead relatives to return to life and former pursuits. The United States Army was called upon to join in these measures; but Mr. Wright's efforts were equally effective in preventing hostilities. It is a fact not often recalled that the influence of the Messiah was felt among the Kiowa, Wichita and other Indians in Western Oklahoma.
At Rosebud Wright's work was of a high character and established him in the confidence of the Indian Office in Washington so securely that after eleven years he was promoted from the agency to the position of Indian Inspector in 1896, with authority that extended over numerous Indian Reservations and agencies. His successor at Rosebud reported, in August, 1896: "I am pleased to state that, owing to the able administration and systematic business habits of my predecessor [J. George Wright], my duties have been less difficult than usual at an agency of this size, and I have been able to take up and continue the work of Agent Wright without any complications, and I hope with a fair measure of success."
In his capacity of United States Indian Inspector, Mr. Wright visited and inspected various Indian Agencies and also made extensive special investigations, notably in the timber districts of Minnesota.
The Act of Congress popularly known as the Curtis Act, of June 28, 1898, authorized the secretary of the interior to locate one Indian inspector in the Indian Territory, to perform any duties required by law of the secretary, relating to Indian affairs. Mr. Wright had discharged his previous responsibilities with such signal success that the secretary of the interior, C. N. Bliss chose him as the inspector congress authorized for the Indian Territory; he began his duties directly after his appointment, and made his first annual report on August 19, 1899.
As Indian Inspector, Mr. Wright dealt witih many difficult problems that arose in connection with the protection of the Indians in their treaty rights, and where they conflicted with the claims and pretensions of the white people, who were moving into the country. He alas vested with much authority in connection with troublesome problems of surveying townsites and investing the white settlers of the towns with title to their lots, in conformity with the terms of the Curtis Act. Mr. Wright was thus confronted with many important and difficult questions and situations; and while he was at times compelled to antagonize the interests of the white intruders, he invariably earned their respect for his justness and firmness, and he established a reputation as a wise administrator of Indian affairs.
As Indian inspector Mr. Wright represented, and attended to the many important duties required of the secretary of the interior pertaining to the Indian Territory, and as such had general supervision of the Union Agency and affairs in the Indian Territory under the jurisdiction of the interior department, acting under direct instructions of the secretary.
In 1907 Congress consolidated the offices of Indian Inspector with that of Commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes, lately held by Tams Bixby, and in the latter capacity Mr. Wright assumed office on July 1, 1907. From that time on Mr. Wright's office was known as Commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes and in that capacity he made his reports to the secretary of the interior.
As Commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes Mr. Wright had supervision over many intricate and difficult problems touching Oklahoma history, vast property rights, and land titles in Eastern Oklahoma; supervision of Indian conveyances, oil leases, the custody and administration of many millions of dollars of restricted oil funds, and other complicated subjects assumed by the administration of Indian affairs in Oklahoma.
On August 1, 1914 Congress abolished the office of Commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes and substituted for it the office of Superintendent for the Five Civilized Tribes which was first assumed by Mr. Gabe E. Parker. At the same time Mr. Wright was transferred to the office of Agent for the Osage Indians where he assumed his duties in 1915.
His services at the new post were particularly fortunate in that the Osage Indians were just beginning to enjoy an enormous income from their oil production. Millions of dollars accruing from the oil derived from their restricted lands placed a heavy responsibility on their guardian, the government, requiring an honest and capable man to supervise the business, and Wright, knowing how unscrupulous white men had preyed upon the Indians unlearned in business affairs, assumed the roll of tribal guardian. He dealt with nearly half a billion dollars belonging to the Osages. It was his pride that he handled huge Osage sums and the business they entailed, touching the life of every member of the tribe, without a single loss to the Indians.
In order to secure the greatest possible sums for the oil leases, to bring them out into the open and thus avoid all suspicion of favoritism he advertised these oil leases for sale and from the beginning leases on the lands held in common by the tribes were sold at public auction. These auction sales realized for the Indians 110 million dollars, and deferred payments on the five-year plan brought in an additional twenty million dollars. Every cent of these considerations was collected to the last dollar, without a single lawsuit. So well did Mr. Wright discharge his trust to the Indians that the
Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, described him as "a man of sterling character, integrity and honesty," and a man who "has steadfastly and earnestly protected the interests of the Indians."
Mr. Wright's reports as Sioux Indian Agent, and his subsequent reports in Indian Territory, are models of brevity and adequate information. As Sioux agent he reported annually to the secretary of the interior until his last report in 1907.
Mr. Wright was considered one of the ablest, most level-headed and conservative men in the Indian service, and his standing in Muskogee where he lived, and in the departments in Washington was of the highest order.
Mr. Wright retired in 1931, at the age of seventy-one years, after receiving a year's extension beyond retirement age. His retirement was the occasion for a singular outpouring of affection for him by both Indians and whites. The Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce banquet room rang with his praises; but the most touching farewell was that of the Osages themselves. When the Principal Chief Fred Lookout spoke, he said: "Mr. Wright has been fair and honest with us. He has taught us to preserve our money, that we shall not want. We do not know what will become of us when he goes. We do not want him to leave. He is our friend." Then Chief Lookout presented him with a fine automobile, the gift of the tribe. But this present was tawdry in the eyes of Chief Bacon Rind. To him nothing was good enough for Mr. Wright but the gift traditionally the greatest an Indian can give; so Chief Bacon Rind presented him with a spotted pony. "Mr. Wright has been good to us," he said "I will remember and love Mr. Wright as long as I live."
Mr. Wright died in Washington November 21, 1941, at the age of eighty-two. When news of his death reached Oklahoma, the grief of the Osage Indians was touching indeed; but there were many grieving white people in Oklahoma who knew Mr. Wright during his important service at Muskogee as Indian Inspector and Indian Superintendent. They remembered him with deep affection and appreciation for his great service both to the Indians and to the white people engaged in adjusting themselves to their anomalous position in the Indian country.
On January 3, 1925, at Washington National Episcopal Cathedral at Washington, D. C., Mr. Wright was married to Miss Irene Basford who survives her distinguished husband and now resides at their old home in Washington.