Official portrait, 1931
|31st Vice President of the United States|
March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933
|Preceded by||Charles G. Dawes|
|Succeeded by||John Nance Garner|
|Senate Majority Leader|
November 28, 1924 – March 4, 1929
|Deputy||Wesley Livsey Jones|
|Preceded by||Henry Cabot Lodge|
|Succeeded by||James Eli Watson|
|Senate Majority Whip|
March 4, 1919 – November 28, 1924
|Leader||Henry Cabot Lodge|
|Preceded by||J. Hamilton Lewis|
|Succeeded by||Wesley Livsey Jones|
|Leader of the Senate Republican Conference|
November 28, 1924 – March 4, 1929
|Deputy||Wesley Livsey Jones (Senate Majority Whip)|
|Preceded by||Office established|
|Succeeded by||James Eli Watson (Majority Leader)|
|Senate Minority Whip|
December 13, 1915 – March 4, 1919
|Preceded by||James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr.|
|Succeeded by||Peter G. Gerry|
|President pro tempore of the United States Senate|
December 4, 1911 – December 12, 1911
|Preceded by||Augustus Octavius Bacon|
|Succeeded by||Augustus Octavius Bacon|
|United States Senator|
March 4, 1915 – March 4, 1929
|Preceded by||Joseph L. Bristow|
|Succeeded by||Henry Justin Allen|
January 29, 1907 – March 4, 1913
|Preceded by||Alfred W. Benson|
|Succeeded by||William Howard Thompson|
|Member of the|
U.S. House of Representatives
March 4, 1893 – January 28, 1907
|Preceded by||Case Broderick (1st district)|
John G. Otis (4th district)
|Succeeded by||Daniel Read Anthony Jr. (1st district)|
James Monroe Miller (4th district)
|Constituency||4th district (1893–1899)|
1st district (1899–1907)
|Born||January 25, 1860|
North Topeka, Kansas Territory, U.S.
|Died||February 8, 1936 (aged 76)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Resting place||Topeka Cemetery|
(m. 1886; died 1924)
Charles Curtis (January 25, 1860 – February 8, 1936) was an American attorney and Republican politician from Kansas who served as the 31st vice president of the United States from 1929 to 1933, becoming the first person of Native American ancestry to hold the office of vice president. He also previously served as the Senate Majority Leader from 1924 to 1929.
A member of the Kaw Nation born in the Kansas Territory, Curtis was the first person with any Native American ancestry and with acknowledged non-European ancestry to reach either of the highest offices in the federal executive branch. He is the highest-ranking enrolled Native American ever to serve in the federal government. He is the most recent Executive Branch officer to have been born in a territory rather than a state.
Based on his personal experience, Curtis believed that Indians could benefit by getting a mainstream education, assimilating, and joining the main society. Curtis entered political life when he was 32 years old and won multiple terms from his district in Topeka, Kansas, beginning in 1892 as a Republican to the United States House of Representatives. While serving as a Representative, Curtis sponsored and helped pass the Curtis Act of 1898; it extended the Dawes Act to the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory. As such, it ended their self-government and provided for allotment of communal land to individual households of tribal members, after they were registered on official rolls. It limited their tribal courts and government. Any lands not allotted were to be considered surplus by the federal government, which sold plots to non-Natives. Implementation of this act completed the extinguishing of tribal land titles in Indian Territory, which prepared the larger territory to be admitted as the state of Oklahoma, which was done in 1907. The government tried to encourage Indians to accept individual citizenship and lands and to take up European-American culture. By the end of the century, it had set up boarding schools for Indian children as another method of assimilation.
Curtis was elected to the US Senate first by the Kansas Legislature in 1906 and then by popular vote in 1914, 1920, and 1926. Curtis served one six-year term from 1907 to 1913 and then most of three terms from 1915 to 1929 (after his election as vice president). His long popularity and connections in Kansas and national politics helped make Curtis a strong leader in the Senate; he marshaled support to be elected as Republican Whip from 1915 to 1924 and then as Senate Majority Leader from 1924 to 1929. In these positions, he was instrumental in managing legislation and accomplishing Republican national goals.
