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Read an excerpt from

Will Rogers: a Biography
Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press


Chapter 1: Indian Territory

Will Rogers had to invent himself--no one else would have known what to make of him. He was a Cherokee Indian, and also the son of a Confederate veteran who fancied himself a southern gentleman; the heir to a sizable fortune, and also an itinerant cowboy; a high school dropout, and also, eventually, perhaps the most successful writer in America. He grew up in the Indian Territory (later to become the state of Oklahoma), and as he reached his maturity he found that the land was literally shifting under his feet. From these aggressively indeterminate beginnings, he shaped himself into a figure the likes of which America had never seen before and hasn't seen since.

This capacity for self-creation is one of the few qualities--a devotion to horses, an aversion to formal education, and a remarkable level of achievement are the others--he shared with his father, Clement Vann Rogers. When Clem Rogers died in 1911, his obituary called him "a pioneer who was a statesman and a man.... He was a great man from any point you choose to look at it." But, like Will, he had a socially, ethnically, and geographically ambiguous starting point.

Clem Rogers's paternal grandfather was Robert Rogers, a Scotch-Irishman who came to West Virginia around 1800 to trade with Indians; he married Lucy Cordery, one-half Cherokee. Their first son, also named Robert, was born in Georgia in 1815. In 1835, Robert Rogers, Jr., married Sallie Vann, who was probably three-eighths Cherokee. Their son, Clement Vann Rogers, was thus five-sixteenths Cherokee.

The diversity within the Rogers line was nothing remarkable:   Among Cherokee Indians in the nineteenth century, particularly female Cherokees, intermarriage was as much rule as exception. The practice resulted in a mixed-blood strain with a striking dual consciousness: people who acted, dressed, thought, and often looked like whites and were almost as prejudiced toward "lesser" tribes and Cherokee full-bloods as whites were but who at the same time considered themselves--and were considered--no less Cherokee than the purest full-blood, with the same status, rights, and privileges within the tribe. Indeed, mixed-bloods tended to be more likely to amass wealth and occupy positions of leadership.

For both mixed-bloods and full-, the milestones of Cherokee history are two very large broken promises. Clem Rogers was born shortly after the first betrayal, and his life roughly coincided with a onetime window of opportunity, a foreshortened Cherokee version of the American dream of unfettered opportunity. Clem dove through the window and succeeded beyond his dreams. Then came the second betrayal, and it largely wiped his fortune out. That he seemed neither surprised nor particularly resentful shows his understanding of how lucky he had been.  

European explorers had found the Cherokees living in mountain areas of what are now the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. More than the other tribes of the Southeast--the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles--they had always accommodated themselves enthusiastically to white culture. They were a farming people and in their agriculture they followed the practices of the colonists, including the owning of slaves. They placed a strong emphasis on education, establishing their own school system and sending many of its graduates to the best white colleges. (The Cherokee leader Sequoyah [c.1766--1843] created a syllabary, unique among Indian languages, that permitted Cherokee to be written and read, and heightened the value placed on education and self-expression. The tribe established its own newspaper, printed in English and Cherokee, in 1828.) They adopted a republican form of government in 1820 and by 1827 had formulated a constitution and established themselves politically as the Cherokee Nation. Many Cherokees, and nearly all the mixed-bloods, took white names.

But this adaptation bought them no security. Whites began encroaching on their land in the eighteenth century, and in the early nineteenth century the U.S. government began to purchase it in exchange for money and territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1828, the Georgia legislature passed an act that baldly took land away from Cherokees and distributed it to white settlers; it also declared all persons of Indian blood incompetent to serve as witness or party to any suit in which the defendant was a white man. In 1829 , Robert Rogers, Jr., his mother, and his two sisters (his father had apparently died), then living in Big Tallapossa, Georgia, were among a small group of Cherokees signing an agreement to relinquish all their territory in the East and remove themselves to the northeast section of what was called the Indian Territory. This was a body of land--bounded on the east by what is now Arkansas, on the north by Kansas, and on the south by the fork formed by the Arkansas and Canadian rivers--from which other Indian tribes had been removed. (It constitutes the present-day state of Oklahoma, minus the Panhandle.)

