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  • Russell Cobb

"All Crooks at Tulsa" The Myth of Tommy Atkins & The Enduring Legacy Of An Oil Capital Fraud

Updated: Mar 21

By Russell Cob

Destroyed in 1973 to make way for the Performing Arts Center, the Hotel Tulsa was once known as "The Buckingham Palace of Oil." Multi-million dollar oil deals were struck in the lobby over a handshake, while Harry Sinclair sponsored all-night poker games in his private rooms. In 1923, the Hotel Tulsa served as headquarters for Gov. Jack Walton's prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

An earlier version of this story appeared in The Chronicles of Oklahoma: Vol C, No. 1, 2022, a publication of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

 

The stories whispered about Tommy Atkins in the lobby of the Hotel Tulsa grew wilder and wilder with every telling. Tommy was a Muscogee boy whose land was worth many millions of dollars in 1914. Dozens of oil wells drew thousands of barrels of light sweet crude from Tommy’s land every day, even though the child had disappeared.


Was Tommy dead? Perhaps he was living under an alias in Kansas– or even Mexico. It was also possible that Tommy was a fictional being, the product of an elaborate hoax, involving one of Oklahoma’s most recognizable philanthropists.

As the theories multiplied in the poker rooms and brothels of downtown Tulsa, there was only one thing everyone could be certain of: this Creek boy’s land lay in the middle of one of the richest oilfields in North America, the Cushing-Drumright Oilfield, a place that helped make Tulsa the “Oil Capital of the World.”


Everything else about Tommy’s life was inscrutable. One theory held that he had been stillborn to a homeless Muscogee woman on the streets of Wagoner, Oklahoma. Another story had him dying as a teenager in a flood in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he had been born in a barn behind a brothel. Other people insisted that he was alive and well, living as a Black man named Henry Carter. There was a Tommy Atkins in Philadelphia and another on a farm in Kansas.

All of them claimed to be the one and only Creek Indian Thomas Atkins, certified as a Muscogee citizen under Dawes Roll #7913.

The Philadelphia Tommy Atkins, NARA Classified Files


 

“But Insists He Never Died”– the Kansas Tommy Atkins


 

The most compelling theory, however, held that Tommy never existed in the first place. He was born as a clerical error by the Dawes Commission, and then framed into existence by an oilman who concocted an elaborate fraud that even conned a United States federal judge.


People foolish enough to whisper this last theory in the lobby of the Hotel Tulsa would soon find themselves tailed by Pinkerton Agents or other hired thugs. Some of Oklahoma’s most ambitious oilmen had angles on the Tommy Atkins lands. At some point, ex-Governor Charles Haskell, the philanthropist Charles Page, and the art collector Thomas Gilcrease, had all sought to control Tommy’s land. There were many more who would move mountains to prove they had a valid lease to drill. The Sapulpa oilman and rancher H.U. Bartlett, as well as the Tulsa politician C.J. Wrightsman, worked an angle to secure the oil on his land.

The idea that the boy was nothing more than an elaborate hoax (a theory put forth by The Department of Justice, the Muscogee Nation, and the Attorney General of the United States, among others) posed a serious problem to the business model of the Tulsa oil establishment. If the federal government got its way with Tommy, his allotment would be canceled and his millions would be returned to the Muscogee Nation. The idea that the Tribe would control the wealth of the "Oil Capital of the World" was anathema to these men, a new class of people who often openly boasted of being “grafters."

The stakes could not have been higher. On the eve of World War I, it had become apparent that Tommy’s allotment sat in the middle of the Cushing-Drumright Field, a place that would prove invaluable to the U.S. war effort. That war represented the final stage in a global transition from coal-powered to petroleum-powered transportation. By 1917, the world had passed definitively into the era of Hydrocarbon Man, and one-fifth of the entire global supply of petroleum was coming out of this one Oklahoma field by the end of the war.