Curtis ran for vice president with Herbert Hoover as president in 1928. They won a landslide victory. When they ran together again in 1932, during the Great Depression, the public elected Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner in a subsequent landslide.
Early life and education
Born on January 25, 1860, in North Topeka, Kansas Territory, a year before Kansas was admitted as a state, Charles Curtis had roughly 3⁄8 Native American ancestry and 5⁄8 European American. His mother, Ellen Papin (also spelled Pappan), was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French. His father, Orren Curtis, was of English, Scots, and Welsh ancestry. On his mother's side, Curtis was a descendant of chief White Plume of the Kaw Nation and chief Pawhuska of the Osage.
Curtis's first words as an infant were in French and Kansa, both languages learned from his mother. She died in 1863, when he was 3 years old, but he lived for some time thereafter with his maternal grandparents on the Kaw reservation and returned to them in later years. He learned to love racing horses; later, he was a highly successful jockey in prairie horse races.
After Curtis's mother died in 1863, his father remarried but soon divorced. During his Civil War service, Orren Curtis was captured and imprisoned. During this period, the toddler Charles was cared for by his maternal grandparents. They also later helped him gain possession of his mother's land in North Topeka, which, under the Kaw matrilineal system, he inherited from her. His father tried unsuccessfully to get control of this land. Orren Curtis married a third time and had a daughter, Theresa Permelia "Dolly" Curtis, born in 1866 after the end of the war.
On June 1, 1868, 100 Cheyenne warriors invaded the Kaw Reservation. The Kaw men painted their faces, donned regalia, and rode out on horseback to confront the Cheyenne. The rival Indian warriors put on a display of superb horsemanship, accompanied with war cries and volleys of bullets and arrows. Terrified white settlers took refuge in nearby Council Grove. After about four hours, the Cheyenne retired with a few stolen horses and a peace offering of coffee and sugar from the Council Grove merchants. No one had been injured on either side. During the battle, Joe Jim, a Kaw interpreter, galloped 60 miles (97 km) to Topeka to seek assistance from the governor. Riding with Jim was the eight-year-old Charles Curtis, then nicknamed "Indian Charley".
Curtis re-enrolled in the Kaw Nation, which had been removed from Kansas to Indian Territory when he was in his teens. Curtis was strongly influenced by both sets of grandparents. After living on the reservation with his maternal grandparents, M. Papin and Julie Gonville, he returned to the city of Topeka. There he lived with his paternal grandparents while attending Topeka High School. Both grandmothers encouraged his education.
Curtis read law in an established firm where he worked part-time. He was admitted to the bar in 1881 and began his practice in Topeka. He served as prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas, from 1885 to 1889.
Marriage and family
On November 27, 1884, Curtis married Annie Elizabeth Baird (1860–1924). They had three children: Permelia Jeannette Curtis (1886–1955), Henry "Harry" King Curtis (1890–1946), and Leona Virginia Curtis (1892–1965). He and his wife also provided a home in Topeka for his paternal sister Dolly Curtis before her marriage. His wife died in 1924.
A widower when elected vice president in 1928, Curtis had his long-since-married sister, Dolly Curtis Gann (March 1866 – January 30, 1953), act as his official hostess for social events. She had lived with her husband, Edward Everett Gann, in Washington, DC since about 1903. He was a lawyer and once an assistant attorney general in the government. Attuned to social protocol, Dolly Gann insisted in 1929 on being treated officially as the number-two woman in government at social functions. The diplomatic corps voted to change a State Department protocol to acknowledge this while her brother was in office.
To date, Curtis is the last vice president who was unmarried during his entire time in office. Alben W. Barkley, who served as vice president from 1949 to 1953, entered office as a widower but remarried while in office.
House of Representatives (1893–1907)
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First elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives of the 53rd Congress, Curtis was re-elected for the following six terms. Naturally gregarious, he also made the effort to learn about his many constituents and treated them as personal friends.