In 1830, Congress, with the strong support of President Andrew Jackson, passed the Indian Removal Act, calling for the resettlement of all eastern tribes in the Indian Territory. By 1832, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles had all agreed. The Cherokees, in whom the whites had most successfully instilled their notions of freedom and due process, held out the longest. In 1835, a minority group composed mostly of mixed-bloods, convinced that removal was inevitable, approved the Treaty of New Echota, under which, for the sum of $5 million, they agreed to relinquish their claims to all lands east of the Mississippi. Some two thousand people made the journey to the part of the Indian Territory--the northeast corner--that had been reserved for the Cherokees. Together with the earlier arrivals, like the Rogerses, they became known as the "Old Settlers."

The majority, under the leadership of Chief John Ross, continued to resist. But they were no match for their adversaries, and in 1838 they were forcibly removed from their homes and land and driven west with an army escort. The march--so grueling that an estimated one-quarter of the sixteen thousand participants died along the way--became known as the Trail of Tears.

Robert and Sallie Rogers had built a five-room, two-story house on a high place in the Going-Snake district near the Arkansas border, not far from the present town of Westville, Oklahoma. Overlooking fertile farmlands and hickory valleys and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the area was a reasonable approximation of the Georgia home Robert Rogers had left behind. Cherokee law and tradition held that all land was communally held, available to any member who had need of it, and Rogers established a profitable farm and ranch, raising horses and cattle, growing wheat and corn and fruit from his orchards. A daughter, Margaret, was born in 1836. Clem arrived three years later.

Those who had been driven unwillingly from their homes, and had suffered the indignities and deprivations of the Trail of Tears, naturally felt betrayed by the Old Settlers, who had signed away the rights and land of all Cherokees, who had had a comfortable passage to the new land, and who were now conspicuously prospering. It was not precisely a question of full-blood versus mixed-blood (Chief Ross, leader of the Trail of Tears group, was only one-eighth Cherokee), but there was a racial component to the conflict which helped make it as bloody as it eventually was. In 1839, three of the men who had spearheaded the Treaty of New Echota were murdered by men loyal to Ross. There followed seven years of internecine bitterness that occasionally threatened to erupt into full-fledged civil war. That never happened, but there were innumerable assaults and assassinations; as one historian put it, among Cherokees, "the ingrained tradition of revenge rose above constitution, acts of union, and laws." Robert Rogers died in the summer of 1842--an especially contentious season--and plausible local tradition has it that he was murdered by a Ross loyalist. Many years later, his granddaughter remembered being told that his last words were a sort of Cherokee legacy to his three-year-old son: "See that Clem always rides his own horse."

Two years later, Sallie Rogers remarried. Her new husband, William Musgrove, was a prosperous jack-of-many-trades. In addition to taking over the Rogers farming and ranching activities, he was a carpenter and blacksmith and part-owner of a factory that processed tobacco into plugs for chewing. According to family folklore, young Clem threw rocks at the buggy when Musgrove and his mother drove off to their wedding. The relations between stepfather and stepson, naturally, had their ups and downs. After one bitter quarrel, Clem rode up to the house with a gun, called Musgrove out, and put a bullet into the rafters above his head. Musgrove brought out his own pistol, but in his anger he cocked the weapon so vigorously that he broke the trigger mechanism.

Clem hated going to school. The first one he attended was a Baptist missionary institution less than a mile from his home. His sister remembered that he would begin his walk there backward, shouting, "Let me stay" as loudly as possible. He went on to the Cherokee Male Seminary at Tahlequah, but he dropped out to take a job as a hand with Joel M. Bryan, who like other farseeing mixed-bloods had begun to raise long-horned cattle on the endless Indian Territory prairies. As a young cowboy, Clem dressed like a man who had found his calling, cutting a striking figure in black-and-red striped shirt, homespun wool pants, and red-topped black leather boots that came up to his knees.

On May 15, 1855 , Clem and five other cowboys began escorting some five hundred long-horned steers to market in Kansas City. When they got there they found no demand for the cattle and so continued on to St. Louis, 250 miles away; the final crossing of the Mississippi River was made by ferryboat. The drive took four months and established beyond any doubt the toughness and tenacity of sixteen-year-old Clem.

