Angie Debo: A Biographical Sketch by Herself

(From the Angie Debo Collection, Box 1, Folder 1)

[Note: Italicized passages contain added context and were researched and written in 2017 by Kurt Anderson, Ph.D.]

I was born on a farm near Beattie, Kansas, January 30, 1890; in 1895 I was taken from the Beattie vicinity by my parents to a farm about twenty miles south of Manhattan. In 1889 my father bought a farm near Marshall, Oklahoma Territory, and brought his family—my mother, my younger brother, and me—there in a covered wagon. We arrived on November 8, 1899, and I have a distinct memory of the warm, sunny day, the lively little new town, and the greening wheat fields we passed as we lumbered slowly down the road to our new home. I attended rural one-room schools in Kansas and Oklahoma; passed a territorial examination and received a common school diploma at the age of twelve (1902); and then waited hopelessly around for a high school to open. I finally got one year of high school in the village school at Marshall, riding 3 ½ miles on my pony, then waited around some more. There was no library, no magazines, and only the one book our parents managed to buy for each of us children as a Christmas present.

Lina Elbertha Cooper (born in Kankakee, Illinois September 27, 1865) moved with her father’s family to the Beattie community in the fall of 1883. There she met Edward Peter Debo (born in Peru, Illinois on September 7, 1862) who was living in the home of his sister, Lisetta, while he shucked corn for her husband, William Tilden. An energetic, hard-working young man, Edward had become known throughout the community as the “cyclone shucker” after he set a record for husking, hauling and cribbing one hundred bushels of corn – a pace he maintained all season long. Edward and Lina married on February 19, 1889, and set out to make their life together on the first of several rented farms in the area. Their first child, Angie Elbertha, was born the following January. Their second child, Edwin Forrest, was born on October 24, 1891.

Although the young couple steadily accumulated cattle and other property, they had always dreamed of owning their own farm; the Oklahoma Territory Land Run of 1889 gave them that opportunity. By 1899 the Debos were ready and, because that land had been patented, Edward sold his cattle and whatever else would not fit into two wagons and bought a farm there for $1,400. In one wagon he loaded his walking plow, mower, and some smaller tools, and set out followed by Lina and the two children in a covered wagon filled with as many of the family’s personal possessions as it would hold and rigged for sleeping. The move to Marshall lasted about a week, and while the adults shouldered the heavy responsibilities of the trip, for the children the journey was one of pure excitement and adventure as they saw new sights, ate meals cooked out in the open, and slept under canvas in their very own “prairie schooner.”

Angie Debo always cherished her memories of the family’s first years in Oklahoma. Her father soon enlarged the farm’s one-room shack into a three-room house, planted a fruit orchard, and built a sturdy barn. Her mother managed all of the household chores, gardened, and raised turkeys to buy a reed organ to give her daughter music lessons. Over time the Debos enlarged their farm, built a more substantial home, and formed new relationships at church and in the community.

Finally I became sixteen, then the legal age for a teacher’s certificate. I took another territorial examination and started out as a rural school teacher, teaching in Logan and Garfield counties near Marshall. Then Marshall finally worked up to a four-year high school, and I went back and graduated with the first class in 1913, at the advanced age of twenty-three. There followed two more years of rural teaching. Then I entered the University of Oklahoma in 1915, and was graduated in 1918. There my college major was history, and I came under the influence of Edward Everett Dale and looked ahead to a career of historical writing. I continued teaching, however; I served as village principal at North Enid one year (1918-19), then taught history four years in the Enid High School (1919-23).

Her time in Enid brought Angie Debo the first of many honors that she would earn throughout her long career. In 1920 she was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. And in her last year there, the grateful citizens of Enid bestowed upon her a Community Service Certificate.

I spent the year 1923-24 at the University of Chicago, receiving my master’s degree in 1924. My master’s thesis turned out well and was published (with J. Fred Rippy, my supervisor, as co-author) in the Smith College Studies in History, under the title, The Historical Background of the American Policy of Isolation. It was published in 1924.

