Thomas Gilcrease

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Thomas Gilcrease

William Thomas Gilcrease (1890–1962) was an American oilman, art collector and philanthropist. During his lifetime, Gilcrease collected more than 10,000 artworks, 250,000 Native American artifacts and 100,000 rare books and documents, including the only surviving certified copy of the Declaration of Independence. He was the founder of Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Early life[edit]

Gilcrease was the son of William Lee Gilcrease and Mary "Elizabeth" (Vowell) Gilcrease, and was born in Robeline, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana on February 8, 1890. Mary "Elizabeth" (Vowell) Gilcrease was of Creek ancestry and, shortly after the birth, the family moved to Indian Territory to take advantage of the 160-acre (0.65 km2) allotments in the Creek Nation. Tom's mother was of Creek ancestry and a member of the Creek Nation. The family lived on Creek Nation tribal lands near Eufaula, Oklahoma. Gilcrease's father ran a cotton gin in the nearby community of Mounds, Oklahoma. As a boy, he was often called "Indian Tom."[1]

At the turn of the century, the federal government dissolved the Indian Nations land by distributing parcels into private ownership. At age nine, Gilcrease's 1/8 Creek heritage entitled him to receive 160 acres (650,000 m²) located about twenty miles (32 km) southwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1905, drillers struck oil in the area. His land, sitting astride the huge Glenn Pool Reserve, made Gilcrease a multi-millionaire by the time he was twenty. Though he struggled early in his career, he proved to be an astute businessman. He founded the Gilcrease Oil Company in 1922, and with early successes, was able to purchase more land. Gilcrease established his company headquarters in San Antonio, Texas in 1937 and also maintained an office in Europe. In 1949, the headquarters of the company returned to Tulsa.

On August 22, 1908, Gilcrease married Belle M. Harlow, a member of the Osage tribe.[1] He fathered two sons with Belle: William Thomas Gilcrease, Jr., who was born on July 23, 1909 in Oklahoma and died on March 16, 1967 in Nacogdoches, Nacogdoches County, Texas, and Barton Eugene Gilcrease, who was born on April 12, 1911 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and died on September 25, 1991 in San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas. The couple's marriage ended in divorce in 1924. On September 3, 1928, he married 19-year-old Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926 and former Miss Tulsa.[2]

William "Thomas" Gilcrease, Sr. and Norma (Smallwood) Gilcrease were the parents of one daughter, Des Cygne Lamour Gilcrease.[1] She was born on June 12, 1929, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thomas Gilcrease, Sr. filed for divorce in October, 1933, for extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty. The Gilcrease-Smallwood marriage ended in divorce on May 2, 1934.[2]

During the 1920s and 1930s Gilcrease became inspired by the collections of European art museums. He began to collect oil paintings and other artifacts of the American West in 1922. The Gilcrease collection expanded over the next 20 years, with the majority obtained after 1939.

In 1946, Gilcrease was honored by the Sioux Nation, made an honorary tribal member and given the name Wicarpi Wakatuya, which means "High Star".

Declining oil prices in the 1950s created financial difficulties for Gilcrease. Although his oil income was not insubstantial, major collection purchases limited his cash flow and placed him in a position of being unable to meet his current debt. Concerned about the integrity of his collection, Gilcrease offered it for sale as a unit in 1954. Swift action by the people of Tulsa enabled the debt to be covered by a local bond issue, and the collection remained in Oklahoma.

Thomas Gilcrease died of a heart attack on May 6, 1962. After a funeral service based on traditional Indian rites, he was buried in a mausoleum on the grounds of his estate, where his mother was buried after her death on June 11, 1935.

Art collection[edit]

Charles M. Russell, "When Sioux and Blackfeet Meet", 1903. Watercolor and opaque watercolor on paper. Gilcrease Museum collection

The Gilcrease collection of traditional art, Native American art, artifacts and documents was acquired over a lifetime. Gilcrease began to collect oil paintings and other artifacts of the American West in 1922. At a time when few were interested in Native American art or artifacts of the American West, Gilcrease supported a number of Oklahoma Indian artists, including Woody Crumbo, Acee Blue Eagle, and Willard Stone, each of whom created works held in the collection.

In 1943, Gilcrease moved to San Antonio and opened the Museum of the American Indian, also known as the Gilcrease Museum. However, the San Antonio site failed to attract a large number of visitors. In 1947, he purchased the entire collection of the late Phillip Gillette Cole, an avid New York collector. The collection contained twenty-seven bronzes and forty-six paintings by Charles Marion Russell, seventeen bronzes and twelve paintings by Frederic Remington, photographs by Edward Curtis, and documents and correspondence of well known figures in the American West.

Gilcrease hired architect Alexandre Hogue to design a museum to be placed on Oklahoma property he had purchased in 1914. In 1949, he opened the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art on this estate. During the remainder of his life Gilcrease lived in an adjacent home, built of native sandstone. The rock home, dating from approximately 1912, had been extensively remodeled over the years and was surrounded by a garden specializing in plants used by the Indians.

In 1954, fearing that Gilcrease Museum would be sold and leave Tulsa, a small group of citizens organized a bond election. Tulsa's citizens approved, by a 3-to-1 margin, the $2.25 million bond issue which paid Gilcrease's outstanding debts. In response, Gilcrease deeded his entire collection to the City of Tulsa in 1955, and conveyed the museum buildings and grounds to the city in 1958. In addition, Gilcrease committed oil property revenue to Tulsa for museum maintenance until the bond was fully repaid.

After the transfer of the collection, Gilcrease continued to fund archaeological excavations and acquire additional materials. These materials were bequeathed to the museum upon his death on May 6, 1962.

The Gilcrease Institute[edit]

The Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, now called the Gilcrease Museum, holds what is considered among the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of fine art, artifacts, and archives dealing with the American West. Located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Institute grounds display 23 acres (93,000 m2) of thematic gardens showcasing the gardening styles of different time periods in the American West.


  1. ^ a b c Self, Burl E. "Gilcrease, William Thomas (1890 - 1962)," Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved May 28, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Jackson, Debbie and Hilary Pittman. "Throwback Tulsa: Ex-Miss America's divorce case scandalized Tulsa in '34," Tulsa World, May 28, 2015. Accessed May 28, 2015.

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