He was ambitious, too. Inspired after a brief tenure with Bryan to start his own ranching operation, he convinced his mother and stepfather to give him twenty-five cows, a bull, four horses, and two slaves, Rabb and Houston, who had belonged to his father. In 1856, when Clem was seventeen, he and his entourage traveled west from Going-Snake. They continued past Bryan's ranch, in Choteau, and settled on a tributary of the Caney River, a short distance west of the present town of Talala, Oklahoma. (The tributary then had no name, but would later come to be known as Rabb's Creek, in honor of the slave who after emancipation made his home there.) Clem built a two-room log house, the rooms connected by an open porch, and opened his ranch and trading post for business.

Originally inhabited by Osage Indians, the western part of the Cherokee Nation was markedly different from the woody and hilly east--rich, rolling prairie land, teeming with wildlife. An early settler cataloged the native population: wild turkey, quail, prairie chicken, wild geese, green parakeet in the Verdigris River bottoms, deer, wolves, prairie owls, and panthers. The human residents tended to be the more adventurous of the Cherokees, mostly mixed-bloods who had no qualms about leaving the familiar territory to the east and staking out a new life. By the late 1850s, the Cherokee Indian agent was noting that more and more of them were beginning to come out "for the purpose of utilizing the open range."

If Clem had been a different type of person, he would have taken a moment to reflect on the name of his new home. At first, this region was merely the vast western part of the Saline district, one of eight in the Cherokee Nation. But by 1856, the year Clem arrived, there were enough settlers there for it to have its own designation--Cooweescoowee, after the Cherokee name of Chief John Ross, the man indirectly responsible for his father's death. But the young settler did not have a highly developed sense of irony. Any time he did allow himself for meditation was doubtless devoted to the endless bluestem grass, perfect for the feeding of cattle, the many rivers, perfect for watering them, the moderate temperatures, the abundant rainfall.

To these advantages of geography Clem brought formidable personal qualities: He was young, almost frighteningly industrious, a superb horseman. He was also starting with a substantial stake, and his Cherokee citizenship meant that he could have use, free of charge, of as much land as he needed.

It wasn't surprising, then, that by 1858 he should have sufficiently prospered to take a bride. She was Mary America Schrimsher, also nineteen years old, whom he had met while a student at Tahlequah. Mary had roughly the same amount of Cherokee blood as Clem and her family was similarly well-to-do, but in all other respects they were opposites. Mary, with her black hair, narrow cheekbones, and broad face, looked Indian; Clem's fair hair, blue eyes, and bushy mustache belied his Cherokee roots. Clem was taciturn and gruff; Mary was vivacious and sweet and funny, an excellent musician and dancer. He couldn't be bothered about religion; she was a devout Methodist. His people were Old Settlers, while hers had come on the Trail of Tears--a distinction that made their union almost like intermarriage.

Despite these differences, or maybe because of them, the marriage was a success. The ranch prospered, too. A daughter, Elizabeth--nine-thirty-seconds Cherokee, like all their children--was born in September 1861.

That, of course, was nearly a year after South Carolina had seceded from the Union and five months after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Among the Cherokees, the Civil War was a tribal catastrophe that decisively ended a fifteen-year period of prosperity and good feeling. It brought to the surface old antagonisms, the Treaty of New Echota group mostly favoring the Confederacy, the Ross men publicly supporting neutrality, but privately siding with the Union. By the late summer of 1861, John Ross, still the chief, realized that neither of these positions was tenable--both because the Cherokees were surrounded by Confederates and because the Confederacy was offering the tribes substantially better terms than the Union was--and he cast his lot with the South.

Clem, like most mixed-bloods, was for the Confederates all along. In 1853, a traveler in the Cherokee Nation observed that some Cherokees "live much in the style of Southern gentlemen of easy circumstances." Clem's circumstances were still hard, but he was already very much of this party--mixed-bloods who not only were slaveholders but who talked, acted, and thought like Southerners. He knew, however, that this stand would involve considerable personal sacrifice: His ranch lay just sixty miles from the border of Kansas, a Union stronghold. Sure enough, early in the hostilities Jayhawkers from the North swooped down and ran off all his stock. It was clear that the family would be in danger if they stayed on the ranch, so Clem sent them southeast to his mother's home. On the trip, Elizabeth became ill and died. Later, as the fighting entered Indian Territory, Mary and some of her relatives took refuge in Texas.