In 1902, the Kaw Allotment Act disbanded the Kaw Nation as a legal entity and provided for the allotment of its communal land to members, in a process similar to that experienced by other tribes. The act transferred 160 acres (0.6 km²) of former tribal land to the federal government. Other land formerly held in common was allocated to individual tribal members. Under the terms of the act, as enrolled tribal members, Curtis (and his three children) were allotted about 1,625 acres (6.6 km2) of Kaw land near Washunga in Oklahoma.
Curtis served several consecutive terms in the House, from March 4, 1893, until January 28, 1907.
Senate (1907–1913; 1915–1929)
Curtis resigned from the House after having been elected by the Kansas Legislature to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the resignation of Joseph R. Burton. Curtis served the remainder of his current term, ending on March 4, 1907. (Popular election of US senators had not yet been mandated by constitutional amendment.) At the same time, the legislature elected Curtis to the next full Senate term commencing March 4; he served until March 4, 1913. In 1912, Democrats won control of the Kansas legislature, so Curtis was not re-elected.
The 17th Amendment, providing for direct popular election of Senators, was adopted in 1913. In 1914, Curtis was elected to Kansas's other Senate seat by popular vote and was re-elected in 1920 and 1926. In total, he served from March 4, 1915, to March 4, 1929, when he resigned to become Vice President.
During his tenure in the Senate, Curtis was President pro tempore, Chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Interior, of the Committee on Indian Depredations, and of the Committee on Coast Defenses; and Chairman of the Republican Senate Conference. He also was elected for a decade as Senate Minority Whip and for four years as Senate Majority Leader after Republicans won control of the chamber. He had experience in all the senior leadership positions in the Senate and was highly respected for his ability to work with members on "both sides of the aisle."
In 1923, Senator Curtis, together with fellow Kansan Representative Daniel Read Anthony, Jr., proposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution to each of their Houses. The amendment did not go forward.
Curtis's leadership abilities were demonstrated by his election as Republican Whip from 1915 to 1924 and Majority Leader from 1925 to 1929. He was effective in collaboration and moving legislation forward in the Senate. Idaho Senator William Borah acclaimed Curtis as "a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America." Times magazine featured him on the cover in December 1926 and reported, "it is in the party caucuses, in the committee rooms, in the cloakrooms that he patches up troubles, puts through legislation" as one of the two leading senators, with Reed Smoot.
Curtis was remembered for not making many speeches. He was noted for keeping the "best card index of the state ever made." Curtis used a black notebook, and later a card index, to record all the people he met while in office or campaigning, and continually referred to it, resulting in his being known for "his remarkable memory for faces and names":
Never a pension letter, or any other letter for that matter, came in that wasn't answered promptly... And another name went into the all-embracing card index. The doctors were listed. The farm leaders. The school teachers. The lists were kept up to date. How such an intricate index could be kept up to date and function so smoothly was a marvel to his associates. It was one of Curtis's prides.
Curtis was celebrated as a "stand patter," the most regular of Republicans, and yet a man who could always bargain with his party's progressives and with senators from across the center aisle.
Vice presidency (1929–1933)
Curtis received 64 votes on the presidential ballot at the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, out of 1,084 total. The winning candidate, Herbert Hoover, secured 837 votes, having been the favorite for the nomination since August 1927 (when President Calvin Coolidge took himself out of contention). Curtis was a leader of the anti-Hoover movement, forming an alliance with two of his Senate colleagues, Guy Goff and James E. Watson, as well as Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois. Less than a week before the convention, he described Hoover as a man "for whom the party will be on the defensive from the day he is named until the close of the polls on election day," but Curtis had no qualms about accepting the vice-presidential nomination.
Although Hoover gave few speeches during the 1928 presidential campaign, Curtis traveled coast-to-coast, speaking almost every day. While covering the convention, H. L. Mencken described Curtis as "the Kansas comic character, who is half Indian and half windmill. Charlie ran against Hoover with great energy, and let fly some very embarrassing truths about him. But when the Hoover managers threw Charlie the Vice-Presidency as a solatium, he shut up instantly, and a few days later he was hymning his late bugaboo as the greatest statesman since Pericles."