For most of its history, the northwestern portion of the Muscogee Nation, in current Creek County, seemed like an inauspicious place for any kind of human development. This was the Cross Timbers, a place Washington Irving described as a “forest of cast iron.” The trees were stunted, the soil was a red clay, and the waterways ran crimson with soot. There was no space for bison hunts, no room for farms. It was no man’s land. Many Muscogee citizens chose allotments further east where the soil was rich and black. Muscogee citizens who did not show up to select parcels of land were allotted the worst land in Indian Territory. Among this group were the anti-assimilationist leader Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake) and members of his “Snake Faction,” who fought allotment in armed rebellion into statehood in 1907.


Exchange National Bank Building under construction, March 1928 (2012.201.B1299.0022, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS)


 

During the first years of statehood, Oklahoma established itself as a center of the nascent American oil industry. Discoveries at Bartlesville, Glenn Pool, and Red Fork replaced Spindletop, Texas, as the new American El Dorado. Nearby Tulsa emerged as the financial center, even though it had no oil itself. Until 1928, Oklahoma led the nation in oil production. In Tulsa, oilmen built ornate mansions on land that had been allotted to Muscogee citizens only a decade prior. Eastern money flowed into the booming city, which proclaimed itself as “The Oil Capital of the World,” a title that still has a nostalgic pull on the hearts of Tulsans.


Tulsa’s first skyscraper, Exchange National Bank, acquired a reputation as the “Oil Bank of America,” and the bank’s president, Harry Sinclair, made his influence felt in Washington, DC. If oil was the business that built Tulsa, it also became the commodity that shaped the city’s culture and society.


The explosion of the oil economy in Tulsa fundamentally altered the identity of the people who lived in the area, especially the Muscogee Indians trying to hold on to their allotments. Intense speculation about potential riches under the soil led to complicated battles among families, in courtrooms, and in the media. No case, however, was as convoluted and explosive as the fight for Tommy Atkins’s allotment. By the time it was finally resolved by the US Supreme Court in 1922, it was the most litigated court battle in the state’s history.


Harry Sinclair, March 1925

(2012.201.B1177.0290, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).


 


Tom Slick, c. 1920s

(2012.201.B1268.0092, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS)


 

The Cushing-Drumright oil boom started with a whimper. In the early 1910s, a wildcatter from Pennsylvania named Tom Slick had been testing the Cross Timbers for oil and coming up empty. Despite earning the nickname “Dry Hole Slick,” he managed to convince his financial backers to give him one more shot near the town of Drumright. There he drilled a discovery well on land owned by a farmer named Frank B. Wheeler. When the oil came in, Slick cut the phone lines to Wheeler’s house, hired private guards to run off any curiosity-seekers, and built a tall privacy fence around his well. Slick tried to control the entire operation but, as an independent oilman, it became clear that he did not have the means to control the rumors about a new oilfield. Slick’s first oil well turned out to be a harbinger of a transformational event in energy history.


Jackson and Anna Barnett, c. 1920 (20604.2, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)


 

Geologists soon discovered that the whole area sat atop an anticline, a ridge-shaped fold of rock holding massive deposits of oil and gas. The entire Cushing-Drumright Field takes up only about thirty square miles on the surface of northeastern Oklahoma, but the quality of the light, sweet crude oil below the surface proved to be a major catalyst for the development of refineries and pipelines throughout the mid-continent. Although the oil field lay about forty miles west of town, Tulsa was the urban center that supplied the labor, the financial capital, and the hotels for deal-making. Boomtowns like Drumright and Oilton grew up in the midst of the oil field, but the money flowed back to Tulsa companies and the Exchange National Bank downtown. One of the first major players in the area, Gypsy Oil Company, was headquartered in Tulsa.

Cushing-Drumright Field, c. 1920 (17679, Oklahoma Historical Society Photography Collection, OHS)


 

Gypsy drilled the Jackson Barnett No. 11, which shattered the state’s record for barrels produced per day and turned Barnett, an allottee, into “the world’s richest Indian.” At one point, two-thirds of all light sweet crude in the Western Hemisphere was coming out of this one oil field, and one-fifth of the world’s entire oil output originated from the Cushing-Drumright Field. The area functioned as the hub of the North American oil industry until discoveries in east Texas in the 1930s displaced Oklahoma as the new center of exploration and innovation. Even as the nation and the world moved on to bigger discoveries, the infrastructure built around the Cushing-Drumright Field still holds a vital importance to the industry. The area around the oil field holds a storage capacity of thirty million barrels of oil, and the industry, despite generating myriad environmental problems, remains the symbol of economic prosperity in the region. Cushing proclaims itself as the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World.”