Clem signed up with the regiment of Colonel Stand Watie, a near-mythical figure in Cherokee history. Watie's brother, Elias Boudinot, was one of the Treaty of New Echota men who was murdered in 1839; Watie was pegged for assassination on the same day, but he managed to escape by darting out a back door. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he had led the Treaty group in their political and, sometimes, physical battles with the Ross men. Now he had the opportunity to fight an official war. In contrast to most of the Confederate Indians, who were disorganized and ineffectual, the squat, bowlegged Watie was a brilliant soldier, eager for the opportunity to right old wrongs.

With a few notable exceptions, however, it was an inglorious war for Clem Rogers and the other Cherokee Indians. Early in 1862, they took part in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, a significant Confederate defeat that ended the rebels' last threat to Missouri and has been credited with saving that state for the Union. Later that year, Chief Ross allowed himself to be "arrested" by federal forces; he spent the rest of the war in Washington (and died there a year after it ended). After his departure, the Indian Territory was essentially ignored by both sides, leaving the pro-North and pro-South Indians to wage viciously destructive guerrilla warfare, mostly against each other. One target of Watie's men was white abolitionist missionaries who had converted many full-bloods to the Union cause. The daughter of one missionary saw her husband killed and her house burned to the ground. "Oh, our God, send deliverance," she wrote in her diary. "Make haste to help us, Oh God, for our salvation."

Watie was also known for his lightning raids against Union forces, most triumphantly at Cabin Creek, Indian Territory, in 1864. In a pre-dawn strike, his men, Clem Rogers among them, captured a federal wagon train valued at $1.5 million and prompted a Confederate general to say, "The brilliancy and completeness of this expedition has not been excelled in the history of the war." By that time, Watie had been promoted to brigadier general (the first Indian to achieve that rank), and Rogers from first lieutenant to captain of his own regiment. Clem had also been elected one of three delegates from Cooweescoowee district to the Cherokee Confederate Convention in 1862, a foretaste of future political activity and a remarkable achievement for a man of twenty-three.

Watie's other notable achievement was single-handedly to delay the final moment of Confederate defeat. It was not until June 23, 1865--more than two months after Lee met Grant at Appomatox--that Watie, the last Confederate General to surrender, road into Doaksville, in southern Indian Territory, and offered his brigade to federal officers.

In later years, Clem Rogers did not permit himself to transform the horrors he had witnessed and, perhaps, participated in into the stuff of fireside tales. Indeed, his children recalled that even if they begged him, he always refused to talk about the war.

The Cherokees did not fare badly in their treaty with the U.S. government, the significant provisions calling for the abolition of slavery in the Cherokee Nation and the granting of permission for railroads to be constructed across their land. But many had been wiped out by the war, including Clem, who had a new daughter--Sallie, conceived on furlough and born in December 1863--but precious little else. His farm was overgrown, his cattle gone, his slaves free. His heart was still in the Verdigris country, but he knew he would have to bide his time before going back. In 1866, he rented a farm in the eastern part of the Nation, near Fort Gibson, from his sister-in-law, Alabama Schrimsher Adair, and planted a crop of corn. He hired a young man to work the fields and took a job himself as a wagon driver for a merchant and mill owner named Oliver Lipe, who was married to his mother-in-law's sister. Within a couple of years, he had earned enough to go into the cattle business again, buying a herd of Choctaw steers in partnership with Lipe's son, Maj. Dewitt Clinton Lipe. In 1868, he went back to Cooweescoowee, settling on a site on the Verdigris, about seven miles east of his previous ranch. A full-blood named Tom Boot was living in a log cabin there; Clem paid him twenty-five dollars for squatter's rights. The cabin was sixteen feet square, with a small porch held up by cedar posts with nubbed branches that Clem's cowhands hung their coats on. He refurbished and added on to the place, and in the fall of 1870 he brought out his family--which by this time included Robert, born in 1866, and Maud, just a year old.

