“Every man must leave a track and it might as well be a good one.” And it is with the inspiration of those words that the City of Tulsa has kept the memory of Thomas Gilcrease alive along with his beautiful collection of art.
Thomas Gilcrease was the oldest of 14 children and born in 1890. His parents, William and Elizabeth Gilcrease, had a mixed ancestry, which included Muscogee (Creek) Indian. When he was just an infant, his parents would move them from Louisiana to Oklahoma Territory. It was there, the Creek Nation, they would call home.
Growing up, Tom had an unquenchable curiosity and growing up in a rural area was the perfect place to develop that curiosity. He would be taught to tend the fields and family store. The family gospel was hard work and his formal education was limited. This wouldn’t slow his curiosity and love of history, especially of the American Indian.
His Wealth Was Soon on its Way and Museum Soon to Follow
At the age of nine, the Creek tribal rolls would enter Thomas Gilcrease’s name, making him eligible for a land allotment of 160 acres. That land would be located by chance within the Glenn Pool oilfield, which would gain fame for its petroleum riches in 1905.
These 160 acres would have over 30 oil wells by 1917, giving Gilcrease an income that allowed him to attend Bacone College and further his education. Finishing up his formal education at a teacher college in Kansas, where he would meet his wife, Belle Harlow. They married in 1908 and had two sons.
His 160 acres of oil rich land would lure the young man to begin an exploration company of his own in 1922. In 1925, the young oilman would travel to Europe. That trip was the changing point for his life.
He and Belle would divorce in 1926, and Gilcrease would continue to have a vast income from his oil throughout the early 1930s. During this time, he went on to purchase artifacts, books, and manuscripts in spectacular amounts, creating a collection that would eventually become the Gilcrease Museum we know today.
After a brief marriage to a former Miss America, Norma Smallwood, that brought a daughter into the world, the marriage failed soon. This would not slow Gilcrease’s enthusiasm and interest in art and culture though. He became enchanted with the wealth and grandeur of Old-World culture, and he gained an even bigger appetite for collecting fine art.
He soon realized that he couldn’t compete with well-established European collectors and would take a course that came from his personal upbringing. His inspiration would come from his own heritage, and from that grew his collections of Native American culture and history with the beautiful and fine objects found in the Gilcrease Museum today.
A Private Museum Was Born
In 1949, Thomas Gilcrease found a private museum which would house a comprehensive and impressive collection of American West art, artifacts, and historical documents that he collected and purchased. Once referred to as “a kind of Smithsonian Institution of the American West,” by Richard Saunders, an American art historian, hinting at the impact and influence it made and would continue to make.
Gilcrease would take his business holdings to Texas, where he continued to travel and collect his love of arts and history, but that business wouldn’t thrive as well, nor was his collections well received in San Antonio. He would soon return to Oklahoma in 1949 where he would open his museum, The Thomas Gilcrease Museum.
Gilcrease would collect more and more at a torrid pace, and when the oil revenues that earned him his personal wealth began to slow, he found himself in a financially strapped situation by 1953. With a debt over $2 million dollars owing business associates, art brokers, and galleries for some of his various acquisitions, he would fight competing suitors, wanting to maintain his collections.
In 1954, the City of Tulsa came to his rescue, and organized a bond that would pay off his debts, securing his vast collection to be enjoyed and treasured by the community. In 1955, Gilcrease transferred his collection title to the city and they would rename his museum to be the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art.
Three years later, he deeded the museum buildings to the community with 13 acres of land. Gilcrease oil revenues were committed toward reimbursing bond, which was paid off some 30 years later. Regardless of his financial struggles, Gilcrease would always have a passion for collecting until his death in 1962.
Today His Collections are Still Admired
In addition to the stunning artwork this oilman collected over the yeasr, there are also thousands of rare books, documents, manuscripts, and more that we enjoy viewing and learning from today.
From the Age of Exploration to the Spanish and Mexican influence on this country, Gilcrease acquired so much. There are documents from famous and infamous people like Christopher Columbus, Hernando de Soto, and Hernan Cortez, as well as the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas. The “Freedom Train” contents are on display as well as a certified copy of the Declaration of Independence owned by Frederick the Great and a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson on July 2, 1776.
To appreciate it all, one must visit the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in person. Allowing one to become wrapped up in the immense history this Tulsa oilman collected during his rich oil days is something that you’ll never forget.
1400 N Gilcrease Museum Rd, Tulsa, OK 74127