BY J. BERRY KING
William Pressley Thompson was born on a cotton plantation near Tyler, in Smith County, Texas, November 19, 1866, his parents being James Franklin and Caroline E. (McCord) Thompson, the former a native of Georgia and the latter of Mississippi.
His father accompanied the Cherokee Tribe of Indians on their removal from the Southern States of Georgia, and Tennessee to Indian Territory in 1838, and for a time followed the profession of teaching. While still a young man he went to Texas, becoming engaged in merchandising, milling and lumbering in that section of East Texas which has now become famous as an oil field, and in fact his uncle, Benjamin Franklin Thompson, owned thousands of acres of timber and farm land in Texas, some of which is still in the hands of his descendants living in and around Kilgore in Smith and Rusk Counties.
The father of Judge Thompson enlisted at the outbreak of the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and served under Colonel Patrick Cleburn, Grandberry's brigade with General Hood's army and was wounded in the engagement at Franklin, Tennessee in 1864, being sent for treatment to the hospital at Nashville.
After recovering from his wounds he participated in the siege of Richmond, Virginia, and upon receiving his discharge at the end of the war returned to Texas.
In 1869 he returned to Delaware District, Cherokee Nation in the Indian Territory and set out to re-fence, rebuild and rehabilitate the old homestead which had suffered the disasters of border and guerrilla destruction blighting that section of the Territory. Ruins of the old home upon Beattie's Prairie, now Delaware County, built by the grandmother of Judge Thompson, in 1838 still stand, and in the cemetery within the sacred and hallowed soil rest five generations of this illustrious family. The father became an influential and prominent figure in the formative affairs of his people and was a member of the Citizenship Committee of the Cherokee Nation. Engaged in teaching school and farming, he met his death in 1874 while breaking in a team of wild horses which ran away and threw him violently against a tree.
William P. Thompson had no brothers who lived beyond infancy, and but one sister, Ella, who married George Freeman. Her grandchildren, the Garland Baird family are still living on the old original farm situated in the Northeast corner of Oklahoma. Judge
Thompson spent the period of his boyhood upon the home farm in Delaware District attending the public schools of the neighborhood, growing up with and alongside, and in fact just across a rail fence from William Wirt Hastings whose career is entwined with his throughout their lives.
Thompson and young Hastings entered the Cherokee Male Seminary at Tahlequah and graduated therefrom in 1884, each being seventeen years of age, having been pupils while there under Honorable Robert L. Owen, afterwards to become the first United States Senator from the new formed State and still living at this writing in Washington, D.C.
The Male Seminary graduating class of 1884 comprised only three graduates: Hastings, Thompson and Judge J. T. Parks, living at this time in Tahlequah, the old capital of the Cherokee Nation.
For one year after their graduation from the Male Seminary they each engaged in teaching school and together entered Vanderbilt University at Nashville, Tennessee, to take a literary and law course where they were room-mates and belonged to the same literary and debating societies, and together joined the Delta Tau Delta college fraternity. In his later years Thompson revealed that he was influenced to go to Vanderbilt for his higher education because his father had told him many times of the good samaritans and wonderful Southern women who had nursed and administered so lovingly to him while he was convalescing in the hospital, a casualty of the Confederacy.
By reason of the Cherokee Indian blood they possessed, Thompson and Hastings received considerable attention upon their admission to Vanderbilt. Indians from the Western country at that early day were somewhat of a curiosity, and particularly with a basic education which they both possessed, superior to that of a good many fellow students from other sections. Upon one occasion they were invited to address the assembly of the old Ward Seminary, which later became Ward Belmont, a girls' school near Vanderbilt. They arranged a program by which Hastings was to deliver an oration in the Cherokee language, and Thompson was to interpret it. As a matter of fact, their vocabulary of the Indian language was limited to only a few words, but the young ladies wanted to hear these Indians, and so they did not reveal how little they really knew of their own language. This resulted in Hastings running through the Indian alphabet, using numerals and what few words he knew without any sequence or definite meanings—only for the sound effect. Thompson, therefore, was forced to formulate a speech in his interpretation that had a definite meaning. Realizing the predicament Hastings had his companion in, he stood on his feet several minutes just repeating words and figures over and over which, of course, meant nothing to the audience. Thompson, however, delivered
an extemporaneous oration that was long remembered and the subject of many compliments by the faculty and young ladies in attendance.
