Jesse Bartley Milam’s legacy as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation is strongly rooted in preserving the tribe’s language and history, while building community.
An exhibit to honor the businessman, father and chief is currently on display at the Cherokee Heritage Center.
Milam was chief from 1941 to 1949, and served his people during time when tribal chiefs were appointed by the U.S. president, which placed a certain infamy on the man accepting the role, said Cherokee Heritage Center Curator Mickel Yantz.
“He’s been grouped with those ‘chiefs for a day’ and that title is somebody who was appointed by the president. ‘Here, sign this document. Thanks, but no thanks’ and that’s it. He looked well beyond that, and I think that’s why he was appointed [Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation] three different times,” said Yantz. “FDR and Truman saw that he was actually making a difference in this area. So they kept appointing him for one-year terms, then four-year terms because of the difference he was making.
Yantz explained Milam didn’t view the appointment as He didn’t look a nice handshake title. He made the most of it.
“Yes, he was appointed, but he made a difference, and he took that very seriously,” said Yantz.
Milam began his run as the principal chief in 1938, when the National Council of Cherokees, who were not satisfied with the U.S. government appointment system, came together to choose their own leader. Milam was elected on April 16, 1941, and Franklin D. Roosevelt confirmed the Cherokee people’s selection. Harry S. Truman would later confirm Milam’s appointment as chief in 1942, 1943 and 1947.
“Yes, he was appointed by two different presidents, but he took advantage of that to help the Cherokee community and the people to establish what we have now,” said Yantz. “He was a huge history buff. He collected any type of manuscript and book that he could find on the Cherokee people to gather them in one place.”
Yantz said Milam started Cherokee language classes in Tulsa at the business college, and pointed out that today, people can take Cherokee [language] classes at Northeastern State University and the University of Oklahoma.
“We actually found correspondence between The University of Oklahoma and Milam because they became interested [in offering Cherokee language classes] back in the 1940s,” said Yantz. “And today you can take that class.”
Milam, who was born near Italy, Texas, on March 10, 1884, also helped build roads in Cherokee communities during a time when the man-made roads were gravel.
“One of the things that we cherish here, is Milam’s goal to purchase the property where we’re standing [or what is the site of Cherokee Heritage Center], which was the ruins of the female seminary, and he also wanted to purchase the Murrell Home and make them both historical sites for people to come and learn about Cherokee history. And now today, here we are,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that he got started and wasn’t able to see before he passed away, but W.W. Keeler, who he knew at the time, picked right up where Milam [left off]. He saw the same vision Milam had, and now a lot of it we have today because of that.”
Aside from seeking to bring back important cultural and historical items to the Cherokee Nation, Milam ultimately wanted to reconstruct the tribe’s government, which had been disassembled under the Curtis Act of 1898, and renew claims against the federal government. Milam established his experience in business attending the Cherokee Male Seminary in Tahlequah, and the Metropolitan Business College in Dallas.
He worked in his father’s hardware store, and worked as a cashier at the Bank of Chelsea, where a member of the Milam family still serves on the board. Milam also founded the Phillips and Milam Oil Company with his brother-in-law, Woodley G. Phillips.
“So, in the city of Chelsea, the Milam family is still very strong. He was a banker, an oil man; he did a lot in the community,” said Yantz, who noted the exhibit includes a wide variety of Milam’s personal belongings.
“There are things he collected or purchased while he was chief or even before then. Some of the objects were gifted to him while he was chief,” Yantz said. “He purchased an original Willard Stone carving back in 1942 to help out as we know a very famous local artist, and we have that on display. One, he loved the art and purchased it for the family, and also he was just trying to help the Cherokee people.”
One exhibit item of interest is an autograph book from the 1880s that includes use of the Cherokee syllabary by tribal dignitaries.
“They wrote messages to him, and so he was trying to preserve not only who they were, but little portions of Cherokee history through this autograph book,” said Yantz. “He funded and helped try to find Sequoyah’s burial site, though unsuccessful, but he did a lot of research like that. He also tracked down – there was an original letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Chief John Ross right after the war, and he was able to track down at least a copy of it. Searching for Sequoyah, finding these letters. It’s just fascinating to find out President Lincoln was writing letters to Chief John Ross after the Civil War. He was very diverse in what he was trying to bring back to the Cherokee community.”
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