Tom Slick made a fortune from his discoveries and relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where he was no longer known as “Dry Hole Slick,” but the “King of the Wildcatters.” As Slick moved out, major oil companies like Sinclair and Texaco moved in, crowding the banks of the Cimarron River with derricks. The cost of an oil lease spiked, and the town of Drumright sprang up in 1913. Drumright was a wild and wooly place with saloons such as The Hump, where police discovered human skeletons after finally closing it down during Prohibition. Previous American oil booms in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California had made poor farmers into rich men, as they leased their land to speculators and harvested a cut of the profits.

In the area of Oklahoma, until 1907 known as Indian Territory, it was a different story. Most of the oil-rich land here belonged to Native Americans whose tribes had been forced to dissolve their collective ownership of land. In exchange for forfeiting sovereignty, individual tribal citizens had been granted allotments in fee simple. This had been part of a grand federal experiment to instill capitalist virtues in Native Americans, a so-called “progressive” reform intended to save Indigenous people from the land hunger of Western expansionists. Different tribes had different regimes regarding ownership of minerals underneath the soil, but most—the notable exception being the Osage Nation—went along with the federal government’s desire to make subsoil minerals private property. When it became clear that white speculators known as “grafters'' were swooping in to steal the land from Indigenous people, a haphazard set of restrictions was placed on the sale of land.

These restrictions were based on the degree of Indigenous blood quantum in a given allottee, a foreign concept to the tribes. In general, the more Indigenous blood a person had, the more restrictions were placed upon the sale of their land. The law also differentiated between a person’s “homestead” (the 40 acres around a home) and a person’s “surplus land” (the 120 acres one farmed). In the eyes of the government, most full-blood Native Americans were considered “incompetents” and required court-appointed guardians to sell or buy land. Guardians were supposed to be upstanding members of the community who made decisions in the best interests of their wards. They were pastors and bankers, lawyers and missionaries. They upheld the dominant paradigm of paternalism—the belief that they, as white men, understood what was in the best interest of women and people of color, and they reserved the right to act on those beliefs. In doing so, they facilitated one of the most consequential wealth transfers in US American history.


Dawes Commission staff at Tishomingo, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, c. 1904 (20288.76.41.42, Chickasaw Council House Museum Collection, OHS)

 

While guardianship and restrictions were enacted as legal tools to protect against land swindling, the former only enabled the swindlers, while the latter posed a legal hurdle to be overcome by hook or by crook. “Full bloods'' and their heirs were restricted from selling their land for twenty-five years, except by an act of Congress. In the years following Slick’s discovery, however, the names of hundreds of Native Americans were attached as riders to bills passed by Congress, thus lifting restrictions, and small-town Oklahoma newspapers printed their names. Guardianship of minors’ property lay in the hands of their parents but, on their eighteenth birthdays, the legal means of transferring property went to the deed owner. Historian Angie Debo wrote that “grafters carried around birthday books of allottees. Weeks ahead of their birthdays, allottees were kidnapped and driven across state lines, where courts were less familiar with the large-scale swindling in Oklahoma. Blood quantum has always been as much a social construction as a biological reality, so many allottees’ fractions of Native blood were nothing more than the reflection of a Dawes commissioner’s imagination. Dawes commissioners, faced with hundreds of thousands of people who thought about identity in terms of kinship instead of race, often simply guessed at blood quantum based on skin color and dress.