From Vanderbilt University both Thompson and Hastings received Law Degrees and in 1889, after having completed the four year course, Thompson opened his first law office at Muskogee, then Indian Territory. He remained there for two years and in 1891 removed to Tahlequah to become a member of the firm of Boudinot, Thompson and Hastings, with which he was identified until 1899.
In the meantime he became active in the affairs of the Cherokee Nation serving as Clerk of the Lower House of their legislative body in 1889 and 1890, and for a short time served as Clerk of the Senate. Later he served as Secretary of the Treasury and for two years was Executive Secretary of the principal Chief, C. J. Harris.
He was then appointed United States Commissioner at Tahlequah and the letter from Judge C.B. Stuart transmitting his appointment recites
"..that you are the first citizen to receive recognition from the government at Washington in this capacity."
Preceding his appointment as United States Commissioner he was also attorney for the Cherokee Nation at its then capital—Tahlequah.
In 1896 a partnership between Thompson and E. D. Hicks, his first client, was formed for the purpose of establishing a telephone exchange in the town of Tahlequah, which has laughingly been referred to by "Uncle Ed" Hicks, still alive, as one in which Thompson furnished the money and Hicks the knowledge, and together they built the first telephone system in the old Indian Territory, and the same is in operation today as a part of the great Bell System.
In 1898 he was sent as representative of the Cherokees to Washington appearing before Congress in connection with legislation affecting that Nation and he was made Secretary of the First Commission of Cherokees to treat with the Dawes Commission, rendering most important and effective service in winding up the affairs and bridging the gap between Tribal relations of the Cherokees and their new status as citizens of the State of Oklahoma. He lived to be the last of the nine members of this Commission which included: Clem Rogers (father of the late humorist, Will Rogers), W. W. Hastings, George Benge, John Gunter, Henry Lowery, Soggy Sanders, Robert B. Ross and Percy Wyly, all of whom left indelible intellectual and statesmanship imprints on the pages of this State's history.
Thompson served as Mayor of Tahlequah and held numerous offices in his party and political organizations.
He was married September 14, 1892, to Elizabeth Clyde Morris, a charming daughter of the Cherokee Nation, born at Dalton, Georgia. Her father, Major James C. Morris, was an officer in the Confederate Army, serving under General Stonewall Jackson. Major Morris in his early life had devoted attention to agricultural pursuits, but after the close of the war between the states he engaged in mining and merchandising at Birmingham, Alabama and Dalton, Georgia, thus occupied until 1889 when he migrated to Indian Territory, establishing his home at Tahlequah where his demise occurred in 1896. Survived by a wife and a large family of attractive children, the Morris home was long the center of social, court and official circles until recent years when death dispersed this fine family.
William P. Thompson and his wife were parents of three children, the first a son, Morris, died in infancy. One daughter, Sadye Pendleton, has been married for years and lives with her husband, J. Berry King, in Oklahoma City at this time, while the younger daughter, Elizabeth Clyde, married the son of one of Tahlequah's and the Cherokee Nation's foremost citizens of that time and is the wife of John W. Stapler, manager of the Telephone Company at Duncan, Oklahoma.
Both girls received elementary education in the common schools of Oklahoma, and junior college at the National Park Seminary in Washington, D. C. Elizabeth Clyde later graduated from the University of Oklahoma, with the Bachelor of Arts degree.
Judge Thompson liked and was liked by people. He loved the arts and possessed an accumulation of much poetry and prose which he had carefully assembled throughout his lifetime, together with his literary library which he passed on to his only grandchild, William Thompson Stapler, named for him.
When the youngster was born his parents were living in Houston, Texas. So thrilled was the Judge when he received notice that his first grandchild had been born, a boy, he sat right down and sent a telegram to the hospital in Houston which read as follows:
"Send the bill for Bill to Bill.
Thompson was a devoted family man and frequently took the children with him on business and social trips. These trips included the National Democratic Convention at Chicago in 1896, as well as the National Convention at San Francisco in 1920 where he went as a Delegate, and taking the girls with him. Judge and Mrs. Thompson made a European tour in the summer of 1911 and he was especially interested in visiting Killiecrankie Pass, the home of his illustrious Scotch ancestors.
