Sunday, May 31, 2009

William M. Jenkins: big stick vic

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History has judged William Miller Jenkins as a capable politician. However, he may nevertheless have been too dependent on a political ally; a flaw that left him vulnerable after the sudden departure of that person.

Jenkins was born in Alliance, Ohio in 1856. He attended Mount Union College, taught from 1876 to 1878, and then began studying law. He was admitted to the bar in 1883 and started practicing first in Harlan, Iowa and then Arkansas City, Kansas.

In 1888, Jenkins attended the Republican National Convention for that year's presidential contest. There, he earned the distinction of being the first person at such a convention to cast a vote in favor of nominating William McKinley. At that time, McKinley was a congressman from Ohio. Though the Republican nomination for that year went to Benjamin Harrison, Jenkins had earned McKinley's favor with his support.

Jenkins was appointed an agent for the allotment of Pawnee lands in Oklahoma, and began the position in 1891. Two years later, he was able to claim a piece of property during the Cherokee Outlet land run. When McKinley was elected President in 1896, he must have still looked on Jenkins with favor. Midway through his first year in office, he appointed Jenkins to serve as territorial secretary under Governor Cassius M. Barnes. When Barnes' term expired in April of 1901 and he chose to retire, Jenkins was named his successor and the fifth Governor of Oklahoma Territory.

The biggest event under Jenkin's term was the opening of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache and Wichita-Caddo lands to settlement in August of 1901, part of the overall disintegration of what had once been a territory-wide Indian reservation. The move made 3,460,000 acres of new land available. In order to prevent a mad dash for property, a la the "sooners" who broke deadlines and settled ahead of time, the land was put up for grabs by lottery. Over 160,000 people applied for claims, and an estimated 50,000 new people came into the territory as a result of the opening of the reservations. About 1,725,647 acres remained the territory of four Indian reservations, and Jenkins advocated that this land be allocated to the tribes with the "residue" opened for settlement.

At this period in history, the Oklahoma Territory was expanding rapidly in population and businesses. A 1900 census put the population at 398,331, over 500 percent greater than the previous year's census. In addition to his official duties, Jenkins served on the Territorial School-Land Board and as a regent for three universities in the state. The Department of the Interior, summarizing a report made by Jenkins in 1901, described the educational system as "excellent," with easy access to public schools. Though statehood would not arrive until 1907, Jenkins was already pushing for it during his term. "In the little more than a decade which has elapsed since the creation of the Territory the people have accomplished here more than any other community had ever accomplished in a quarter of a century," he said in November of 1901.

Jenkins' 1901 report to the Department of the Interior is dry reading, a summary of different areas of the territory's infrastructure. He concludes by recommending a uniform measure to apply to all school, college, and public lands; the cession of 4 million acres of land in the west to the territory to make up for losses in the eastern part of the territory; and the expansion of the territory's supreme court from five to seven justices.

The report also includes a section on the care of the insane, which Jenkins said was done by the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company under contract in a facility near Norman. "The site is beautiful and healthy," he wrote. "The buildings are commodious and in excellent sanitary condition." Among other statistics, he noted that the sanitarium's population stood at 315 on July 1 of 1901, and that it cost the territory $56,369.90 for the care and transportation of the insane during the year. It was rumors of misconduct in the awarding of this contract that would eventually end Jenkins' governorship.

In September of 1901, McKinley was shot by an assassin and died eight days later; Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt took his place. With the loss of Jenkins' longtime friend, his political opponents began pressing for an investigation into the Governor's contract with the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company. Jenkins was summoned to Washington, D.C. for a hearing. At the end of November of 1901, Roosevelt removed him from office due to his "improper connection" with the contract. "The decision is based purely upon his own written statements, and his oral explanations of them at the final hearing," he added.

According to Roosevelt, the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company had reserved $10,000 in stock for Jenkins at his order in exchange for the awarding of the contract. The President said Jenkins then rewarded some friends, to whom he had political obligations, with the stock. Roosevelt said the only known sale of stock since the reward benefited the seller at twice what was paid for it. "The Governor's confessed relations to the matter disclose such an entire lack of appreciation of the high fiduciary nature of the duties of his office as to unfit him for their further discharge," said Roosevelt.

William C. Grimes, the territorial secretary, served in Jenkins' stead for 10 days. Roosevelt then chose Thomas B. Ferguson, a newspaper publisher, postmaster at Watonga, and chairman of the Republican Territorial Committee to become the new Governor. Ferguson is said to have declared that Jenkins had "suffered a great injustice."

Historians have also been sympathetic to Jenkins. "Those were the days when Teddy was carving his big stick," John Bartlett Meserve wrote in 1942. "William M. Jenkins was a man of high character and no taint of official corruption actually attended him before or during his term as governor of Oklahoma Territory." In their biographical profile, the Oklahoma Historical Society writes that an inquiry by the Department of the Interior had found no wrongdoing prior Roosevelt's decision to sack Jenkins. The profile adds that the Territorial Legislature exonerated Jenkins after an investigation between 1903 and 1905.

Jenkins remained in Oklahoma to do farming work, moved to Utah for awhile, and then came back to Oklahoma to reside in Sapulpa. He was elected court clerk of Creek County in 1920, and was able to hold a variety of other public offices. He died in 1941.

Sources: The Oklahoma Historical Society, "Plea For Oklahoma Statehood" in the New York Times on Nov. 19 1901, "President's Rebuke to Gov. W.M. Jenkins" in the New York Times on Dec. 1 1901, West of Hell's Fringe: Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory 1889-1907 by Glenn Shirley, The International Year Book: A Compendium of the World's Progress During the Year 1901 edited by Frank Moore Colby, Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 20 No. 3 by John Bartlett Meserve, A History of Oklahoma by Joseph Bradfield Thoburn and Isaac Mason Holcomb, Report of the Governor of Oklahoma to the Secretary of the Interior: 1901, Report of the Secretary of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30 1901

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