Native Village Youth and Education News
September 2009

 

Will Rogers: a Cherokee of many talents
By Tesina Jackson
http://www.cherokeephoenix.org/3876/Article.aspx

Condensed by Native Village

CLAREMORE, Okla. – Will Rogers  had many talents  – trick roper, Vaudevillian, humorist, Ziegfeld Follies performer, actor, writer, broadcaster and aviator. But before he was famous, he was a Cherokee cowboy in Indian Territory.

“He went from being a true cowboy to the Wild West show, went from being an artificial cowboy to the stage doing his rope tricks and along with his rope tricks he added a little humor and that’s when he hit the big time,” said Andy Hogan from the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore.

The museum sits on 20 acres purchased by Will and Betty Rogers in 1911. Betty donated the land to Oklahoma in 1937, and the museum was built in 1938. The couple and three of their four children are buried in a museum crypt.  Museum visitors come from across the world to pay their respects and learn more about this beloved Cherokee man.

"Some people know him, and others we get to introduce them to Will," Hogan said. "I get to share Will’s stories. They come in with a smile on their face and that’s the enjoyable part.”

William Penn Adair Rogers was born on Nov. 4, 1879, to and Mary America Schrimsher in the Cherokee Nation’s Cooweescoowee District.

His father, Clement Vann Rogers, was a Cherokee senator who helped write the Oklahoma Constitution. His  mother, Mary America Schrimsher. was descended from a Cherokee chief.

The youngest of eight children, Will learned how to use a lasso from a freed slave. As he grew older, his rope skills were so developed that he was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing three lassos at once. One rope caught a running horse’s neck, the other went around the rider and the third swooped up under the horse to loop all four legs.

In 1902 Will traveled to South Africa to perform in “Texas Jack’s Wild West Show and Dramatic Co.” He also performed as the Cherokee Kid in New Zealand and Australia.

In 1905, Will's debuted in Vaudeville. The audiences loved his rope tricks and humor. His “everyman” brand of political commentary became popular, and a star was born.

“He began to joke about politics, and that was what was really popular back then,” Hogan said. “It’s kind of what David Letterman and Jay Leno do today. He made the uncomplicated things complicated and the complicated things uncomplicated.”

By 1918, Rogers was earning $1,000 a week in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. In 1922, he was among the first celebrities to live in Beverly Hills, where he was elected mayor.  But Will never lost touch with reality or family. He donated time and money to disaster reliefs and helped raise funds for organizations. He also kept deep ties to his Cherokee roots and socialized with fellow Cherokees. Many called him the "Cherokee Kid" and the "Indian Cowboy."

“Will Rogers was the person that was needed in the time of the Depression,”  “Will set the example of what the people with money ought to do. You ought to help people, ”Hogan said.

Among Will Rogers' other career accomplishments:

 

Will starred in 71 movies during the 1920s and 1930s. His first film in 1918 was titled “Laughing Bill Hyde.”  His last film was “Steamboat Round the Bend,” filmed in 1935. 

He spent time on the radio and became a commentator for NBC and CBS.

He anchored America’s first coast-to-coast radio hookup in 1922 and was the star of a Sunday radio show program  1933-35.

Will wrote more than 4,000 newspaper columns, dozens of magazine articles for magazines and six books. Many estimate he put 2,000,000 words  into print during his 20-year writing career.

“He was such a fun person. He wanted everyone to have fun,” Hogan said. “He would tell stories. He would cut up….He just did whatever it took for them to have a good time.”

Will was also known as “The Patron Saint of Aviation.” Although he never piloted, navigated or built an airplane, he circled the world three times, meeting kings, presidents and rulers.

In 1935 Rogers joined pilot Wiley Post  to establish the polar route to Russia. On Aug. 15, their plane crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska Territory. Both men were killed.

“The thing that I like best about Will Rogers is that he was a humble person,” Hogan said. “He looked for the good in everyone, and he just felt like everyone deserved more than what he got and what he got he didn’t really deserve.”

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