“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” quipped one of the world’s best-loved humorists, “but they met the boat.” Born to part-Cherokee parents in U.S. Indian Territory, Will Rogers used wit and personality to charm an entire generation. Now the Cherokee Nation is honoring his life, legacy, and heritage by buying Rogers’ Oklahoma birthplace.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum opened in 1938, just three years after Rogers’ death. Today, the 162-acre property includes the historic ranch home, a caretaker’s house, and two outbuildings. The museum shows what life was like on a late 19th-century ranch in Indian Territory. It also provides details on Rogers’ Cherokee heritage.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born at the ranch in Oolagah in 1879. The homestead lay in what was known as Indian Territory (land reserved by the U.S. government for the relocation of Native Americans). Rogers’ parents were both part Cherokee. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, was a prominent Cherokee judge in the area. Rogers County, Oklahoma, is named after him.
As a child, young Will learned to rope and ride. Years of performing in “wild West circuses” and variety shows taught Rogers important lessons. “It’s the fellow who knows when to quit that the audience wants more of,” Rogers told the New York Times in 1915.
Once during a New York City Wild West show, a steer crashed into the stands. Rogers, an audience member, roped the animal to the cheers of frightened spectators. Soon Rogers himself was appearing in the nightly show. He delivered humorous, folksy discussions of current events, beginning with his trademark: “All I know is what I read in the papers.”
Rogers’ career included vaudeville, silent and sound movies, newspapers, magazines, and radio. He was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars of the 1920s and ’30s and one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in the United States.
Rogers cherished his Cherokee citizenship and never forgot his upbringing. “I'm a Cherokee,” Rogers would say. He frequently highlighted his background, bringing attention to Cherokee talents and strengths in American pop culture. He was often called “The Cherokee Kid” and the “Indian Cowboy.”
This past fall, Cherokee leaders purchased the Rogers homestead. They promise to begin needed repairs, restorations, and preservation efforts immediately.
Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., calls the birthplace “a special place for the Cherokee Nation and for the state of Oklahoma.”
“[Rogers] was one of the most influential people of the 20th century,” Hoskin says. “His impact is still with us today.”