Clem had chosen the location well. His range--by 1872 he was on his own, his partnership with Lipe dissolved--was in the shape of a V. The eastern and western boundaries were formed by the Caney and Verdigris rivers, which met at a point a few miles east of what would, with the arrival of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad in 1882, become the town of Claremore. The rivers provided not only water for the cattle but a natural boundary preventing them from drifting--extremely important in the days before the ranges were fenced. The northern border of the range, about twelve miles north of the rivers' confluence, was patrolled by line riders in Clem's employ, who would turn back any cattle that had drifted north. The size of the range has been estimated at sixty thousand acres. Under Cherokee law, it was rent- and tax-free.

Following the practice of his early employer Joel M. Bryan, Clem's notion was to bring up herds of longhorn from Texas each spring, fatten them on the Verdigris bluestem for a year, and then ship them off to market at St. Louis. Especially considering the fact that there were virtually no expenses, other than labor, the potential for profit was considerable. At the very most, range cattle would run him three to four dollars a head; and he was able to sell them in St. Louis for ten times that. The price went up over the years. Someone who'd worked for Clem as a young cowboy remembered seeing him gesture at a herd of steers and remark, "These steers are walking fifty-dollar bills." They were, and he marketed two to four thousand of them a year.

Obviously, the structure of the business was favorable, but Clem was not content until he had squeezed as much profit out of it as there was. He was such a tireless worker that he habitually ate his breakfast before the sun came up and his supper after it went down, so as not to waste any daylight. And he had a way with horses. "My father was the best driver I ever saw," his son Will wrote years later. "I have seen papa hitch 'em up when they was really wild and go where he wanted with 'em, not where they wanted to." "Take it from me," said a former cowboy of his named Ed Sunday, "Clem Rogers was a ranchman any way you wanted to look at him. He wore tall top cowboy boots with his pant legs stuffed in them leather chaps, and a western hat of medium size. I never saw him wearing the big ten-gallon cowboy hat. He was a keen trader, knew cattle, was one of the best riders I have ever known, and, get this, he never carried on his cattle business in an easy chair. He was a hard worker and if he ran one horse down he'd get another. He took part in the roundups, branding and shipping of steers, and, believe me, he was boss of the range." Nor was cattle his only interest. He was the first man to grow wheat in the area, and did so well with the crop that the local newspaper dubbed him "Wheat King."

Very quickly, Clem became a wealthy man. He needed a house befitting his stature, and by 1875 he had built one that, in frontier terms at least, could fairly be called palatial. It was a two-story, seven-room structure, made of logs, plastered on the inside and weatherboarded and painted white on the outside. There were four open fireplaces, and upstairs and downstairs porches in front, supported by columns that bespoke Clem and Mary's southern heritage. Behind the house, protecting it on the north, was a rocky hill. It looked out over the Verdigris, three-quarters of a mile away, and the oaks, elms, pecans, and sycamores on the opposite bank.

The house was furnished with taste and a kind of frontier elegance --quite an accomplishment for Mary Rogers, considering that the nearest place to shop was Coffeyville, Kansas, some forty-four miles away. But she did manage to get her Nottingham lace curtains and her walnut furniture upholstered in rose damask, her lamps and her carpets, and her grand piano. The grace notes, provided by Mary Rogers, were homegrown. On either side of the front walk, she planted circular flower beds and rows of cedars that met in a cool green arch overhead. Inside a white picket fence in front of the house were yellow jonquils and white and lavender hyacinths, area landmarks in the springtime. In the winter, she'd make bouquets of bittersweet from the woods, dried coxcomb and bachelor's buttons from the summer flower garden, and cedar and crystallized grasses.

Another grace note was her own presence, so modest and warm that, in the words of Agnes "Babe" Walker, the daughter of Clem Rogers's old slave Huse, "She was loved by all who knew her." She dressed simply, wearing plain white collars and cuffs that could be taken off and washed. She told Mary Newcomb, the girl who helped her with sewing and housekeeping, to trim her dresses moderately; she was too plain, she said, to wear the beaded collars and ruffles that were in fashion. She had a gently disarming sense of humor. Mary once was showing one of her babies to a cowboy and, noting his silence, said, "I know exactly what you're thinking. You're thinking this is the homeliest baby you ever saw." Another cowboy was constantly playing pranks on Mary Newcomb. Mary Rogers helped her get revenge by serving the fellow, who was known as a lemon-pie lover, a mock pie with browned meringue on top and cotton in the middle. Clem Rogers was not without his own humor, but it tended toward the gruff. In a letter about tribal politics to Dennis Bushyhead, who was married to his wife's sister Elizabeth, Clem closed, "Tell the Little Giant Mrs. B. We would like her to pay us a visit this spring. Tell her we can feed her on wild onions and poke leaves."

