The story of William Thomas Gilcrease is one of a man who possessed almost unbelievable good luck and a largesse of spirit to match it. This and his love of nature and pride in his Indian blood led him from a poverty striken childhood on a Creek Nation reservation in Oklahoma to establishing one of the finest collections of Indian and American Western art in the world. His collection is housed in the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Thomas Gilcrease (he went by Thomas, as William was also his dad's name) was born in 1890 in Robeline, Louisiana. His parents moved to Indian Territory in what in now Oklahoma that same year. His father built a log home near Eufaula and ran a cotton gin in a small community called Mounds. A one-room school house nearby provided Thomas with his first taste of formal education under the tutelage of the Creek poet Alex Posey. This initial exposure to the ideas of a larger world fired his imagination and became the basis of his life-long passion, education. When Thomas was only nine years old, the United States Government decided to dissolve the Indian Nations land and give each person an 160 acre allotment. Thomas, being of 1/8 Creek heritage recieved his allotment. It was just southwest of Tulsa and appeared to be just another dry dusty area of the Osage Hills, but in 1905, drillers struck oil on a nearby farm. Tom's land sat astride a huge reserve of oil, named Glenn Pool after Ida Glenn the woman who owned the nearby allotment. Tulsa became a boom town and young Thomas Gilcrease became fantastically wealthy. By 1910 at the age of twenty-one, Gilcrease was a multi-millionaire.
Gilcrease was uneducated in the cut-throat business techniques of the oil business and struggled initially as an oil tycoon, but he quickly learned the ropes and became a major player in the industry. His success enabled him to start a second career, one close to his heart: that of an art collector.
Gilcrease began to travel the world looking for new art, fine art, Native American art, historical documents, anything that appealed to him. Thomas Gilcrease devoted his life to the study of American history and art. He collected anything related to those topics including a large amount of Mexican and Central American material, as well as material from the Pacific Northwest and Canada. He collected more than 10,000 artworks, 250,000 Native American artifacts and 100,000 rare books and documents, including the only surviving certified copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Gilcrease bought a house to display his collection in. The stone house with a wraparound porch was perched atop a hill overlooking the booming town that was Tulsa in 1914. This house still stands next to the museum and houses the Tulsa Historical Society. There he planted a garden dedicated to showcasing and preserving species of plants used by the Indians. He created other gardens filled with exotic species of plants, and still others designed to reflect the periods of history represented in his collections of art and artifacts.
Thomas Gilcrease was anything but a uninvolved collector of art however. He was very proud of his Creek Heritage and founded an Indian orphanage in the mid-1940s on the grounds of what is today Gilcrease Museum. Thomas supported a number of artists during his lifetime. Three key Oklahoma Indian artists that he financed were Woody Crumbo, Acee Blue Eagle, and Willard Stone. Each of these artists created works that he placed in his collection. In 1946 he was made an honorary Lakota tribal member and was given the name Wicarpi Wakatuya, which means “High Star.”
Thomas Gilcrease's remarkable luck continued throughout his life. He opened The museum of the American Indian in San Antonio, Texas in 1943, but it failed to attract visitors. Believing that an important collection of American western art would attract the visitorship and public interest he desired, Gilcrease made one of the shrewdest acquisitions of American art of the century. He bought the entire collection of the late Dr. Philip Gillette Cole for an amount that today wouldn't buy a single work by one of the artists represented. The sixty three boxes of paintings and eleven crates of bronze statues that were delivered to Tulsa in 1947 contained twenty-seven bronzes and forty-six paintings by Charles Russell, seventeen bronzes and twelve paintings by Frederic Remington, as well as many correspondences between well known characters in the American West. With these works added to those he'd already collected, Gilcrease founded The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in 1949. He hired architect Alexandre Hogue to design a building to house his envisioned museum to display his treasures. Hogue designed the museum building to resemble an Indian longhouse. Gilcrease commissioned Oklahoma Indian artist Woody Crumbo to create an emblem for the museum. Crumbo created a colorful Peyote bird to adorn the entrance of the museum.
Gilcrease didn't fit the image of a genteel art collector. He lived a wild life, spending his money freely. He married and divorced twice, traveled almost constantly, lived extravagantly, and by the early ’50s was broke. Forced to put his art on the market, the city of Tulsa floated a bond issue, bought it, and became the proud owner of a world-class collection. When Gilcrease died in 1962, his funeral service included a traditional Indian ritual.