Seminole Nation, I. T.

Alice Brown Davis

A Leader Of Her People
by Paula Waldowski

 

 

The area which is now Oklahoma was thinly occupied in the early nineteenth century by several Indian tribes, thousands of buffalo, and a few traders and explorers. As a good deal of the land consisted of only tall prairie grass, it was considered "the Great American Desert" by many whites, useful for nothing. Thus, it was chosen as the ideal solution to the Indian problem in the East. The native tribes of the eastern United Stated, including the Five Civilized Tribes, were ordered to leave their homes and move to their new land, known as Indian Territory.

The Seminoles, who were among the tribes ordered to move, opposed removal, and the tribe eventually split into two factions over the issue. This split, which was common to all the tribes forced to move, was precipitated by the argument concerning whether the Indian's interests were best defended by accepting the white man's ways or by steadfastly clinging to their native heritage. Those who followed the latter belief refused to yield to the dictates of the white authorities and went into hiding in the Florida swamps, where they remained through two wars against the United States government and a century of distrust. Those in the tribe who considered acculturation their only hope agreed to removal. In 1832 they followed the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma, a hazardous overland route which took a heavy toll in Indian lives. Although all the Civilized Tribes underwent great difficulties in their migration, the Seminoles, poorest of the tribes, suffered what has been called "the worst of the removal hardships."

From the Seminoles who followed the trail west, one family emerged to provide the leadership of the tribe, in major and minor roles, for the next century. The Brown family produced four members who were undoubtedly the real leaders of the tribe, both officially and unofficially, and established a tradition of service that lasted from 1832 to 1935.

Alice Brown Davis lived during a period of tremendous change in Oklahoma. Born September 10, 1852, at the Cherokee mission town of Park Hill, she lived through the great buffalo migrations, the Civil War, the opening of Oklahoma to white settlement, the period of outlawry and violence, the struggle for statehood, the oil boom, and the emergence of modern society. Throughout her life, she followed the models of her father and brothers and tried to serve her people, the Seminoles, and guide them through the changes that occurred.

Alice was born into a family with a tradition of serving others. Her father, Dr. John F. Brown, emigrated from Scotland to the southeastern United States in the early 1800's and became a government physician. He accompanied the Seminole tribe along the Trail of Tears in 1832. At the end of the journey, he married Lucy Greybeard, a Seminole woman of the Tiger clan. The Tiger clan had traditionally provided the leaders of the Seminole tribe, as the "Seminoles reposed great faith and power in a hereditary chieftain." After the Seminoles settled in Oklahoma near Fort Gibson, Dr. Brown continued to serve them and the military and civilian population around the fort.

Alice's older brothers continued the family tradition of service as tribal leaders. John F. Brown, who was about to become the most famous member of the family, was the oldest of eight children. He served as a lieutenant in the Confederate Indian forces during the Civil War, and accompanied Chief John Jumper to Washington, D.C., to assist in signing the Treaty of 1866 at the close of the war. He later succeeded Chief John Jumper as principal chief of the Seminole tribe, and served in that capacity for many years. Andrew Jackson Brown, the second son, served the Seminole Nation as tribal treasurer for many years as well.

The Brown children were reared in the Fort Gibson area and were equally at home in both the white and Indian cultures. One of Alice's best friends was Jessie Chisholm of the well-known ranching family; her most important teacher was Caroline Bushyhead of the prominent Cherokee family. Alice attended many of the social functions at Fort Gibson as a young woman. The Browns, educated by Presbyterian and Baptist missionaries became active in mission work. The Browns accepted acculturation as the Seminoles only hope for progress but they never abandoned their tribal heritage. John and Jackson, who became wealthy businessmen, spent their lives working with and for the Seminole people, building a nation and striving to help its members.

Alice and her brothers received considerable education, which added to inherited talent, fitted them for leadership. As a child, she attended both Cherokee and Seminole mission schools, and studied Dickens and Shakespeare. She was also probably tutored to some extent by her father, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, who was fluent in several languages. Upon completion of her education, she became a teacher, probably at Mekasukey Academy for Boys at Sasakwa, a Baptist mission school. 

Alice followed the models of her father and brothers and, like them, served the tribe throughout her life. She became active in serving others as a young woman.  In 1867, when she was fifteen years old, a cholera epidemic struck the Seminole settlement at Greenhead Prairie, the area to which the Brown family had moved following the Civil War. Alice assisted her father in caring for the sick without regard to her own risk. They worked together throughout the epidemic; when it was over, her father died as a result of the long hours and overwork. 

In 1874 Alice married George Rollins Davis, a white man, and together they began a joint career of service to the Seminole community. After living in the Cherokee Nation for about ten years, they returned to the Seminole nation to begin a trading post called Arbeka. They also established a ranch, the Bar X Bar. George served as a peace officer during this time, and spent most of his time tracking down whites who were illegally selling liquor to the Indians. Alice helped him in running the ranch, the trading post, and the post office at Arbeka. They also were responsible for disbursing the local Indians' headright money and the Civil War pensions for veterans and widows.

