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Charles Haskell of Oklahoma ignited the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution

Charles Haskell - OK

An American oilman and lawyer, Charles Nathaniel Haskell began life in West Leipsic, Ohio. The son of cooper George R. Haskell and Jane H. Reeves, Charles was born on March 13, 1860 and lost his father at the age of three. In an effort to support her six children, Jane went to work for the local Methodist church, serving as custodian and bell ringer.

When Charles was ten, he found work as a farm boy in Putnam County, Ohio. Here he lived and worked for eight years as he grew to adulthood. Though his employer, Mr. Miller, was a teacher in the local school, young Charles was required to work during the hours classes were conducted, so Mrs. Miller taught him at home. At the age of 17, Charles earned his teaching certificate.

When Haskell was 18, he began teaching school in Putnam County. At night, he read law and passed his bar exam on December 6, 1880. Though he had no academic training in the field, he began his law practice at the age of 20 and became one of Ottawa, Ohio’s most successful lawyers. He was also one of the most prominent members of northwestern Ohio’s Democratic Party.

On October 11, 1881, Haskell wed Lucie Pomeroy. A member of a prominent family in Ottawa, Lucie bore Charles three children, then died in March of 1888. Haskell remarried in 1889. His second wife, Lillie Elizabeth Gallup, also bore him three children.

Haskell began work as a general contractor in 1888 and over the next 16 years, gained an in depth understanding of American industrialism. During these years, he split his time between San Antonio, Texas and New York City.

The Land Run of 1889 and the Organic Act of 1890 turned the nation’s focus to the Oklahoma Territory. In March of 1901, Haskell moved his family to Muskogee, at that time the capital of the Creek Nation. His arrival introduced Haskell to a dry, sleepy village of approximately 4,500 residents. Shortly after he settled in, Haskell began to build the first five-story business block to be erected in the Oklahoma Territory. He was also responsible for the majority of the railroads which ran into Muskogee. Charles’ influence allowed Muskogee to become a center of industry and business, with the population soon swelling to 20,000+ individuals. Haskell’s goal for Muskogee was to create the “Queen City of the Southwest.”

His success also won Haskell the attention of the Creek Nation and clout in Indian Territory politics. At this time, Native Americans sought to create from the territory a state to join the Union, one which they sought to name “Sequoyah”. Selected by the Creeks to be their official spokesperson, Haskell attended various conventions. During the 1902 Five Civilized Tribes Convention (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) in Eufaula, Oklahoma, and its sister convention in Muskogee during 1905, Haskell served as vice-president. Of the six delegates at the Muskogee convention, Haskell was one of two who were not Native American. William H. Murray was the other.

The effort Haskell put forth to help create the new state was quickly blocked by President Theodore Roosevelt. In the meantime, he was also busy writing a large portion of the soon-to-be-proposed state constitution. Publicly, Haskell was constantly seen to be in support of a separate state for Indian Territory; however, privately he had other ideas. Haskell was secretly thrilled at the defeat of the state of Sequoyah, because he harbored the belief that now the Indian leaders would be forced to join with the Oklahoma Territory for statehood. President Roosevelt and the US Congress had agreed the Indian Territories and Oklahoma would be allowed to enter the Union as one entity, the State of Oklahoma.

In 1906, the Enabling Act was passed and Haskell was elected by a large margin to represent the state’s 76th District, which included Muskogee. In attendance at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention on November 20, 1906 in Guthrie, Haskell met William H. Murray, presiding officer of the convention, and Robert L. Williams. Having previously encountered each other at the Sequoyah Convention, Haskell and Murray developed a friendship which would last the rest of their lives.

Many of those who were in attendance at Guthrie had previously attended Muskogee’s Sequoyah Convention and brought with them a number of previously proposed ideas for the new constitution. Now owner of the New State Tribune, Haskell used the paper’s editorial columns to advocate various propositions he felt the new constitution should contain. Most of these would later be incorporated, at least in substance.

Holding a perfect attendance and voting record during the session, Haskell advocated for numerous provisions which addressed the labor problems and avocation for representatives of organized labor in both territories. He also drafted a report which outlined county boundaries, in addition to leading a crusade regarding state prohibition and introduced Jim Crow laws; all the while successfully retarding the topic of female suffrage from the state constitution.

In the process, his efforts caught the eye of a reporter for a local newspaper, The Guthrie Report. Though Murray served as the convention’s president, many delegates recognized the influence Haskell had in the body, leading the Guthrie reporter to label Haskell, “the power behind the throne.

During the recess prior to the convention’s final adoption of the constitution, Haskell played host at a banquet given for the Democratic Party at the Brady Hotel. Between 500 and 600 guests attending, all of which were leading Democrats in the new state. It was during this banquet the first campaign for governor was inaugurated, with Haskell’s name placed into nomination by several of his friends. Along with Haskell, the names of Lee Cruce and Thomas Doyle were added to the list.