Given the combination of (comparative) luxury and graciousness, it wasn't surprising that the Rogers home became the social center of Cooweescoowee. People from throughout the district would gather there for dancing, music, and laughter. A frequent visitor remembered: "Aunt Mary [in the Cherokee Nation, elders were always "Aunt" and "Uncle"] always met you at the door with a smile and made everything so nice and pleasant for you. Just being in her presence made you feel comfortable. In those days people visited all day and our family would go in the morning and stay over for a fine country dinner with the Rogerses. Then Aunt Mary would spread quilts all over the upstairs of the house and we'd take naps. Aunt Mary had such an individual way of expressing herself and would say the wittiest things. When we started home she'd take us out to the orchard and make us take home apples, peaches and grapes."

His business and his home established, Clem found and pursued another calling--politics, which in the Cherokee Nation was an exceedingly important pastime, a sort of spectator sport that attracted near-universal interest, along with wide participation. As the Oklahoma historian Angie Debo wrote, "In a political unit so small that it was possible for every voter to have a personal knowledge of candidates and issues, the elections and inaugural ceremonies and deliberations furnished recreation and excitement for the entire populace." Clem's son Will would absorb this ethos into his bones. Half a century later, when he had become the most widely read political columnist in the country, the most distinctive quality of his commentary was just this sense that each of the players, all the way up to the president, was a personal acquaintance of his and all his readers'.

Clem's first run for office came in 1877, when he was thirty-eight. He won election as Cooweescoowee district judge and served for two years. His lack of legal training was not a handicap, the docket being filled mainly with small cases and misdemeanors. The court was sufficiently informal that on hot days Clem would move the entire proceedings out of the one-room, sixteen-foot-square log cabin and take them outside, under the shade of the hickory and oak trees.

In 1879, he was elected to one of Cooweescoowee's two seats in the Cherokee senate, the Nation's upper legislative house, which met in Tahlequah each November, as well as for special sessions. Over the years, he served three additional two-year terms. He was appointed-- once by President Cleveland--to several commissions charged with carrying out important tribal business, and in 1907 he capped his political career by being elected a delegate to the convention charged with formulating a constitution for the new state of Oklahoma. Clem's success in politics--he never lost an election for public office--was achieved despite his marked deficiencies in public speaking and pressing the flesh, where his bluntness was a glaring liability. But he was excellent at the political game of currying loyalty and favors, with a particular genius for getting out and winning the black vote. And his diligence, competence, and commitment to the Cherokee people were obvious.

In his entire political career, there was only one stain on Clem's reputation--the result of a bill he wrote and introduced in 1883. The bill concerned the Cherokee Strip, a 6-million-acre rectangular area west of the Cooweescoowee district that had been ceded to the Cherokees in 1828 in return for lands in the Southeast. Settlers were barred from it, but because it was, according to one expert, the finest cattle land in the country, cowmen from Texas and Kansas had been using it to graze their herds for years, free of charge. Clem's bill awarded a lease on the land to the people using it, in return for an annual payment of $100,000. Soon after it passed, persistent rumors sprang up that the bill's supporters had been bribed by the cattlemen, one Cherokee testifying before the U.S. Senate that he had heard that Clem himself had taken four thousand dollars. But no hard evidence of bribery was ever introduced.

With the years came more children. Mary (always called May) arrived in 1873. Zoe was born in 1876 and Homer in 1878; both died in infancy. A year later, on November 4, 1879, Mary delivered another son. He was born in his parents' bedroom, the east room on the first floor of the old home place. After Mary Rogers had gone into labor, Mrs. William Penn Adair got a telegram from her husband, a prominent attorney who had been commander of the Second Cherokee Mounted Volunteers during the Civil War, and who was then in Washington on tribal business. The message read, as she remembered, "Clem's wife is sick, go there and help her. Boy or girl, name it William Penn Adair." Since family names had been more or less exhausted by this point, and since Mary Rogers knew of her husband's reverence for Colonel Adair and his strong feelings about his own service in the Confederate cause, she agreed. (Clem was away, so he had no input.) For a time, the appellation was taken literally: The 1880 Cherokee Census Roll listed the boy as "Col. W. P. Rogers." But the rank was soon dropped, never to return, and he was known by one and all as Willie.