In sum, the “protections” afforded by guardians and the hurdles of restrictions on the alienation of lands did virtually nothing to prevent land theft. A year after statehood, most restrictions on those less than one half-blood were lifted in a piece of legislation informally known as “the Crime of 1908.” Allottees who resisted the grafters were bribed, intimidated, and kidnapped. Sometimes, as in the case of Jackson Barnett, an allottee would become incredibly wealthy. It was much harder for grafters to lift restrictions on “full bloods,” and a small industry of middlemen endeavored to connect full bloods to oilmen. Rich Muscogees like Barnett were the source material for legends about Native Americans who drove new cars until they ran out of gas and then bought another new car rather than gassing up the old one. A Muscogee woman named Lucinda Pittman was said to have demanded that the headquarters of Cadillac in Detroit make her a car that was not black. Cadillac, as the tale goes, then started manufacturing its cars in different colors after Pittman’s demand.

Like many folktales, these stories had a degree of truth, but the larger picture was one of exploitation and dispossession. It was clear that the region was beset by chaos, and each allottee could tell their own particular story of the unintended consequences of guardianship and restrictions. But no one case better illustrates the depth of deceit, double-dealing, and mystery than that of Tommy Atkins.

The Dawes Commission first came across Tommy’s name in an 1895 census executed by the Town King of the Euchee band of Muscogee Indians. This census served as the starting point for the Dawes Rolls of the Muscogee Nation. The census taker wrote that a certain Thomas Atkins was living with Minnie Atkins at the time, but someone annotated the census with the phrase “error of one,” next to the Atkinses. Minnie and her sister, Nancy, were living together with two children and another relative named Ed Scrimsher.


The Atkins sisters had been very close, but Nancy often complained of receiving none of the attention and privileges that Minnie received. Minnie had attended the Tullahassee Manual Labor School after the death of their parents, while Nancy was passed around from one relative to the next. Minnie had gone away to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, while Nancy had stayed behind to work as a laundry woman in a Wagoner hotel.

Before the discovery of oil, however, no one took much of an interest in the contradictory nature of Tommy’s existence. By the summer of 1902, when he was enrolled, the commission was under pressure to wrap up its work and prepare Indian Territory for statehood. Had the commissioners looked into the error on the census, they would have noticed that Nancy and Minnie shared duties raising the children and that the name Tommy might have referred to a nephew of theirs, not a child. Her living children, Charley and Harvey Harrison, also were enrolled as one-fourth Muscogee Indians fathered by a white man named George Harrison from Colorado. While the enrollment of Harvey and Charley Harrison was fairly straightforward, the case of Tommy was riddled with questions, beginning with his mother. While Minnie made the first legal claim to be Tommy’s mother, Nancy won a Creek County lawsuit against her sister with dubious evidence suggesting that she was the mother.

Tullahassee Manual Labor School located in Wagoner County, April 1891 (1553, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)

 

The only Thomas Atkins people knew of had been dead for twenty years. The federal government owed Muscogee citizens money dating back to the end of the Civil War when a newly resurgent Union seized the western half of the Muscogee Nation as punishment for the tribe’s support of the Confederacy. As part of a new treaty, every Muscogee citizen was due an annuity payment of $14.40 in 1895, which would settle accounts between the tribe and the federal government.


Student portrait of Minnie Atkins from Carlisle Indian Industrial School,1885 (Image courtesy of the author)

 

By this time, whites outnumbered citizens of the Five Tribes in Indian Territory by a four-to-one margin. Chief Pleasant Porter of the Muscogee Nation wrote that his people were on the “road to disappearance.” With the discovery of oil in Oklahoma and a federal law ordering the dismantling of tribal sovereignty, Indian Territory was in the midst of an invasion. The Muscogee Nation, along with the other four southern tribes, held out against allotment until the Curtis Act of 1898 forced their hand. Some, like Crazy Snake, chose to fight the invasion. Chief Porter urged assimilation. Meanwhile, opportunists saw a chance to exploit the confusion around who, exactly, was a citizen of the Five Tribes. White swindlers bribed their way onto the rolls, and some enrolled citizens collected money twice.


