A Brief History
On January 29, 1907, Charles Curtis of Kansas was sworn in as a United States Senator, the first US Senator of Native American heritage. Not only the first person of Native American heritage to serve in the Senate, he was the first person of any non-European heritage to so serve. In fact, he is the highest ranking person of Native American ancestry ever to serve in the United States Government, reaching his political pinnacle as Vice President of the United States (1929-1933) under President Herbert Hoover! (Were you aware that we have had a Native American Vice President?) And we are not talking about the possible 1/1000 or so Native American heritage claimed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat-Massachusetts), but a person of nearly half Native American descent.
Curtis’ mother was the Native American side of his family, a woman that lived as a Native American and was descended from Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French forbears. His mother was descended from at least 2 Native American Chiefs. His father was descended from British ancestors. Curtis was born in the Kansas Territory in 1860, raised as a member of the Kaw Nation. (Kansas was admitted as a State in 1861.) Charles’ first language was the Kaw tongue, as well as some French, and as a lad he was known as “Indian Charley.” His mother died when he was only 3 years old, and his father was captured during the US Civil War, leaving young Charles to be raised for a few years by his mother’s parents. After the Civil War Charles moved in with his paternal grandparents and attended a public high school attended by White pupils. He studied law while working for a law firm and became a member of the Bar in 1881, including service as a county prosecutor from 1885 to 1889. He married in 1884 (and had 3 children), and was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1893 where he served until his inauguration to the Senate in 1907. While in Congress Curtis worked for the benefit of Native American people. His party affiliation was Republican.
The saga of Charles Curtis through the US Senate included a term from 1907 to 1913 when he was selected by the Kansas State Legislature, and then a second round between 1915 and 1929 when the 17th Amendment had taken effect and Senators were elected directly by the people of each state. During his time in the Senate he achieved renown and increasingly high positions, including assignments as Minority Whip, Majority Whip, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Majority Leader, and Leader of the Senate Republican Conference. With a stellar career in Congress, he was a good choice for candidate for the 1928 Republican Presidential nomination, but Hoover prevailed at the National Convention and Curtis had come in second. Despite being an “anti-Hoover” candidate, Curtis was nominated to run with Hoover for Vice President. When Hoover and Curtis won the election and were inaugurated in March of 1929, the United States had its first Native American Vice President. At the time of his election as Vice President, Curtis was already a widower, his wife having died in 1924.
Another bit of Charles Curtis trivia is that he became the nation’s first Vice President to take the oath of office with his hand on a Bible. He also scored a “first” by appointing a woman as his secretary, the first American Vice Presidential female secretary. When sworn in at the age of 69, he became the oldest person sworn in as US Vice President until surpassed by Alben W. Barkley in 1949 (President Truman’s Vice President).
The Great Depression torpedoed the Presidency of Herbert Hoover, who became a single term President. Curtis left office with Hoover in 1933 and remained in Washington to practice law, then died in 1936, reportedly of a heart attack. He is buried in Topeka, Kansas.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you taught about this great Native American US citizen? This author does not recall any mention of Charles Curtis while in school! Certainly, Charles Curtis deserves mention among our greatest Native American citizens. Perhaps you could help spread the word in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
McReynolds,Tony. An Indian in the White House: The Story of Vice President Charles Curtis. Independently published, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Senator Curtis (right) with President Coolidge and Grace Coolidge on their way to the Capitol building on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1925, is from the National Photo Company collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.