‘Will Rogers was always a Cherokee’
The Cherokee Nation has agreed to purchase Will Rogers’ historic home and family ranch in northeastern Oklahoma, promising restoration and repairs to the birthplace of the renowned actor and humorist.
A signing ceremony formalizing the purchase from the Oklahoma Historical Society was held on Nov. 4, Rogers’ birthday.
“Will Rogers’ humor and his unique ability to make complicated political and economic issues easy to understand made him a powerful social critic and commentator,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., in a written statement released by the tribe. “He captivated audiences around the nation because his humor never insulted or belittled anyone – he was simply telling the truth about people in positions of power.
“He was called ‘The Cherokee Kid’ in his early entertainment career and always embraced his culture and his tribe. No matter how popular he was, Will Rogers was always a Cherokee, and he talked about it. He reminded people every day that there are Native people of this land still alive and who remain a vibrant part of America’s tapestry. It is quite fitting that the Cherokee Nation will now have an opportunity to continue telling this story from such a unique perspective,” Hoskin said.
The sales price was not disclosed.
Dr. Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, a state agency that owns the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in nearby Claremore, said the investment by the Cherokee nation will help secure the legacy of the Rogers family ranch.
“The Oklahoma Historical Society and the Cherokee Nation have a long history of mutual respect, cooperation and shared resources,” Blackburn in a statement. “Every penny earned from this transfer will be invested in the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, located in the Cherokee Nation. Together, we will make sure the world will always remember the life and legacy of this famous Cherokee cowboy.”
The Cherokee Nation, which oversees seven other museums, two welcome centers and other retail operations, will manage the property through the tribe’s cultural tourism department.
(See related story: Google Doodle celebrates Cherokee actor Will Rogers)
‘Oklahoma’s Favorite Son’
William Penn Adair Rogers was born Nov. 4, 1879, on the family ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma, northeast of Tulsa, the youngest of eight children of Clement Vann Rogers and Mary America Schrimsher.
The ranch started as a 20-acre site but grew to about 60,000 acres at its peak. In the late 1890s, however, the ranch was reduced through allotments created by the Curtis and Dawes acts. The family worked to purchase back land and was able to reclaim approximately 2,000 acres. Today, the property, which includes the ranch-style home and three buildings, is approximately 162 acres.
In his early 20s, Rogers sought to join the entertainment industry, where his skills with a rope and horse drew attention. He worked in vaudeville then joined the Ziegfeld Follies, which led to movie contracts. He would go on to star in more than 70 movies, write a syndicated newspaper column and author seven books. He was also a radio commentator.
He became known throughout Hollywood and the film industry as “The Cherokee Kid” and “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son.”
Perhaps his most famous line was, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” He also poked fun at political conventions, declaring, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Rogers died at age 56 in a plane crash with well-known Oklahoma aviator Wiley Post on Aug. 15, 1935, in Point Barrow, Alaska. He is buried at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, along with other members of his family.
His legacy has endured. On his birthday in 2019, Google honored him with a Google Doodle on the Google home page.
Preserving his legacy
At the signing ceremony in early November, Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief Bryan Warner emphasized the importance of Rogers’ legacy as a citizen of the tribe.
“Today is a good day to celebrate this historic site and all that has been accomplished here by those who acted as caretakers of the land for many decades, including the Oklahoma Historical Society,” said Warner. “The story of Will Rogers is such an integral part of Oklahoma history and Cherokee Nation history. I want to thank the Oklahoma Historical Society for preserving this site and allowing folks from all across the world to get a glimpse of the famed Cherokee humorist who left a lasting impression on so many of us.”
Keith Austin, Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilor, said he grew up just a few miles from the family’s ranch.
“This is a proud moment for [the] Cherokee Nation and the beginning of what I know will be a promising future for this treasured site,” Austin said. “The Will Rogers birthplace was an important part of my childhood. I spent a lot of time here, and it is a true honor to have the opportunity to share the Cherokee story of Will Rogers and the Rogers family ranch.
“Today, we celebrate part of our Cherokee roots being returned to the Cherokee people, and I’m proud and humbled to be part of it,” he said.
Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email: email@example.com.
Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help, we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.