The nickname had a diminutive feel to it, which was apt. It being clear that Willie would be the final Rogers child--Clem and Mary were both forty years old at his birth, and Mary was subject to bouts of illness--he was treasured, not to say spoiled, as only the baby of a large family can be. The tendency to indulgence was heightened by a wrenching event that took place in Willie's fourth year. His brother, Robert, was from all accounts his father's son--quiet, serious, diligent, and devoted to horses and cattle. According to a neighbor whose house he often visited, he liked to get up early on winter mornings and run barefoot in the snow, so as to toughen himself. This cast of mind wasn't the reason why he contracted typhoid, but it probably did lead him to go back to work, branding calves, before he should have. In any case, his body wasn't prepared for the strenuousness of the activity, and on April 13, 1883, just two days before his seventeenth birthday, he died.

Now Willie was the only Rogers son, the pet of three adoring older sisters, an adoring mother, and a father who, while not exactly adoring, was prepared to give him anything he wanted--and forgive him any mischief. One time, Willie decided that the hunting hounds would look better with different colored spots, so he painted them all green. On another occasion, his mother had a pan of yeast on the floor of the kitchen, into which Willie couldn't resist placing his foot. Mrs. Rogers's response was to say, "Willie has a good idea. That'll make it sweeter. It'll be the best bread we ever had."

Like his brother, Willie loved horses. He rode from the time he was three or four, his father assigning a man to put him on and take him off his mount. "Willie would ride about half the day," remembered the cowboy B. T. Hooper, "and then would come in on a fast trot to the headquarters, and I'd help him off the horse, and away he would go to his mother." When he wasn't riding, he'd pretend that he was. In the 1950s, Will Rogers's biographer Homer Croy spoke with the son of Clem Rogers's old slave Rabb, who had grown up with Willie. The son's name was, of all things, Clement Vann Rogers. After the Civil War, the white Clem Rogers's slaves had stayed in the area, working for Clem and taking Rogers as a surname; Rabb had given one of his sons his old master's first and middle names, as well. The young Clem, his brothers and sisters, and other children of freedmen were Willie's first playmates. That they were not his equals is well illustrated by the nature of their games.

"We played horse together," Clem, then seventy-eight years old, told Croy. "He used to put a saddle on my back and make me pretend I was a bucking horse and he would ride me, spurrin' with his bare heels. One time he gets mad with me and shoved a branding iron against my behind, but it wasn't very hot, scared me more'n anything else."

It was from his other former slave, Huse Rogers, that Clem bought Willie the greatest gift he would ever receive. Huse owned a five-year- old pony named Comanche, a cream-colored animal with faint black markings. Since he was mainly ridden by Huse's son, Anderson, he'd received an AR brand on his left shoulder. Willie, five or six years old at the time, coveted Comanche, and one day Clem asked Huse how much he wanted for the pony. The response was sixty-five dollars. Clem offered ten dollars plus one of his own horses, and Huse accepted. "I didn't exactly want to swap him off" biographer Harold Keith reported Huse as saying years later, "but Mistah Clem Rogahs kinda took me by surprise. I was out of work and needed a little extra spendin' money anyway, so I let ole Comanche go." Comanche, weighing about a thousand pounds and standing fourteen hands high, was a remarkable horse, extraordinarily fast and intelligent, and for the next twenty years he would be a centerpiece of Willie's life. His cousin Spi Trent described boy and horse as being "almost like Siamese twins." Comanche, he said, was "Will's heart."

Comanche's true expertise, it would later become clear, was as a roping pony. But Willie's passion for roping predated the horse's arrival in his life. To a boy growing up on a ranch, roping was omnipresent--like dribbling basketballs or riding skateboards in other milieus. It was even more deep-seated, because it wasn't just a pastime but a key component of the local economy. Cowboys roped for a simple reason--it was the best way to rein in steers for roundups and calves for branding--and since the range cattle industry had come into its own, in the years following the Civil War, roping techniques adapted from Mexican vaqueros had become, after riding, the most important skill in the trade.

