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When historians of the future write of the state of Oklahoma, or recite the romance of the American Indian, they needs must tell the story of Tams Bixby. Above his signature five great Indian nations ceased to be, one hundred and one thousand red-men foreswore allegiance to their tribal chieftains to become citizens of the United States and twenty-one million acres of Indian hunting grounds were made ready for admission to the Union.
It was in 1897 that Tams Bixby left Minnesota, where he had gained national prominence as chairman of the Republican state central committee and came to Indian Territory with a portfolio from President McKinley as a commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes.
Here in the Indian Territory the people of the five tribes the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Seminoles and Creeks were making their last stand against the advancing civilization of the white man. Driven from their homes in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi they had migrated hence with great fortitude and suffering to a land that had been promised them “as long as grass grows and water flows.” Already they had adopted the white man’s modes of living in a rough wild way but they clung, with the fidelity of their fathers, to their tribal forms of government. Each nation owned its land in common, each red-man squatted upon that ground which best pleased him and there built his abode.
And now the inevitable advance of the white man, the march of civilization that would not be denied, was pressing down upon them, crowding them further and further beyond-and there was no other place for them to go.
The story of the manner in which these five great nations were swallowed in the avalanche of civilization, the history of their passing, cannot be told in this biography. Immediately upon his arrival in Indian Territory, Mr. Bixby became acting chairman of the Dawes Commission, a body of five members created by an act of congress and appointed by the President. Later he became chairman and still later, in 1905, the commission was abandoned and he was named by President Roosevelt as sole commissioner. It was therefore under Mr. Bixby’s guidance that new treaties were negotiated with the five tribes, that the Indians promised to surrender their governments,, to become citizens of the United States, to accept each for himself his proportionate share of land and sorrowfully to acknowledge that their race was run.
Negotiation of the treaties,’ under most trying and adverse circumstances, took many months of time. Then came the making of the rolls, of ascertaining just which ones of the seven hundred and fifty thousand people who inhabited Indian Territory, were Indians legally entitled to share in the participation of tribal property. It became necessary to trace the lineal descendants of each man, woman and child who claimed to possess Indian blood, hearings of two hundred thousand applicants, each hearing similar to a case in court of law, were held, testimony was taken and stenographic transcripts made and then. decision rendered. From place to place officials of the commission went, frequently sending out into the fastnesses of the uncharted hills, for many of the red-men, sullen and rebellious would not come to the commission, so the commission must go to them. It was not a question of enrolling those who would but of granting justice to everyone of lawful Indian blood.
With the rolls completed and the Indians’ rights established, it became necessary to survey twenty-one million acres of land and then to appraise it, foot by foot, the rocky hills, the wooded mountains, the sweeping prairies and the fertile valleys, because each Indian was to receive his share of land in accordance with its worth. Then again began a process as tedious as the making of the rolls, of giving to every Indian his proportion, in locations as nearly as possible to those of his own choosing, taking precaution that no man sought allotment of the home of another. Many of the insurgent Indians would not accept their apportionment and it was necessary to assign them lands arbitrarily. Several of these allotments, made upon the lands which remained, have since proved to be underlaid with valuable oil and scores of these recalcitrants today are millionaires. With the work of the commissioner done, Indian Territory was ready for admission to the Union as one half of the state of Oklahoma.
His work in the “Indian Country” no doubt will give Tams Bixby his most lasting claim to fame. Satisfactorily he performed his task as executor of an estate of twenty-one million acres worth many hundreds of millions of dollars to which there were more than a hundred thousand heirs and two hundred thousand claimants. His signature, which during his life time became the subject of articles in many magazines and which Sam Blythe once said resembled a “Chinese laundry bill,” is a guarantee of title upon half the land of one of the wealthiest states in the Union.
James S. Sherman of New York, speaking in the halls of congress upon the close of the herculean task, declared that “it was the largest trust ever administered in the world, so far as there is any record,” and that it had “been administered with less expense, considering the vast amounts involved, than any other trust on record.” Mr. Bixby, he said, “was the most wonderful executive” he had met in his acquaintance with governmental affairs.
Tams Bixby was born in Staunton, Virginia, December 12, 1855. A few months after his birth his parents, of humble circumstances, answering the lure of the northwest country, moved to Minnesota and after a few years spent in Stillwater made their home in Red Wing. There Tams Bixby grew to manhood. His education was such as a man of ambition and an eagerness for knowledge may gain from books and the newspapers of his day. At the age of thirteen he was compelled to leave school to aid his father who had assumed management of a hotel. Immediately Mr. Bixby began to fit himself for his life’s work. At the age of sixteen he became a River steamboat pilot, at nineteen we find him proprietor and owner of a bakery and confectionery store. In his early twenties as a railroad contractor he constructed a road-bed through the Dakotas later disposing of it for a dollar. Before he was twenty five he counted James J. Hill and other great men of those times among his personal friends.
Early in his life he evinced a desire to participate in the political and civic movements of his town and his state. While still in his teens, he became editor of a small weekly, bringing the forms from a school that crowned a nearby hill, where the type was set, to a press in the city upon his sled. It was in 1884 that he first seriously assumed his task as editor. In that year he established the Red Wing Weekly Sun and later consolidated it with the the Advance and the Republican. The Republican in time became a daily and he remained as its editor and President of the company which published it until 1912, when continued absence from the state compelled him to dispose of his holdings.
