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States: General History and Description >> Early 20th Century, 1901-1960 >> Individual Biography, A-Z
U.S. Congressman, U.S. Senator, and first person of direct Native American descent to serve as Vice-President
Charles Curtis was born in Topeka, Kansas, on January 25, 1860, the son of a white father and one-quarter Kansa (Kaw) mother. His mother died in 1863, soon after his father had left to fight in the Civil War, and Charles spent his formative years with his maternal grandparents on the Kansa reservation near Council Grove, where he became adept with the bow and arrow and at riding horses. After Cheyenne Indians raided the reservation in 1868, Charles' paternal grandparents thought it better that he be raised in the "more civilized" environment of Topeka, where he attended the public schools. He dabbled in a number of occupations as a teenager, including jockey and reporter, before deciding to study law in the office of Topeka attorney A.H. Case; he was admitted to the bar 1881, and commenced practice in Topeka. In 1884, he married Annie Elizabeth Baird; the couple had three children (Permelia, Harry, Leona).
Curtis's political career began in 1884, when he was elected Shawnee County Prosecutor. Although his campaign had been supported by liquor interests, Curtis insisted on enforcing the state's prohibition laws and closed down all of the saloons in the county. He left office in 1889 to make an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1892, Curtis ultimately served eight terms (from March 4, 1893 to January 28, 1907). During his tenure in the House, Curtis served on both the Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on Indian Affairs and Public Lands. In 1898 he authored the "Curtis Act," which overturned many Indian treaty rights by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Interior Department control over mineral leases on Indian lands. In 1902, he drafted the "Kaw Allotment Act," under which he, his children, and other Kaw received fee simple title to Kaw land in Oklahoma.
On January 23, 1907, the Kansas Legislature elected Curtis to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Senator Joseph R. Burton; he took his seat on January 29, was elected in his own right on March 4, 1907, and served until March 3, 1913. In 1909, Curtis played a major role in the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which raised rates so high that it helped split the Republican Party into warring conservative and progressive factions. In 1912, Curtis was defeated for renomination by a progressive Republican, who was in turn defeated by a Democrat.
The first direct popular elections of Senators were held in 1914, and after defeating progressive incumbent Joseph Bristow for the Republican nomination, Curtis went on to defeat both a Democratic and a Progressive Party opponent that November. He returned to the Senate on March 4, 1915, and served until March 3, 1929. During this tenure, Curtis led the floor fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, and sponsored several pieces of legislation related to agricultural and Indian questions. He served as Republican Whip from 1915 to 1924, and succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as Senate Majority Leader in 1925. As Majority Leader, Curtis maintained good relations with both the conservative and progressive wings of the Republican Party, even though the two wings often had opposite agendas. He was unusually adept at making deals, and favored back-room discussions over long-winded Senate floor speeches.
In 1920, Curtis headed the Kansas delegation at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. When the convention reached a stalemate between General Leonard Wood and Illinois Govenor Frank Lowden, he was one of the Senators who gathered in a "smoke-filled room" and nominated Warren G. Harding as the party's nominee for President.
Curtis attended the 1928 Republican convention in Kansas City hoping to garner the party's nomination for President, but rather than campaign on his own behalf he chose to speak against front runner Herbert Hoover. He truly believed there were enough Hoover detractors to force the convention into a deadlock, and that his mastery of back-room deals would result in his gaining the nomination. Rather than deadlocking, however, the convention easily nominated Hoover on the first ballot, and Curtis was offered the vice-presidency; despite not really wanting the job, and not being on good terms with his running mate, Curtis accepted the offer as a show of party loyalty. The Hoover-Curtis ticket won the 1928 general election, and Curtis became the first person of direct Native American ancestry to serve as Vice-President. As Vice-President, Curtis was excluded from Cabinet meetings, was almost never consulted on issues, and only rarely exercised his power to break ties in the Senate, but he still agreed to run with Hoover for re-election in 1932; they lost to the Democratic ticket by a substantial margin.
After leaving the vice-presidency in 1933, Curtis retired from public service and established a law practice in Washington, D.C. He died in the home of his sister there on February 8, 1936, and was buried in Topeka Cemetery.
This page was last updated on January 25, 2017.