During these years, the Davis's had eleven children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. When the youngest child was a toddler, George died. Alice, now in her late forties, assumed the duties of postmistress at Arbeka, and continued to run the trading post and ranch, which required considerable managerial skills. 

As Alice grew older, she became increasingly involved in the affairs of the tribe. After her husband's death, she became the superintendent of the Seminole girls' school, Emahaka. Emahaka had been built in 1892 by the Seminole Nation at a cost of more than $50,000, and it was extremely modern for the time and place. It was on of the few buildings in the territory able to boast indoor plumbing and steam heat. The school, which was originally run by the American Baptist Home Mission Society and later turned over to the Seminoles, offered grades one through ten. It was staffed by a faculty of eight, and has a curriculum ranging from elementary arithmetic and the first reader to natural philosophy and foreign languages.

When Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma, all tribal functions were turned over to civil authorities, including the Indian schools. Alice was ordered to turn over Emahaka to Superintendent John D. Benedict of the Department of the Interior, a white man with little respect for the Indians ability to learn or teach. Benedict intended to employ and pay all employees himself, possibly with the intention of eliminating the Indian teachers. Alice refused to give up control of  the school, and appointed all employees herself. This time, however, Alice did not get what she wanted. Her legal position was untenable, and she was advised to surrender the school.  Her brother, Chief John Brown, wrote Benedict that he had advised her to surrender the school, and the attorneys for the Seminole Nation advised the Department of the Interior that she would relinquish control of the academy. Finally Alice surrendered the school, but under protest, demanding her contractual rights and those of her staff.

Although Alice believed that learning the white man's ways was important to the Seminoles, she was determined to retain Indian control over Indian education. Her refusal to surrender the school demonstrated her desire to guide her people and protect them from the abuses of whites.

Alice was heavily involved in the legal affairs of the Seminoles. She was an interpreter in the law courts from the days of the Dawes Commission to 1935. She even traveled to Palm Beach, Florida in 1905 to act as an interpreter in a murder trial involving a Seminole man. Following the discovery of oil in Seminole County, both civil and criminal cases filled the docket. Alice again served as an interpreter in court.

Alice also became involved in several missions to Mexico, investigating a claim by the Seminoles for a land grant there. The Mexican government had promised such a grant to the Seminoles in return for the service of Chief Cowakogee (Wildcat), who had fought against the Apaches in defense of the Sonora region of Mexico in the 1840's. During the administration of Chief Hulputta, a group Seminoles considered a "removal into Mexico, and...went down into Mexico to view the country. Hulputta, Alice, and about thirty delegates went to Santa Rosalia, Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1903. Alice was again serving as interpreter, this time for Hulputta, who spoke little English. They met with Mexican officials to discuss the land grant, but achieved nothing.

In 1905 Alice returned with other influential Seminoles to Mexico City to pursue the land grant, but they had to drop the matter when the Mexican Revolution erupted. She returned once more in 1910, but too much time had elapsed and her mission to obtain the land grant failed.

In 1922 Alice was appointed principal chief of the Seminole tribe by President Warren G. Harding in order to facilitate the closing of the tribal land affairs. Although she was not the first woman to be chief of an Indian tribe, she was the first woman to head the Seminole Nation. There was some controversy over the appointment, but eventually she was accepted by both her own people and outsiders. Although she was appointed, and not elected in the Seminole tradition, she was well thought of and well respected and the people were happy with having her as Chief.

The tribal land affairs, which she had been appointed to resolve, became a source of contention between Alice and the government. A survey conducted in 1910 had shifted the old boundaries between the Creek and Seminole Nations, and the new boundaries transferred several important parcels of land to the Creeks. The new line went right through the middle of Alice's beloved Emahaka, and also transferred sections of land on which a number of Seminole churches stood. Alice refused to sign the deeds transferring them to the Creek Nation or the federal government, on the grounds that it was morally wrong for her to pass a most valuable tract of land out of the hands of the destitute Seminole people. She justified her refusal by stating, "If this be the cause of my resignation I will feel that I have don that which is right and just to myself and my people." The matter went into lengthy litigation and the case became moot when an abandoned Emakaha burned to the ground a few years later.

Alice continued to serve the Seminoles as chief until her death on June 21, 1935. She received many posthumous awards recognizing her achievements. She was elected to both the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the American Indian Hall of Fame; the Davis Building at the University of Oklahoma was dedicated to her memory. A bronze bust of Alice was unveiled at the 1964 World's Fair on Oklahoma Day in celebration of the life of this remarkable woman, who was truly "a leader of her people."

Throughout her life, Alice believed that the Indians should adapt the white man's lifestyle to their own, retaining their Seminole heritage while taking advantage of the benefits offered by another culture. She attempted to protect those who needed her help, to counsel and educate her tribe to better equip them to deal with their problems, and to guard the institutions of her people against the domination of the powerful whites. Her service in educational, religious, and legal affairs reflects her philosophy and her concern for her tribe, the legacy of the Brown family.  

 

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