More common than fraud among the Muscogees, however, was a refusal among traditionalists to enroll with yet another federal agency. To the Dawes agents on the ground, it was clear that the legitimacy of the entire project was suspect. Many non-Indians were finding their way onto official rolls while many Indigenous people were being excluded. The Indian agent cutting checks for the Atkins family gave Minnie three payments, including one for Thomas Atkins. It could have been an oversight, an accounting error, or a blatant act of fraud.

Muscogee Chief Pleasant Porter (9199, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)


 

Almost as soon as she took the extra payment, Minnie Atkins knew she was in trouble. Minnie left her children, Charley and Harvey behind in the care of Nancy and traveled out west, where her boyfriend, a Pennsyvania farmer, played in the US Army band. The soldier, Harry Folk, was soon redeployed to Fort Vancouver, Washington. It was there, in 1909, Minnie Atkins became Minnie Folk. Minnie Folk is listed on her marriage certificate as a white woman from El Paso, Texas, with the occupation of cook. The Folks took up residence in a tidy colonial revival cottage at the fort. She adapted to her new life and never mentioned her maiden name or former life to anyone.

In the mid-1880s, Atkins spent some time living and working in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In Fort Leavenworth, Atkins had been known as “Indian Minnie,” an itinerant woman with several soldier boyfriends. She worked as a domestic in several households around the fort and struggled to find a stable home. Life around Fort Leavenworth in the 1880s was rough, as the fort attracted all manner of gamblers, swindlers, and prostitutes. To make matters worse for Atkins, employers spoke in openly racist terms against her as a Native American. Running away with Folk gave her an opportunity to reinvent herself. In Washington, she was Minnie Folk, a dutiful wife and white woman from Texas who lived an ordinary domestic life.


Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake), c. 1900 (3905, W. P. Campbell Collection, OHS).

 

The question of who Tommy was, and whether he even existed, would have remained a compelling mystery even without the discovery of oil on his land. The explosion of Tom Slick’s oil well near Drumright, however, raised the stakes of the mystery. Slick’s discovery was only six miles south of Tommy’s land. It was clear the oil deposit extended north; Tommy’s allotment was squeezed in between Sarah Rector’s, a young freedwoman proclaimed the “richest Black girl in America” by the NAACP, and Luther Manuel’s, the so-called “richest Negro boy in the world.”


Fire at the Glenn Pool Field after an electrical storm, c.1906 (18827.016.B, Albertype Collection, OHS).

 

The drama around Rector and Manuel had caught the attention of W. E. B. DuBois, who helped secure legal protection for Rector and move her to a safe location in Kansas City, Missouri. The oil around Drumright—even more than the fabled Glenn Pool— would cement Tulsa’s reputation as the Oil Capital of the World. In their rush to capture oil, many wildcatters were willing to drill first and sign the legal paperwork later. The dubious dealings went both ways, as some allottees signed multiple leases for the same piece of land. Guardians fought over allottees, many of whom simply wanted to be left alone. On Tommy’s land, a rancher-turned-oil-baron from Sapulpa named H. U. Bartlett drilled several discovery wells. When Bartlett struck oil in 1912, he claimed to have obtained a valid lease from Minnie Atkins. Bartlett’s wells were bringing in so much oil that large quantities of it were wasting away in open pits near the Cimarron River. With money flowing in, Bartlett was making plans to expand his reach into glass manufacturing in Sapulpa.

As news of the gusher spread, Minnie Atkins’s sister, Nancy, appeared in the Creek County Courthouse with evidence that Tommy was her son. A former Oklahoma judge, N. B. Maxey, represented Nancy’s claim that Tommy had been born and died as a young man in Wagoner, Oklahoma. Maxey had witnesses from Wagoner who said they knew the kid, but the real bombshell was Maxey’s evidence that the Minnie Atkins on Bartlett’s lease was an imposter. The woman claiming to be Atkins was a Muscogee woman named Betty Mann who had known Atkins from their days at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Bartlett and Mann looked for Atkins, but concluded that she had most likely died. If Tommy and his mother died intestate and without an heir, then the royalties the oil lease would revert back to the Muscogee Nation. Rather than notify the tribe of this, Mann stepped in to impersonate her old friend and collect a small payment. Mann had a notorious reputation around town, and she went on to face prosecution for perjury.