During 1924-33 I was a member of the history department of the West Texas State Teachers College (now West Texas State University) at Canyon. The following year (1933-34) I served as curator of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the same campus. During this time I worked on my doctorate at the University of Oklahoma, receiving my degree in 1933. My doctoral dissertation was published as The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1934. It was awarded the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association and was so well received by reviewers that I resigned from my academic position and went into freelance writing. During this time of writing I had some institutional connections one summer on the history faculty at Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College at Nacogdoches, Texas; some summers on the history faculty of Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A. and M. College); and a year or more as state director of the Federal Writers Project in Oklahoma.

In 1927 Angie was inducted into the Pi Gamma Mu, national social science honor society. Tragically, on October 3, 1931, her brother Edwin died of Hodgkin’s disease.

The years from 1934-1946 were some of Angie Debo’s most productive. Beginning in 1934 she undertook the research and began writing what arguably became her most important work, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. Two years later she completed the manuscript. In 1937 she worked alongside Grant and Carolyn Foreman editing and conducting interviews for the WPA Indian-Pioneer Project. They later became two of her dearest friends and their joint project resulted in the Indian-Pioneer Papers. From 1937 to 1939 she researched and wrote the third installment of what Pulitzer-prize winning Western author Larry McMurtry calls her Indian trilogy. Hoping to attract a wider audience for the book, she titled it The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians. After languishing for four years due to its controversial nature and the refusal by the Oklahoma University Press to publish it, And Still the Waters Run finally went into print in 1940 under the auspices of the Princeton University Press. Yet despite the significance of the graft she had uncovered, the book was largely ignored, a circumstance Debo attributed, in part, to the public’s focus on the German conquest of France and the Low Countries. From 1940 to 1941 she supervised the Federal Writers’ Project in Oklahoma, a frustrating experience for Debo which nevertheless yielded the well-received Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. Nineteen-forty-one also saw the publication of The Road to Disappearance. In 1942, the Oklahoma City Chapter of Theta Sigma Phi, an honorary professional journalism fraternity for women, named Angie Debo the state’s “Outstanding Woman.” That same year she became an Alfred A. Knopf Fellow. In 1943 the University of Oklahoma Press published Debo’s Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital. The next year Alfred A. Knopf published Prairie City: The Story of an American Community, her only work of fiction, albeit based on the history of Marshall and surrounding towns. That same year Angie lost her beloved father following a short illness, and she became a licensed local preacher for Marshall’s United Methodist Church. In 1946 she became a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Oklahoma.

I returned to an institutional connection in 1947 when I became a member of the library staff at Oklahoma State University and served there until my retirement in 1955. (I have had no library training, but this position did not require it; I served as curator of maps.) Later I spent another year at OSU to fill a leave of absence vacancy in the history department during 1957-58. But since 1955 I have spent most of my time at Marshall, where I still live.

