Will Rogers--Indian, Cowboy and Legendary Entertainer.
Will Rogers with Horseshoes
The Cherokee Cowboy
Rogers was born November 1879 as William Penn Adair Rogers, the son or a prominent Indian Territory family, in what is now Oklahoma. He reminds me much of Mark Twain as a humorist, writer, performer and social commentator, without Twain’s hard edge.
I think I’ve heard quips of Rogers all my life but I think my first introduction to Rogers was the movie The Story of WillRogers in which his son Will Rogers, Jr. played his father. I find that when I go by memory of a movie that I haven’t seen for a long time I don’t always remember right. However, I recall two things from the movie, which I saw when I was in the equivalent to junior high school. The first was that Rogers was given the honor at a political convention of a favorite son nomination. I was impressed at the time because I thought it was a bigger deal than it was, since favorite son is sort of like an honorary degree. The other thing I recall is that Will Rogers got on a train and met Gene Autry, who was a telegraph operator at the time. Autry wrote about it.
His parents were Clement Vann Rogers (1839-1911) and Mary America Schrimsher (1838-1890). Mary was quarter Cherokee Indian. According to Wikipedia Will was 9/32’s Cherokee. His mother belonged to the Paint Clan.
Youngest of eight children he was named for the Cherokee leader Col. William Penn Adair. His father Clement V. Rogers was a Cherokee leader: a judge, Confederate veteran and a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. He also served several terms on the Cherokee senate.
Unable to live up to his father’s expectations a rife developed between the two until Will became a success in vaudeville. He was a good student and read the New York Times but left school after the tenth grade. He preferred cowboys, horses, and learned to rope and ride.
For a few years he worked the Dog Iron ranch. In 1901 he left with a friend hopping to work as gauchos in Argentina. After a few months trying to succeed as ranch owners in the Argentina pampas they lost their money and he was too embarrassed to write home for more. Rogers went alone to South Africa and got work at Piccione’s Ranch in Mooi river station.
Wild West Show
Texas Jack had a small Wild West show that did a big business in camps. “I did some roping and riding.” He said and Jack took an interest in him. Rogers learned from Jack and moved on to Australia. He got a letter of introduction to the Wirth Brothers Circus. Later he brought his act to the vaudeville stage.
At Madison Square Garden a runaway steer began to climb into the viewing stand. Will roped the steer, the crowd was delighted and Will made front-page news
In 1908 he married Betty Blake and they had four children His son Bill played him in the film, was a WWII hero and a member of congress.
Rogers went on to write a newspaper column, play in movies, went on “lecture tours” a la Mark twain. He also became a star on radio using the material from his newspaper columns.
A staunch Democrat, he did support Republican Calvin Coolidge. FDR was his favorite. Briefly he served as mayor of Beverly Hills.
In 1928 he did a mock presidential campaign called the “Anti-bunk Party.”
He liked liberal philosophies on most issues and extolled hard work and long hours of toil in order to succeed. He symbolized the self-made man, the common man who believed in America, in progress and the American dream of upward mobility. Seems like contradictions by today’s standards.
His use of language was legendary, as he used up-to-date slang and invented new words. He also used puns and cowboy terms and southern speech patterns. He seems like the ancestor of the modern cowboy poets.
Rogers was avid about air travel and like other performers was destined to die in an air crash. August 15, 1935 Rogers and his pilot Wiley Post died in an air crash after take off from a lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska.
Memorials abound in Oklahoma for their favorite son. Many places and buildings are named for him. California and Texas have memorials as well.
© 2010 Don A. Hoglund