Will Rogers: Actor, Comedian, Political Pundit, Truth Teller—And Proud Cherokee
By Steve Russell
President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “His appeal went straight to the heart of the nation. Above all things, in a time grown too solemn and somber he brought his countrymen back to a sense of proportion.”
On the day of his funeral, 51,000 people waited five hours in the hot Los Angeles sun for a brief chance to pay their respects. Every movie theater in the country went dark for two minutes; the CBS and NBC radio networks observed 30 minutes of silence in his honor.
The man himself would probably have been most moved by a story recounted by one of his many biographers: “In Locust Grove, Oklahoma, half a dozen Cherokees were building a fence when an old man drove along the road to tell them the news.… After a time, some of the Indians spoke of how they had known Will or remembered a favor he had done for someone. Then one said, ‘I can’t work any more today,’ and all of them stacked their tools and quietly walked away.”
Will Rogers was born on November 4, 1879, in Oologah, Cooweescoowee District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. He came into this world with a slightly more pretentious handle than “Will”—William Penn Adair Rogers. He was born, as is Cherokee custom, into his mother’s Paint Clan. His family was typical of the intermarriage that had been going on in the Cherokee Nation starting in the 17th century. His Paint Clan mother, Mary America Schrimsher, was one-fourth Cherokee by blood. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, known as Clem, was one-eighth. Then as now, a person was either a Cherokee citizen or not, regardless of blood quantum, and the Rogers family was. His father attended the Cherokee Male Seminary and then served the Cherokee Nation as a judge and later as a senator. His mother studied music at the Cherokee Female Seminary near Tahlequah. Rogers used to say, “I had just enough white in me to make my honesty questionable.”
For more on Will Rogers, see Will Rogers Educational Website and Will Rogers on Wall Street.