Lariats (from the Spanish riata, or rope) were made of forty or fifty feet of braided rawhide strips, horsehair, maguey fiber, or, most commonly, Manila hemp. At one end would be an eye, or "honda," made of metal, leather, or just a knot in the rope itself, through which the other end would be threaded to form a loop. Cowboys carried their coiled-up lariats everywhere and spent a good portion of their leisure time refining their skills--trying out different "throws" or experimenting with a completely useless (for the cattle business) capability of the lasso, the way a loop could be made to spin endlessly and behave in odd ways.

Willie absorbed this ethos before he could walk, and started roping soon afterward. The best roper working for Clem was a black man named Dan Walker, and Willie would watch him throw for hours. By himself, he would practice endlessly on an oak stump in the backyard. Before long, to Willie's absolute delight, Clem let him help rope calves for branding. Huse's son, Anderson, who sometimes slept over at the Rogers's place, remembered that cries of "Catch him! Catch him! Rope him! Don't let him get away!" would emanate from Willie's room at night. "All the time he was sleepin' he was thinkin' about dem ole calves."

At the age of seven, Willie was sent to the Drumgoole School, in Chelsea, about twelve miles from his home. Because of the distance, he lived with his sister Sallie and her husband, Tom McSpadden, who settled in Chelsea after they married in 1886, going back to the ranch every weekend. (McSpadden was the son of a white Methodist circuit rider who had come as a missionary to the Indian Territory in 1869.) He would have to ride the three miles to and from school each day, and, as a parting gift, Clem gave his son a specially made saddle, with WPR stamped on the back.

It was soon obvious that Willie had inherited his father's antipathy to formal education. Sallie later remembered that, after tying his lunch box to his saddle every morning, she'd stand and watch him ride all the way down the lane; otherwise he'd ride off in another direction.

Drumgoole, Will Rogers later wrote, "was a little one-room log cabin.... It was all Indian kids went there, and I being part cherokee (had just enough white in me to make my honesty questionable)." The last sentence--indicating that many if not most of the students were fullbloods--may explain why Clem took his son out of Drumgoole after a year. The next year, he went to the Harrell Institute in Muskogee, a Methodist boarding school for girls attended by his sister May. He was allowed to enroll only because the superintendent of the school, the Reverend Theodore Brewer, had a son the same age with whom Willie could room.

While Willie was home on vacation from Harrell, Sallie and Maud came down with typhoid fever, and both Will and Sailie's son, Clem, with measles. Then Mary Rogers fell ill and was put to bed. A messenger was sent to Clem Rogers, away from home at the time, and he drove sixty miles overnight, a lantern attached to his buggy. The family's doctor, A. L. Lane, was in Kansas on vacation, and so Dr. Oliver Bagby of Vinita was wired for. He drove his horse and buggy thirty-six miles in four hours, he later told Harold Keith, splashing across the Verdigris just before sundown. He found Mary Rogers practically pulseless; he diagnosed her condition as amoebic dysentery. The next day, Dr. Lane returned home. "My mother told him what had happened," his daughter remembered. "Father said, 'We will have an early dinner and go over and see how Mrs. Rogers and the girls are.' He found Mrs. Rogers quite sick. She was in the east room upstairs. When he went in, she was lying with her back to the door, but she heard his footsteps and said, 'There's Dr. Lane, but you've come too late. If you had come yesterday I would have been all right.'"

At four o'clock on the morning of May 28, 1890, Mary Rogers died. She was fifty-one.

It would be easier to calculate just how much of a blow the loss of his mother was for Will Rogers if he had spoken about it more than he did. In the millions of words he wrote for publication, there are just two mentions of Mary Rogers. "My own mother died when I was ten years old," he said in a Mother's Day radio broadcast. "My own folks have told me that what little humor I have comes from her. I can't remember her humor but I can remember her love and understanding of me." His wife, Betty, felt that he never got over Mary Rogers's death: "He cried when he told me about it many years later. It left in him a lonely, lost feeling that persisted long after he was successful and famous." But, Betty wrote, his mother also left in him the memory of helping her cover, on winter nights, the seedlings set out on the shelf of an unheated room in the ranch. The image stayed with him, of course, because that was exactly the way she had nurtured him.

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