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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 12, No. 4
December, 1934

By Dan W. Peery

George W. Steele

Page 383

If you were to ask the average citizen the question, "Who was the first governor of Oklahoma?", by intuition the answer would be, "Charles N. Haskell." It is true that Haskell was the first governor of the State of Oklahoma, but for seventeen years prior to its admission into the Union, Oklahoma had had a regularly organized territorial form of government, with the governor appointed by the President of the United States; and for one year (April 22, 1889 until May 2, 1890) there was no government for the early settlers, except as the laws of the United States applied to unorganized territory. The Territorial Government had no constitution, except the Act of Congress creating it, which served as its constitution. This act of Congress was known as the Organic Act, and became a law May 2, 1890. Most all the states that had been admitted into the Union after the original thirteen had been governed by a territorial form of government, and the Organic Act passed by Congress, providing for the territorial government here, was but the outgrowth of similar acts of Congress for the government of other territories, with such amendments and changes made necessary to meet the new condition arising here.

The territorial governments were all largely patterned after the Articles of Confederation adopted after the close of the Revolutionary War. These territorial governments created under acts of Congress all provide for legislative bodies elected by the people, but the governors of the territories were selected and appointed by the President of the United States. The Organic Act, enacted for the government of Oklahoma, provided for a complete organization of the Territory, defined the functions of the

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territorial government, placed limitations upon the acts of the legislative assembly, as well as that of the teritorial officers. An act of Congress could, no doubt, repeal any special law enacted by the legislature, but the laws passed by the territorial legislature did not require the approval of Congress to vitalize them; they had the same force and effect as had the laws passed by a state government. The only limitation on the territorial legislature was the Organic Act. Not only did the Organic Act provide for the appointment of the governor of the territory, but it also provided for the appointment of the members of the Supreme Court, by the President. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma was given a wide jurisdiction. It functioned, not only as a Federal Court, but its jurisdiction extended to a trial of all cases, both civil and criminal, arising under the code enacted by the Territorial Legislature. In other words, it could sit one half of the day as United States Court and the other half as the Territorial Court. Then again, the judges constituting the court would meet regularly and sit as a Supreme Court and hear cases which had been appealed from the lower court.

There were eight territorial legislatures elected in the State of Oklahoma before the State was admitted into the Union, November 16, 1907. In that period there were seven appointed territorial governors. Politically, these seven governors were Republicans, with the exception of one— Governor W. G. Renfrow, a Democrat, was appointed by President Cleveland.

When the Organic Act became a law, Benjamin Harrison, of Indiana was President of the United States, and upon him devolved, not only the authority, but it was made his duty to appoint the territorial officers. For Governor of Oklahoma, he named a citizen from his own state, an old political friend and ally, Major George Washington Steele, of Marion, Indiana. Whatever criticisms may have been made concerning this appointment of a non-resident, it cannot be said that President Harrison did not name a strong character for the first Chief Executive of Oklahoma.

George W. Steele had a military record, not only having served through the Civil War, but at the close of the war he re-enlisted as an officer in the United States Army, and, as such, saw

Page 385

service in the military campaigns against the Indians on our western frontier, until he resigned from the Army in 1876. Not only had Steele a military career, but had held high positions in civil life. The records show that he had been elected and had served four terms in Congress prior to his appointment to the office of Governor of Oklahoma.

George Washington Steele was born in Fayette County, Indiana, December 13, 1839. He was the son of Asbury and Mary Louise Steele. He attended the common schools of Indiana and the Ohio Wesleyan University. He married Marrietta E. Swayzee, of Marion, Indiana, in 1866. He studied law; was admitted to the bar, and practiced law at Hartford City, Indiana, until the beginning of the Civil War.

As to his military record I will quote from the Biographical Directory of the American Congress, also, Historical Register of the United States Army, 1789 to 1903, Vol. 1, p. 919.