From early life he was a dominant factor in Minnesota politics and in later years became a counsellor of the national Republican organization. The press chronicled his visits to Canton, Ohio, to confer with William McKinley, and he was a personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt. His political career began as chairman of the Republican committee of his home County. From his election as Secretary of the Minnesota Republican League he rose to chair-man of the powerful Republicanstate central committee. It was in that capacity for thirteen years that he was credited with guiding the destinies of Minnesota politics. No campaign conducted under his management resulted in defeat, and twice after he had gone to Indian Territory he returned around election time at the insistence of the national organization.
He never sought or was a candidate for public office, although he was at one time proclaimed by the press throughout the state as a candidate for governor and his name was before the Minnesota legislature as a candidate for United States senator during a prolonged deadlock in the balloting. In 1888 and 1889 he served as Secretary of the state railway and warehouse commission, relinquishing that office to become Secretary to Governor William R. Merriam. In 1892 when Knute Nelson succeeded Mr. Merriam as governor he became Mr. Nelson’s private Secretary, and he retained the position when Mr. Nelson gave way to David M. Clough.
It was Mr. Bixby’s creed that every man owed a duty to his community. As a youth he promoted and served in a volunteer fire department, organized a company of state militia and became a private in the ranks and held the office of Secretary of the Minnesota Y. M. C. A.
This earnest desire to be of service to his city and his state in later years made him an outstanding figure in Oklahoma. In 1906, one year before he resigned as commissioner of the Five Civilized Tribes, he purchased the controlling interest in the Muskogee Daily Phoenix, later absorbing the Muskogee Times-Democrat. Both newspapers, however, retained their individuality and continued to be published from their own plants. With the exception of two years, 1907-09, when he returned to Minnesota to become Vice President and general manager of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that he might fulfill a boyhood ambition expressed when he sold that newspaper on: the streets of Red Wing, he made Muskogee his home. During the last years of his life he devoted almost all of his time and energy to the up building of the city.
What he considered the crowning achievement of his career was the establishing of the Oklahoma Free State Fair, now advertised as the largest institution of its kind in all the world that charges no admission at the gates. In 1915 Mr. Bixby, clinging steadfastly to the idea that a “free fair” could succeed, assumed the presidency of a struggling fair association whose exposition rose only slightly above the level of the County fairs of our land. Thro ugh his energy, perseverance and faith in an idea he built before his death a fair known throughout the nation with a plant valued at more than a million dollars. His doctrine in this, as in all of the civic enterprises which he fathered, was that no official, other than the active Secretary, should receive compensation for his services.
In Muskogee he became President of the Health Association, of the Anti-Tuberculosis League, of the Red Cross and during the World war was chairman of the County Council of Defense. His Americanism ran true to his family traditions, his forefathers having been among the first settlers of the new world. His father, Bradford W. Bixby, claimed direct lineage from Governor Bradford of the Mayflower but the written and verified genealogy of his family traces the ancestry of Tams Bixby back to Joseph Bixby, whose presence in America is first officially recorded in his marriage in Massachusetts in 1647. At the age of sixty-two Mr. Bixby, rejected at recruiting stations, sought to enter the service as a cook and it was not until his appeals to Washington had been finally and definitely turned aside that he contented himself with work at home. Histhree sons all wore the uniform, Tams, Jr., the youngest, attaining the highest rank, that of major in the field artillery.
Both in Minnesota and in Oklahoma Mr. Bixby was heralded as a town builder and in both states towns bear his name. Perhaps the most striking example of his ability to create a city upon the wilderness is found in Bemidji, Minnesota, today a town of approximately ten thousand people. It was a practical joke that gave Bemidji its birth. Mr. Bixby and three companions, each sending a persistent prospector from one to the other to plague him, finally acquired a bit of shore line on Lake Bemidji, a beautiful expanse of crystal water, in the heart of the northern woods. The day came when the four friends, as an outing, journeyed to their new possessions. More than fifty miles from the nearest rail-road they jostled over poorly blazed trails and across stumpage to the spot they had purchased as a “sapphire mine.” The sapphires were worthless crystals but the men, squatting on the sands of the lake shore, peered behind the curtain of the future, and organized there a town-site and improvement company. Mr. Bixby was elected as its President; the Secretary wrote the minutes in the sand. They christened the town for the only inhabitant for miles around, old Chief Bemidji, who dwelt alone in his wigwam by the shore. Railroads were induced to come that way, sites were freely given to schools, Churches, for parks and factories, and Bemidji began to build. At the time of his death Mr. Bixby was interested in other town-sites in northern Minnesota.
Mr. Bixby married Miss Clare Mues, April 27, 1886. Of the union three sons were born, Edson Kingman, Joel Heatwole and Tams, Jr. It was at his summer home on the shores of Lake Bemidji in the summer of 1921 that Mr. Bixby’s health, broken by his restless energy and ceaseless activities, began to fail. Returning to Muskogee, he and Mrs. Bixby hastened to California, where his illness became more serious. A race home began but his family physician, who met them on the way, ordered that the trip be halted at Kansas City. There four days later, January 17, 1921, he died.
Although organizations of his home town eulogized him as “Muskogee’s greatest citizen” the best tribute to his memory is found perhaps, in the nickname by which he was known to men and women of all ages and walks of life-that of “Pops Bixby.”