John Lynch, founder of Lynchburg, Virginia, was a grandfather on the maternal side of Judge Thompson's grandmother, Mariah Lynch Thompson.
Judge Thompson moved from Tahlequah to Vinita, another court town in the Indian Territory in 1899, leaving Hastings in control of most of the preferred practice at Tahlequah, while he formed a partnership with the late James S. Davenport and became established in a successful and lucrative practice at Vinita which lasted until his appointment on the Supreme Court Commission in April of 1923.
Thompson was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at Tahlequah in 1892. His fraternal life consisted of membership in the Benevolent Order of Elks; Knights of Pythias; both branches of Masonry up to and including that of 32nd degree, and a Knight Templar. He was a member of the Vinita and Muskogee country clubs, and for years the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club, golf being in his later life his principal and most engrossing diversion and recreation, although in his younger days he had followed hunting and fishing and always had a pen of bird dogs and a stable of fine horses.
After serving his State for three years from 1923 to 1926 on the Supreme Court Commission when its docket was at its fullest mark, he retired to the private practice of law, becoming associated with C. Ed Hall as a partner and was for twelve years in the Perrine Building, Oklahoma City. In April 1938 after Mr. Hall had been appointed General Counsel for the Home Owners Loan Corporation, Judge Thompson removed his office to the First National Building alongside of and in connection with his son-in-law, J. Berry King.
The high spot of his law practice was reached in June 1939, when in commemoration of fifty years in the continuous active practice of law, his son-in-law gave a banquet for him in the Oklahoma Club to which it was originally planned to invite only fifty of Judge Thompson's most intimate friends, members of the bench and bar of Oklahoma. But the Judge was permitted to make out his own list and with apologies to his son-in-law, who was to be the host, he increased his fifty friends by a name or two at a time until the final table was set for 115 lawyers who thus paid homage to their friend of so many years.
Stricken some eighteen months before his death, he was admonished by his physician to ease up and conserve his energy and strength. This was difficult for him to do. He rebelled against even staying in bed a single day. He insisted upon going to his office daily and had a routine as regular as the sun in its course across the skies. It was therefore at his desk in his own office on October 28, 1940 when the final summons was served upon him to come before the bar of the all highest tribunal where virtues and abilities such as he possessed would be given final review and reward in accord with the merit thereof.
He never lost an atom of his boyhood love and loyalty for the Cherokee Nation, its people, its traditions and the section of this State upon which its history has been impressed. He preferred to be known—not as Judge William Pressley Thompson of Oklahoma City, the capital of Oklahoma, but as—"Bill Thompson of Vinita, Indian Territory."
For the past fifteen or twenty years his first interest outside of his family and profession was likewise his first hobby, the Oklahoma Historical Society, of which he was not only an active supporter, but a member of the Board of Directors at the time of his demise.
Funeral services attended by a host of grief stricken friends were held at Oklahoma City in the forenoon of October 30, 1940, after which the entourage proceeded to Tahlequah. There on a high knoll in the center of the Cherokee country from which point can be seen the ruins of the Cherokee Male Seminary where he had attended school; the farm he selected as his allotment of Cherokee Tribal land and still in his name; the capital of his Nation where he had held office and later practiced law after Statehood took it over as a County courthouse; the location where he had maintained his office; the homestead where he found his life's mate, and in the sight of the last resting place of friends like Hastings and many of his relatives, he, a tired old man was laid down to quiet and peaceful rest.
Mrs. Thompson had preceded him in death in 1917 but had been interred at Vinita where the family then lived. By the plans of Judge Thompson her remains were removed from Vinita and interred upon the same day and at the same service with his body in its last repose in the lot he had owned since the formation of the Tahlequah cemetery. Certainly no more fitting spot or sacred ceremony could have been found or planned for the permanent abode of this loving and lovable couple.
Throughout the three score and more of his years we never found him untrue to a friend or unequal to an occasion. He could be as tender as a tear at times, and if necessity required, as resolute as steel. He was:
"An oak and stone in time of storm;
Among the many poets he had a few favorites, possibly Burns and Tennyson were first, and so we extract from his favorite scrapbook one of Tennyson's best expressed poems:
"Sunset and Evening Star,
"Twilight and evening bell,
And for farewell we would borrow the same quotation that he himself used at the funeral oration of his friend "Bill" Hastings which may well be said again of him here:
"Few hearts so full of virtue warmed,