Childhood & Early Life
Charles Curtis was born on January 25, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory to Orren Arms Curtis and Ellen Gonville Pappan. Young Curtis’ had nearly half American-Indian ancestry. While his father had English, Welsh and Scot lineage, his mother belonged to French, Kaw, Osage and Potawatomi.
Following his mother’s death in 1863, Curtis’ father remarried twice. He had a half-sister, Theresa Permelia ‘Dolly’ Cutis. At the breakout of the American Civil War, his father was imprisoned. Curtis came under the guidance of his grandparents who helped him gain possession of his mother's land in North Topeka.
As a boy, Curtis started racing horses. He became a successful horse jockey, excelling at riding prairie horse .For the same, he became popularly known as Indian Charley.
Academically, Curtis completed his early education from Topeka High School. Later, he completed his law studies while working part time.
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In 1881, Curtis was admitted to the bar. From 1885 to 1889, he practiced as a prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas. While working as attorney, Curtis enforced the state prohibition on liquor, thus closing down all saloons.
Since an early age, Curtis showed a passion for politics. In 1892, he finally entered politics, after being elected as a Republican to the House of the Representative of the 53rd Congress. He was re-elected for six continuous terms.
As a member of the House, Curtis directed much of his attention on the Committee of Indian Affairs. He drafted the Curtis Act of 1898, which reversed numerous treaty rights by allocating land and restructuring provisions to Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. He abolished tribal courts and governments.
Curtis aimed at assimilating the Indian tribal into the main society and providing them with basic rights such as education. He also encouraged them to accept individual citizenship and European-American culture.
Curtis re-enrolled with the Kaw tribe and in 1902, drafted the Kaw Allotment Act under which he disbanded Kaw nation as a legal entity. The disbandment led to the re-allocation of Kaw land to federal government, which in turn assigned land to individual tribal members. Curtis too benefitted from the act as he belonged to this tribe.
His service in the House lasted until January 1907. Immediately after resigning from the House, Curtis was to fill up for the short, unexpired term of Kansas Senator Joseph R Burton in the United States Senate. No sooner, he was chosen for a full senatorial term that lasted until 1913.
Curtis benefitted the most from the 17th Amendment that insisted on direct election of Senators, as he was elected by popular vote for the seat of the Senate. He served in the position for three terms commencing from March 4, 1915. In 1920, he was re-elected for another six years until 1926. Curtis was re-elected for yet another six year term until 1931. However, a Vice Presidential appointment cut short his tenure as a Senator, in 1929.
In his senatorial term, Curtis served as the President of the pro tempore of the Senate as well as Chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Interior, of the Committee on Indian Depredations, and of the Committee on Coast Defenses, as well as of the Republican Conference.
As a Senator, Curtis long harboured the ambition for a presidential post. In 1924, he denied the vice-presidential candidacy due to his wife’s illness. An opportunity yet again arose in 1928, following President Coolidge’s denial to re-run for the Presidential post.
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During the 1928 Presidential elections, former Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selected for the Republican ticket. Curtis ran under Hoover for the Vice President’S post. Though Herbert’s appointment earned the wrath of farmers who opposed him ever since his service as Food Czar during World War I, he nevertheless won by landslide victory.
Following the victory, Curtis resigned from his Senatorial post in March 1929, to take up the office of the Vice President. His appointment created history as he became the only native Kansan and only Indian to hold the post. Furthermore, he became the first American of Indian origin to reach such a high office and the first to take the oath of office on Bible. He yet again became the first to appoint a female, rather than the traditional male, as his secretary
Though Hoover and Curtis jointly operated, there was little in common between the two. Curtis never served as an inside player for Hoover who in turn never adhered to the former’s advice. Contradictorily, Curtis spent much of his vice-presidency time, presiding over the Senate and casting tie-breaking votes.
Immediately after coming to power, the Hoover-Curtis government faced the Great Depression. Curtis recommended the five-day work week proposal as a work-sharing solution to unemployment.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 slipped the nation into its worst economic depression phase. Instead of acting on ways to come out of the tough economic times, Curtis became embarrassingly embroiled over a conflict between his half-sister, Dolly and Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
The Great Depression followed by the Stock Market Crash did little to safeguard the Republican ticket which seemed doomed for the 1932 presidential election. Though Curtis himself preferred opting out from his Vice Presidential post for a seat as a Senator, his sister’s insistence led him to be re-nominated on the Hoover ticket.
Standing against Franklin Roosevelt and John Nance Garner at a time when the Great Depression seemed at its deepest, Hoover-Curtis collaboration seemed to be a weak ticket since the start. Consequently, they heavily lost the Presidential elections by 57% to 40% to Roosevelt. His term as the Vice President terminated on March 4, 1933.
The landslide defeat marked the end of Curtis’ political career as well, as he retired from politics. Instead, he resumed his legal career in Washington, DC. In 1935, he served as a chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee.
Personal Life & Legacy
Curtis married Annie Elizabeth Baird on November 27, 1884. The couple was blessed with three children, Permelia Jeannette Curtis, Henry "Harry" King Curtis and Leona Virginia Curtis.
In 1924, Anne Elizabeth Baird breathed her last. Curtis remained a widower all through. His half-sister, Theresa Permelia "Dolly" Curtis acted as his hostess for social events.
He was at his half-sister, Dolly’s house when he died on February 8, 1936 due to heart attack. As he had desired, his body was flown to Kansas where he was interred next to his wife at the Topeka Cemetery.
His house in Topeka, Kansas has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a state historic site.