"He, George W. Steele, was mustered into the Twelfth Indiana Regiment on May 2, 1861, and served in this Regiment and the 101st Indiana Regiment until the close of the war—the first year in the Army of the Potomac, and the remaining three years in the Army of the Cumberland; was with Sherman in his "March to the Sea," mustered out as Lieutenant Colonel in July 1865; commissioned and served in the 14th Regiment United States Infantry from February 23, 1866 to February 1876."

The Biographical Directory of the American Congress also says: "At the close of his military career, he engaged in agricultural pursuits and pork packing until 1882. He declined the appointment of director of Union Pacific Railroad; first Governor of Oklahoma Territory in 1890 and 1891; elected as a Republican to the 47th, and to the three succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1881 to March 3, 1889); member of the Board of Managers of the National Military Home, from April 21, 1890 to December 10, 1904; elected to the 54th and the three succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1895 to March 3, 1903); Governor of the National Military Home in Marion, Indiana, from December 11, 1904 to May 31, 1915, when he resigned; died in Marion, Grant County, Indiana, July 12, 1922; interment in the Odd Fellows Cemetery."

Page 386

In writing the sketch of the life of George W. Steele, I recognize that we of Oklahoma are far more interested in that part of his public career which had to do with his services as the first governor of the Territory, for this is a part of the history of Oklohoma. It will be remembered at the time when Congress enacted the law which provided for the organization of a territorial form of government, Oklahoma had not to exceed 2,500,000 acres opened to white settlers under the Homestead laws, and the entire population was only 64,000 as was determined by the census of 1890. However, the Organic Act included all of "No Man's Land" to the northwest and made it a part of the Territory. It was named Beaver County at the first election.

The passage of the Act of Congress giving Oklahoma a territorial form of government was a big event and there was much rejoicing among the people.

Of course, there were many candidates, or at least many names suggested to fill the territorial offices who were to be appointed by President Benjamin Harrison. Most every one here in Oklahoma agreed upon one thing, namely: Appointments should be made from bonafide residents of the Territory, and we would protest the appointment of all so-called "carpet baggers."

The republicans were far more interested in "home rule" and against "carpet bag rule" than were the democrats. Since the Republican President had the appointing power, the Democrats knew the Governor and all other officials would come from that party. The Governor was directed, under the provisions of the Organic Act, to divide the territory into seven counties and to fix the county lines; and also, to appoint all county, township and district officers to hold their offices until the adjournment of the first session of the First Legislative Assembly. There were many receptive candidates for the county offices and, of course, wanted some one of their friends appointed Governor. These "home rule" "anti-carpet baggers" were all doomed to disappointment. Perhaps the President thought that we were all new-comers and were not entitled to the protection of that "home rule" plank that was in the platform of both parties.



Page 387

In a few days the appointments of the President were announced and out of the eight or nine persons named to fill the executive and judicial offices only two could make claim to being residents of Oklahoma at the time of their appointments. The first name on the list of the President's appointments was for Governor of Oklahoma, Major George W. Steele of Marion, Indiana. Then followed the names of the appointees to the other positions.

George W. Steele arrived in Guthrie, the town that had been designated as the temporary capital, May 22, 1890. On the following day a great reception was given him and his party which included the three judges and the other territorial officials. It was by far the largest social event that had ever taken place in the territory. The party, including the Governor and the other officials visited Oklahoma City, El Reno and Kingfisher and were given receptions and banquets all over the territory. Governor Steele was getting acquainted with the people, and familiarizing himself with the work that was before him. It was his duty to outline the boundaries of the counties, name the county seats, and also, to appoint the county officers, as provided under those sections of the Nebraska code that had been adopted by the Organic Act, which was to be in force until the adjournment of the First Territorial Legislature. It required but a few days for Governor Steele to outline the, counties and to appoint the county officers. I believe it can be truthfully said that the Governor used good judgment in most cases in making these appointments.