Angie Debo’s years at Oklahoma A&M (Oklahoma State University after 1958) were as eventful and productive as any period of her life. In 1949 the University of Oklahoma Press published Oklahoma: Foot-loose and Fancy-free. Funded in part by a Rockefeller Fellowship, it did not turn out the way her sponsors had hoped, and the disappointment felt by Edward Everett Dale over the final product sorely strained his relationship with Angie. Nevertheless, the rift was soon healed following Dale’s attendance at a reception honoring Angie and the book’s release at the Edmon Low Library in Stillwater. In that same year she conducted a survey of social and economic conditions in the full blood settlements of the Five Civilized Tribes for the Indian Rights Association. In 1950 Angie was inducted into the Oklahoma Memorial Association’s Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The following year she published the results of her survey in The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma: Report on Social and Economic Conditions. In 1952 she began writing a column entitled “This Week in Oklahoma History” for the Oklahoma City Times, became a book reviewer for the New York Times, found herself inducted into Gamma Theta Upsilon, a national professional geographic fraternity, and initiated into Delta Kappa Gamma, a national honor society for women teachers. After years of frustration trying to find a publisher for her edited version of Oliver Nelson’s memoirs, to Angie’s immense relief the Arthur H. Clarke Company finally published them in 1953 as The Cowman’s Southwest: being the reminiscences of Oliver Nelson, freighter, camp cook, cowboy, frontiersman in Kansas, Indian Territory, Texas and Oklahoma, 1878-1893. Sadly, Angie suffered yet another deep personal loss in 1954 with the death of her mother, Lina, following years of declining health. Two years later, Angie had once again immersed herself in her work on behalf of Native Americans as she became a member of the board of directors of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and under its auspices conducted a survey of the effects of the Relocation policy on Oklahoma’s Indians. As Angie’s tenure at newly-rechristened Oklahoma State University reached its end, she began editing the Oklahoma Indian Newsletter and celebrated Angie Debo Recognition Day in her hometown of Marshall. Then, happily retired from OSU, Angie made her first overseas trip to Europe and the U.S.S.R.

The tumultuous decade of the 1960s saw Angie as active as ever. Following a trip to Mexico in the summer of 1960, the Oklahoma Historical Society awarded her an honorary life membership. In 1962 Debo’s edited version of Horatio B. Cushman’s History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians was published, the Soroptimist Club of Oklahoma City awarded her a Certificate of Contribution to Oklahoma City, and she resumed her travels with trips to Canada and England. Three years later Angie found herself teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1966 she visited Africa. In the final year of the decade she participated in Marshall’s first annual Prairie City Days held in her honor, and traveled to Alaska, a trip which inspired her to spend the next six years lobbying successfully for the land rights of that state’s native peoples.

Royalties from the 1970 publication of A History of the Indians of the United States and Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place in 1976 at last afforded Angie Debo the elusive financial security for which she had worked so hard; and her well-received biography of Geronimo, in particular, brought her ever greater recognition as a writer. The Border Regional Library Association honored Angie with its Southwest Book Award for Biography in 1977. One year later she received the Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Association of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Southwestern Library Association 1978 Book Award. Other tributes to her life and work included a life membership in the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation in 1974, the Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award at Oklahoma State University in 1976, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Wake Forest University in 1978, and the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History in 1979.

Angie Debo’s last years capped her career with still greater honors as well as a documentary film featuring highlights of her long and productive life. In 1980 Oklahoma State University held a reception in her honor. From 1981-1985, OSU faculty members Gloria Valencia-Weber and Glenna Matthews interviewed Angie for an oral history project which, in conjunction with those conducted by the Institute for Research in History from 1982-1986, provided the basis for an installment of the PBS American Experience Series titled Indians, Outlaws, and Angie Debo. In 1982 Oklahoma State University established the “Angie Debo Award for Oklahoma History,” and she received honorary life membership in the Payne County Historical Society. A year later Angie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Hereford, Texas, and she received a Distinguished Service Citation from the University of Oklahoma Alumni Association. In 1985 the Cherokee Nation designated her an Ambassador of Goodwill, she received a Certificate of Recognition from the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, and, in what was perhaps her proudest moment, the State of Oklahoma hung her portrait in the Rotunda of the State Capitol – the first woman so honored. Angie received the Achievement Award from the American Indian Historians Association in 1986. In 1987 the American Historical Association granted her its Award for Scholarly Distinction; and in January 1988 Oklahoma Governor Henry L. Bellmon presented it to her at a special ceremony at her home in Marshall.

I am sometimes asked to state my “goals and ambitions in writing.” I suppose I have only one: to discover truth and publish it. My research is objective, but when I find all the truth on one side, as has sometimes happened in my study of Indian history, I have the same obligation to become involved as any other citizen. For that reason I have served on the board of directors of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and have made surveys for this association and for the Indian Rights Association.

Angie Debo died on February 21, 1988, and was buried at North Cemetery in Marshall.