Around Kansas Charles Curtis


Good morning, I’m Deb Bisel and welcome to Around Kansas. Charles Curtis. Every school kid in Kansas can tell you that he was Vice President of the United States and they can probably tell you that he was part Kaw and Osage. What else can they tell you? Precious little. And this fascinating man who rose from literally being born in a log cabin in North Topeka in 1860, and became Vice President of the United States just a breath away from the Presidency. Had a really remarkable life. And there’s so much more to tell so we’re gonna spend a couple of segments today talking about his incredible story. Now Curtis was born to a French and Indian Mother and a white European Father. His Mother Ellen or Helen Pappan, depending on who you talk to, which source you use, lived in North Topeka, which was land owned by the Kaw. So, the Pappans owned and operated a really important ferry crossing in North Topeka. It came across to the south side of the river and was part of the Oregon Trail crossing. So, the Pappans operated a pretty lucrative business with the ferry. Come along Orren Curtis. Now Orren Curtis, typical pioneer comes from the east, his lineage goes back to the Pilgrims. Now he was a little bit of a shady character in some respects. He had abandoned one family. By the time he died, he’d married five times. He was not around, which might have been a good thing for young Charles Curtis. So, he married young Miss Pappan He’s working with the Pappans in the ferry business and then the Civil War breaks out. So, he joins up. He becomes a Red Leg, not just a Jayhawker, he’s a Red Leg. The Red Legs are notorious, thieving and killing all along the border of Missouri. So, there is a photo of him actually with George Hoyt, who was the leader of the Red Legs and so we know he was in the thick of things. He was actually even court-martialed at the end of the war for executing prisoners that were in his, under his protection, under his control. He only served a month of that before he was paroled. But we know that Orren Curtis, or Captain Jack Curtis as he was called was a little iffy character. Charles Curtis, his mother dies when he is only three years old, is essentially raised by his Grandmothers. He’s raised by his white Grandmother in North Topeka, a staunch Methodist Republican and his French and Indian Grandmother, who goes to live on the Kaw Reservation in Council Grove. So much of his childhood is spent on that Kaw Reservation, with really an idyllic life for little boy. He’s hunting, he’s fishing, he’s riding horses. It’s a really good time. But as we’ll see when we come back from the break, his life is about to change drastically.

(Deb) Welcome back to Around Kansas and we’re talking about Charles Curtis, Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover and native Kansas and Native American. Now, when he is living on the reservation with his Grandmother down in Council Grove, the Kaw Indian Reservation, 1868. He is only eight years old. And the Cheyenne attacked the Kaw Reservation. It’s little Charlie Curtis who walks back to Topeka, by himself or with his uncle, depending on the story and lets Governor Crawford know that they are under attack. So, he is a first hand witness to the Indian Wars. He goes on to become a jockey. Part of the way he makes money is riding horses. And he is a jockey at a race in Ellsworth, Kansas, documented by my friend Jim Gray in the book, “Desperate Seed.” He meets the legendary lawman Bill Tillman who actually buys a pie for the Indian boy and they sit out and share a pie. There’s another time they’re racing in Kansas City at the fairgrounds in Kansas City when Frank and Jesse James rob the ticket office. Young Charlie Curtis hears the shots being fired as Frank and Jesse are robbing the ticket office there. He’ll go on to have a taxi business in Topeka, which means that he had a buggy. So he would… he had this buggy around town that he would carry the legislators, the attorneys. You know he was their taxi driver, he got to know them. And he got to know one really well, Hib Case. And Hib Case mentored young Charlie and Charlie eventually passed the bar and then he was elected County Attorney for Shawnee County. And when he was elected County Attorney he did a couple of things that brought him to the national spotlight. He closed the saloons. He had campaigned on the prohibition ticket, so he was going to close all the saloons and enforce the laws that were in place. And he prosecuted Boston Corbett the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. So, those two things brought him to national attention. Now Boston Corbett, bless his heart, a civil war veteran with a few issues, had been living out in Cloud County, just south of Concordia, when he got a job at the Statehouse. He was a door keeper or guard of some sort. And he held up the State Legislature at gunpoint and some say he actually fired a gun and can point to marks in the walls that may have been made by bullets. And he was committed to the State Asylum in Topeka, where he eventually escaped and never to be heard from again. But Charlie Curtis is the man who put him there. So that’s when he gained national attention for that. And then his career was just off and running. Congress, the Senate; he became the first Republican Majority Leader of the Senate. And then the convention, the Republican Convention in Kansas City to nominate a presidential candidate and Charlie’s name was in the running. Now he acknowledged that he was really disappointed that he didn’t get the presidential slot. He said, “I didn’t come here to be second place.” But when he got second place, he got over the disappointment and actively campaigned, a tremendous response in Kansas and Oklahoma when he was nominated on that ticket. He was often called the third Senator from Oklahoma because he had so much family there. He had so much business interest there. He was also called, while he was in the U.S. Senate one of the four western men who had basically taken over the power in the Senate. It was at that time in the teens and twenties, that the power shifted from the east to the west, a really significant time in American history and he’s front and center. Fascinating character and I just wanted to let you know some of the stuff that I’m doing on him. I’m working actually on a book and a documentary film about Charles Curtis. So stay tuned for more, we’ll be right back.

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