The Hoover–Curtis ticket won the 1928 presidential election in a landslide, receiving 444 out of the 531 Electoral College votes, and 58.2% of the popular vote. Curtis resigned from the Senate the day before he was sworn in as vice-president. After he took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber, the presidential party proceeded to the East Portico of the United States Capitol for Hoover's inauguration. Curtis arranged for a Native American jazz band to perform at the inauguration.
Curtis's election as vice president made history because he was the only native Kansan and only Native American to hold the post, as well as the first person of color. The first person enrolled in a Native American tribe to be elected to such high office, Curtis decorated his office with Native American artifacts and posed for pictures by wearing Indian headdresses. He was 69 when he took office, making him the oldest incoming vice-president at the time. He is now the second-oldest, behind Alben W. Barkley at 71.
Curtis was the first vice president to take the oath of office on a Bible in the same manner as the President. Curtis named Lola M. Williams as private secretary to the vice president, and Williams was one of the first women to enter the Senate floor, traditionally a male monopoly.
Soon after the Great Depression began, Curtis endorsed the five-day work week with no reduction in wages as a work-sharing solution to unemployment. In October 1930, in the middle of the campaign for 1930 mid-term elections, Curtis made an offhand remark that "good times are just around the corner," a statement that was later erroneously attributed to Hoover and became a "lethal political boomerang."
At the 1932 Republican National Convention, Hoover was renominated almost unanimously. Despite having no major opposition himself, Dawes ruled himself out. Curtis failed to secure a majority of votes on the first ballot for the vice-presidential nomination. He received 559.25 out of 1,154 votes (or 48.5%), with Generals Hanford MacNider (15.8%) and James Harbord (14.0%) being his nearest contenders. On the second ballot, the Pennsylvania delegation shifted its votes to Curtis from Edward Martin, giving him 634.25 votes (54.9%) and securing him the nomination for the second time.
Curtis casted three tie-breaking votes in the Senate.
Following the stock market crash in 1929, the problems of the Great Depression deepened during the Hoover administration and resulted in the defeat of the Republican ticket in 1932. The Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 as president, with a popular vote of 57% to 40%. Curtis's term as vice-president ended on March 4, 1933. Curtis's final duty as vice president was to administer the oath of office to his successor, John Nance Garner. Garner's swearing-in ceremony was the last to take place in the Senate Chamber.
Curtis decided to stay in Washington, D.C., to resume his legal career, as he had a wide network of professional contacts from his long career in Congress and the executive branch. He died there from a heart attack on February 8, 1936, at the age of 76. By his wishes, his body was returned to Kansas and buried next to his wife at the Topeka Cemetery.
Legacy and honors
- He was featured on the cover of Time magazine on December 20, 1926 and June 18, 1928, while serving as US Senator from Kansas. Full-length articles discussed his life and politics.
- He was featured as Vice President on the cover of Time on December 5, 1932.
- His house in Topeka, Kansas has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a state historic site. The Charles Curtis House Museum is now operated as a house museum.
- He was the last Native American elected to the U.S. Senate until Ben Nighthorse Campbell (a Northern Cheyenne) was elected from Colorado in 1992.
- He was the only non-White person elected to the U.S. vice presidency until Kamala Harris in 2020.
- Curtis Act of 1898
- List of Chairpersons of the College Republicans
- List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s – December 20, 1926, and June 18, 1928
- List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1930s – December 5, 1932
- List of Native Americans in the United States Congress
- "From a Kansas Log Cabin to Leadership in the Senate". The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri). June 16, 1928. p. 6.
- McKie, Scott (February 4, 2014). "Charles Curtis: America's Indian Vice President". Cherokee One Feather. Archived from the original on June 30, 2016. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
- "January 29 – This Date in History: Kaw Member Charles Curtis Becomes US Senator". Native News Online (29 January 2014). Archived from the original on August 10, 2016. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
- Christensen, Lee R. The Curtis Peet Ancestry of Charles Curtis Vice-President of the United States 4 March 1929-3 March 1933. Archived from the original on November 7, 2020. Retrieved December 26, 2019.
- "Genealogy of Vice President Charles Curtis – Mother's side: Pappans (of Charles Curtis)". VPCharlesCurtis.net. Archived from the original on July 23, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2010.