Following the nomination on March 26, 1907, Haskell proved to be the last horse to the trough, due to the fact Doyle and Cruce had already begun campaigning and the primary was scheduled for June 8th. With so little time left for Haskell to “get the word out” about his candidacy, his campaign was quickly thrown into high gear. Over the next 45 days, Haskell delivered 88 speeches, reaching nearly every county within the territory. As he did so, lieutenants representing the other two candidates were campaigning in the various school districts to garner support in each of the communities. In the end, Haskell’s hard work and determination won him the Democratic nomination, with a primary victory reflecting a 4,000 vote majority.

Haskell now moved on to the general election, where he would butt heads with Territorial Governor Frank Frantz. A former Rough Rider and close friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, Frantz had federal prestige and support working for him and was considered to be the strongest candidate the Republican Party had to offer against Haskell. A challenge to engage in public discussions throughout the state was immediately presented to Frantz by Haskell. Frantz agreed and every problem the state faced was debated during the campaign.

National politics also played a part in the gubernatorial campaign. Speaking at various locations in the state were the presidential nominees – Democratic William Jennings Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft. Though Taft went on to win the presidency, he was of little help to his constituents in Oklahoma. His disapproval of the proposed state constitution and advice to vote against it, served to help the Democrats by turn the favor of voters in their direction. On September 17, 1907, Haskell won the election by more than 30,000 votes. That same day, the Oklahoma Constitution was ratified. Approached by a Republican, Haskell was told, “You have so written the constitution and carried on this fight in a way that the Republicans can’t get anything in the state for 50 years.” With a twinkle in his eyes, Haskell smiled and replied, “Well, that’s soon enough, isn’t it?”

Five minutes after Oklahoma officially became the 46th state on November 16, 1907, Charles Haskell took the oath of office for governor, administered by the editor of the Guthrie Leader, Leslie G. Niblack, a qualified notary public. In the presence of his immediate family, the private ceremony took place in the hotel apartment Haskell occupied. His friend, US Senator-elect Robert Latham Owen and his former political manager, Thomas Owen of Muskogee, were also in attendance. After Haskell delivered his inaugural address on the steps of the Carnegie Library in Guthrie, he was quickly lifted into the national spotlight.

When Oklahoma’s First Legislature convened, Haskell delivered a message which would reach all the way to Washington and play a part in amending the US Constitution. He created a commission in 1912 whose efforts eventually led to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, giving the power to elect US Senators to the citizens.

As he set up his administration, Haskell was responsible for changing the location of Oklahoma’s capital. When he took office, Guthrie served as the seat of the state’s government; however, Haskell established his administration in Oklahoma City by moving the official home of the Great Seal of Oklahoma, in addition to the state’s constitution. Industry and commerce now began to quickly grow in Oklahoma City, as did the population. Before long, Guthrie was overshadowed due to the expansion. In time, the rest of the state’s governmental functions transferred their offices to the new capital. On June 11, 1910, Oklahoma City officially became the state’s capital.

Governor Haskell went to work in the first session of the state legislature to adopt laws regulating banking in Oklahoma, in addition to creating a hedge of protection for the state’s citizens from the exploitations of the railroads, public utilities and various monopolies. Child labor and Jim Crow laws also numbered among Haskell’s numerous efforts while in office. When the 2nd Oklahoma Legislature met, a grandfather clause was enacted by the state’s Democratic leaders which excluded blacks from voting.

At the time Oklahoma joined the Union, all state prisoners were incarcerated in Kansas. Kate Barnard, Oklahoma’s first female state official and the Oklahoma Commissioner of Charities and Corrections, traveled to Kansas to visit the prisons. When she returned to Oklahoma City, she reported to Governor Haskell about the deplorable conditions of the Kansas facility. In 1908, the governor submitted legislation to transfer 50 Oklahoma prisoners from Lansing to McAlester, Oklahoma. When the state militia marched the transferees to their new location, no prison was available. Instead, under military supervision, the prisoners build Oklahoma State Penitentiary (still in use today), appointing Robert W. Dick as warden. At the time, the prisoners were housed in a tent city, with no one intending to escape, knowing full well the militia was under orders of the governor to use lethal force on anyone who tried.

Haskell’s term as governor remained free of corruption. During debates, he set aside graceful oratory, choosing instead to use facts, statistics and figures to make his point and delivered these to his listeners with grim humor and cutting wit. When he left office in 1911, it was with delight he witnessed his former challenger, Lee Cruce, step into the role as Oklahoma’s second governor.

In 1912, Haskell attempted to challenge Democratic incumbent Robert Latham Owen for his US Senate seat; but to no avail. He now entered the oil business, a profession he remained in until he died. In April 1933, Haskell suffered a major stroke. Three months later, he developed pneumonia, losing consciousness on July 4th and dying the following day at the age of 73 in Oklahoma City. He was laid to rest in Muskogee in the Green Hill Cemetery.

Though one of Haskell’s most significant achievements during his term as governor was helping to establish Oklahoma City as the state’s capital, he was also known for finding the middle ground in situations and bringing partisan forces into friendly agreement. During Oklahoma’s centennial celebration in 2007, many of Charles Haskell’s descendants were in attendance.

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