Bartlett claimed he had been duped, but it was entirely possible that he was the author of the scheme and Mann was his willing pawn. Mann would come back to play an important role in tracking down Minnie Akins and seems to have been willing to commit a series of frauds. Maxey’s allegations convinced Judge Stanford at the Creek County court to award the Tommy Atkins lease to Nancy Atkins. Oklahoma judges were notorious for facilitating graft, and they were under enormous pressure from Washington to clean up their act. Agents from the Department of the Interior understood that Oklahoma was playing by its own rules when it came to managing the affairs of Native Americans.


H. U. Bartlett vowed to find the real Minnie Atkins. He sent out private investigators to pursue leads from Mexico to Pennsylvania, where Atkins had attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Since collecting the extra annuity payment and moving to Washington, Minnie Atkins had cut ties with everyone back in Oklahoma. Her tribe had written her letters, warning that she would eventually be struck from their official rolls if she did not file paperwork with the Dawes Commission. Even though it meant forgoing 160 acres of land in Oklahoma, Atkins refused to answer any of the letters. Almost everyone who knew her assumed she was dead. Charley and Harvey Harrison had received their allotments, and, through them, it was known that their father was a man from Colorado named Harris or Harrison. Minnie had been given a provisional enrollment in the Muscogee Nation as Minnie Harris, but no one could even confirm that she was alive.


In 1915, someone in the Interior Department drew a red line through Minnie Harris’s name on her enrollment card. She was then stricken from the Muscogee Nation and assumed dead.


Muscogee authorities were meanwhile becoming increasingly suspicious of Bartlett’s maneuvers. Muscogee National Attorney R. C. Allen pleaded with federal investigators to look at the tribe’s own 1895 census, which noted the error in counting all the members of the Atkins family. Allen concluded that Minnie Atkins passed her dead father off as a living relative to collect an extra payment. If true, that would make Atkins guilty of the federal crime of making false statements. It was clear that this affair was too much for a county judge in Sapulpa to handle. The Interior Department was in the midst of enacting a bigger agenda: to wind down all tribal governments and get on with the business of civilizing this wild pocket of America. The Muscogees still had a skeleton government and a few friends in federal agencies who were incensed by what was happening in Oklahoma. The Muscogee Nation would need all the help it could get because a much savvier and richer man than H. U. Bartlett would soon aim to wrest control of the Tommy Atkins fortune.


A statue of Charles Page that stands in front of Sand Springs' Page Memorial Library. (Photo courtesy of the author.)


 

This man had built up an entire town out from nothing but a small Muscogee village on the banks of the Arkansas. He transliterated the Mvskoke named of the village into English--Sand Springs. After making a small fortune in the Glenn Pool, he slowly built Sand Springs into an industrial powerhouse, a place that supplied Tulsa's bottled water and ran its most important passenger rail service. Tommy Atkins became an obsession to this man. He would eventually risk almost everything, including an orphans and widows colony known as the Sand Springs Home, to prove what many people assumed to be a fiction: that Tommy Atkins was indeed a Creek boy and that he--Charles Page--held the only valid title to drill for oil on his land.


In 1917, Charles Page's case looked dubious at best. A federal judge put the majority of his operations under a court-appointed receiver. The Tulsa World called him "a fraud." The whispers around the Hotel Tulsa were that the government would cancel the allotment and Page would go broke. But behind Page's homespun, folksy demeanor was a cunning businessman with a background in espionage in the Pinkerton Agency.


And Charles Page was determined to forge a Tommy Atkins into existence, no matter what the cost and who opposed him.


To be continued in Part 2....

 

Dr. Russell Cobb is an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta and the author of The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2020).

The author would like to thank researcher Gina Covington and Apollonia Piña for their research contributions to this article.



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Justin Williams
Justin Williams
Jan 01
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

This is such a fascinating story. As a graduate of Glenpool High School in 2002, we learned a bit about Oklahoma history. This goes much deeper. Thank you to Russell Cobb et el for their hard work. I cannot wait for part 2!

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