- "Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President (1929–1933)". U.S. Senate: Art & History. US Senate.gov. Archived from the original on January 18, 2012. Retrieved December 14, 2011., reprinted from Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789–1993. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. 1997.
- Unrau, William E. (1971). Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 72–75. and Crawford, Samuel J. (1911). Kansas in the Sixties. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg. p. 289.
- "Curtis, Quarter Indian, Began His Ride To Fame as a Jockey; Roamed Plains With Kaws When a Boy; Fought Way Upward". Associated Press. Cincinnati Enquirer. June 6, 1928. p. 6.
- Blackmar, Frank Wilson (1912). Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc. Standard Publishing Company. pp. 487.
- "Dolly Gann, 86, Dead; Winner in Social Feud" Archived November 7, 2020, at the Wayback Machine, Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1953; accessed 26 July 2016
- United States Congress. "Charles Curtis (id: C001008)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- "The Congress: Quiet Leader". Time. December 20, 1926. Archived from the original on December 20, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
- "Obituary". Kansas City Star. February 9, 1936. Quoted in J.R. Mendoza (March 23, 2003). "Charles Curtis: Doing it his way". Topeka Capital-Journal. Archived from the original on June 4, 2003. Retrieved October 19, 2013.
- Harris Gaylord Warren, Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 38.
- "Charles Curtis Was Stricken By Heart Attack Saturday: Former Vice President Only Man of Indian Ancestry to Reach Position". Associated Press. Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light (Corsicana, Texas). February 11, 1936. p. 2.
- Warren (1959), p. 52.
- Native American Netroots American Indian Biography: Vice-President Charles Curtis Archived October 20, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
- "U.S. Senate: Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President (1929–1933)". www.senate.gov. Archived from the original on May 7, 2017. Retrieved May 27, 2017.
- "Curtis' Secretary Is First Woman to Hold High Office: Lola M. Williams' Life Is Makred by Spirit of Determination". Evening Star (Washington, D.C.). March 2, 1929. p. 3.
- Ryan, John A. (1967) Questions of the Day
- Warren (1959), p. 190.
- Warren (1959), p. 253.
- "Our Campaigns – US Vice President – R Convention Race – Jun 14, 1932". www.ourcampaigns.com. Archived from the original on November 10, 2017. Retrieved May 18, 2017.
- "Curtis Opens Tenth Olympiad with Over 100,000 Looking Over". The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska). July 31, 1932. p. 5.
- "Charles Curtis". The Iola Register (Iola, Kansas). March 4, 1933. p. 2.
- Warren (1959), p. 293.
- "Former Vice President, Charles Curtis. Succumbs". Southeast Missourian. February 8, 1936. p. 1. Archived from the original on November 6, 2020. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
- "Death to Curtis: The Former VIce-President and Senator From Kansas is Victim of Heart Attack". The Weekly Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri). February 12, 1936. p. 2.
- "Senator Charles Curtis". Time. June 18, 1928. Archived from the original on November 21, 2010. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
- "Lamest Duck". Time. December 5, 1932. Archived from the original on April 2, 2009. Retrieved January 21, 2010.
- Charles Curtis House Museum Archived February 2, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, official website
- Brockell, Gillian. "Harris will be the first female, Black and Asian vice president. But not the first VP of color". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved November 13, 2020.
- Seitz, Don Carlos (1928). From Kaw Teepee to Capitol: The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, who Has Risen to High Estate. Frederick A. Stokes Company.
- Unrau, William E. (1989). Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700603954.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charles Curtis.|
- United States Congress. "Charles Curtis (id: C001008)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- "Charles Curtis; Native-American Indian Vice-President; a biography", Vice President Charles Curtis Website
- Whispers Like Thunder, Moro Films official movie web site
- Don C. Seitz, From Kaw Teepee to Capitol; The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, Who Has Risen to High Estate, full text, Hathi Trust Digital Library
- Charles Curtis House Museum, official website
- Newspaper clippings about Charles Curtis in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW
- Before Harris, This Vice President Broke a Racial Barrier in The New York Times, November 10, 2020
- Image of Vice-President Charles Curtis at a banquet on-board a military ship, Los Angeles (?), 1932. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.