There is one thing that is well to note: the ex-union soldiers were in the political ascendancy all over the North for the first thirty years after the war (however it may also be said that the ex-confederate soldiers had the preference in the South during that same period). Every president from Grant to McKinley had been soldiers with the single exception of Grover Cleveland, and he had hired a substitute. Benjamin Harrison had been a Brigadier General in the Union Army. He appointed George W. Steele, Governor of Oklahoma. Steele had served through the Civil War as an officer in the Union Army and had also seen nearly ten years service in the United States army after the war. It was no surprise that Governor Steele made

Page 388

most of his appointments from the ranks of the ex-union soldiers. The recommendation of the G. A. R. went farther with the Governor than did the indorsement of his party's committee.

Governor Steele deferred the apportionment of the Territory into legislative districts and the calling of the election to elect members of the legislature until he could get a certified copy of the population, as shown by the census taken in June 1890.

The Governor issued his proclamation on July 8, 1890, calling for an election to elect twenty-six members of the House and thirteen of the Council to constitute the first legislature. The date set for this election was August 5, 1890. The legislature was to have convened August 12, but owing to the death of two members-elect a special election was called and the convening of the legislature was postponed until August 27, 1890.

In a few days after this election the writer, having been elected one of the five members of the legislature from Oklahoma County, then county number Two, went to Guthrie, the temporary capital, for the purpose of meeting the Governor and discussing with him the work of the legislature. I found him in his room at the hotel and we had a long talk concerning the condition of the territory. He treated me with courtesy and we talked over many subjects. Although the writer was but a youth, yet the Governor asked many questions pertaining to the affairs as they existed at that time in the Territory. He did not hestitate to discuss individuals and to ask questions concerning men in public life even those of his own political party. I can distinctly remember several things that we discussed nearly forty five years ago. In talking of the work of the legislature that was to meet in a few days, the Governor recognized that the controversial issue that would come before the legislature was the location of the Capital and he was anxious to avoid this, at least until the necessary laws were enacted for the functioning of a territorial government. He knew there would be strife and bitterness engendered and but little consideration would be given to the more important work of the legislature.

I remember that in his room at the hotel he had a big old black satchel, some what the worse for the wear. He remarked

Page 389

that the reason he kept that old satchel was that it was a sort of keepsake to him, as it was connected with his life history. He had that satchel with him when he resigned from the U. S. Army at Salt Lake in 1876.

This interview was the beginning of a personal friendship between the writer and Governor Steele. While I was not a member of his political party, yet on more than one occasion he asked my opinion about certain men in his own party who were asking favors; I can remember that in a few days after the adjournment of the legislature I was in Guthrie when the Governor sent for me to come to his office. He said, "I am starting on a trip east and there are two fellows down there at your town who want to be appointed on a certain board, both have friends in my party, who are urging me to appoint them." He gave me their names and told me who was backing each of them. He then asked me abruptly which one of these men was best fitted for the job. I answered: "Why Governor, I would not appoint either of those men." Of course, he asked why; I told him I knew a man down there better qualified for the job that I would appoint. Before the conversation was over he called the Secretary of the Territory and had him make out a commission to Dr. E. W. Witten, of Oklahoma City as a member of the Territorial Board of Pharmacy. He was a democrat.

In the afternoon of the fourth day of the legislature Governor Steele called the two houses of the legislature together in the House of Representatives hall . . . . 39 members in all . . . . and proceeded to read his message . . . . In this message to the Territorial Legislature he asked for the immediate passage of a law providing for the care and punishment of convicted criminals, and asked provisions be made at once for the care of the insane. He also urged the early establishment of a public school system and recommended that the $50,000.00 appropriation, by Congress, for the public schools should all be used to pay teachers. However, the people should provide their own school houses until necessary laws were passed for the building of school houses, and providing for the maintenance of schools.

Page 390

He opposed prohibition laws and stated that the Nebraska plan of regulation of sale of liquor, then in force in the Territory, would meet his approval.

He quoted Section Fifteen of the Organic Act which provided that the First Legislature shall meet at Guthrie and at this session, or as soon thereafter as the Governor and the Legislature shall deem expedient, they shall proceed to locate the permanent seat of government. He said: "I am quite positive that these are matters that would better be allowed to rest until those of greater importance are provided for." However, the question of the location of the Capital and the other territorial institutions would not down, and consideration of those matters took up most of the first hundred days of the one hundred twenty day session.

Governor Steele, as chief executive, was much identified in all the proceedings of the legislature. He was anxious that it should enact a good code of laws for the welfare of the people who were to be citizens of the future State. In this sketch the writer will not attempt to recite any of the proceedings of that First Legislature, nor the active part that the Governor had in all those proceedings.1

The fact that he had vetoed a bill making Oklahoma City the permanent capital and afterwards he had failed to sign two similar bills locating the capital at Kingfisher had not increased his popularity in those two towns. The writer does not, at this late day, impugn improper motives to the Governor, nor does he think that he had been influenced by sordid considerations in vetoing these capital bills, but he was rather a victim of circumstances.

He had told the legislature that he did not want this capital bill brought up until the necessary laws had been passed, but the members who wanted the capital, or some territorial institutions, made this the issue. They were not in harmony and it

Page 391

required but little excuse or irregularity for the Governor to exercise his veto power. He could not satisfy all and was sure to make enemies whether he signed or vetoed an institutional bill.

While Steele was Governor the Cherokee Commission had been negotiating with several tribes of Indians whose reservations joined the original tract opened April 22, 1889. The Commission had made treaties with the Sac and Fox, also, the Potawatomie and Shawnees. These reservations had been allotted and the surplus lands made available for homestead settlement. There were 868,414 acres left to be taken up after allotment had been made. (This included the land in the small Iowa Reservation). This land was opened by proclamation of the President September 22, 1891; Governor Steele divided this new territory into two counties which were designated counties One and Two, and at the first election named by a vote of the people, Lincoln and Pottawatomie Counties respectively. This was almost the last official act of Governor Steele.

George W. Steele resigned the office of Governor of Oklahoma, and his resignation became effective October 18, 1892. This was unexpected and there was much speculation as to the cause, or causes, which induced him to quit the office and return to Indiana. No doubt, there were several reasons, but I suspect that his family were not altogether pleased with the environment. The family consisted of his wife and one daughter, Miss Mettie, who was a grown young lady, and one son George Jr. who was eleven or twelve years old when they came to Oklahoma a few weeks after the Governor's appointment.2 The son and daughter had lived in Washington most of their lives while their father was a member of Congress. No doubt, the family loved the social atmosphere of Washington better than that of the new territory, and it is quite likely the Governor felt that he could be re-elected to Congress if he would return to Indiana.

The only explanation I have ever read, coming from the Governor himself, as to the reason for his resignation, was

Page 392

printed in an eastern paper after he had returned to the east, as follows:

"On January 20, 1892, ex-Governor Steele was a guest at the Hotel De-quesne. On being interviewed by a reporter for the Pittsburgh Leader, he explained how he became governor of Oklahoma: 'Well sir, one Wednesday evening while at my home in Marion, Indiana, I received a telegram from the President asking me if I would accept the appointment. Without stopping to consider the matter, I wired an affirmative reply. Then I began to think the matter over. I had a desire to go out to the new country, having spent a number of years on the frontier. But the more I thought the matter over the more did I become convinced that I would find it pleasanter to remain at home. The following Saturday I wired the President that I had concluded to decline the proffered governorship. He replied that he has sent my name to the Senate and hoped I would not disappoint him. To this I replied that I would go to Oklahoma and act as governor until such a time as a President could select some one else for the place. Well sir, when I got there I found matters in a pretty bad shape. Civil laws had been laid down for the guidance of the people but there were no officers to enforce these laws. After bringing practical order out of chaos, the great capital seat war, of which every one has read, broke out. This caused fresh and serious trouble. Finally, however, peace and order was restored, and to-day the people out there are civilized and prosperous. The only thing they pine for is excitement . . . . Oklahoma is a good country and to a stranger entering it to-day gives every evidence of having been settled and under control of civil government for a century instead of a few brief years. Yes, I resigned the governorship. I had interests in Indiana demanding my attention. I did not expect to become permanently identified with Oklahoma, so I concluded to step aside and make room for some one who did."3

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