Jonita Mullins

Jonita Mullins.

It is difficult to sum up the life of Alice Robertson in a single column. Her life, spent for the most part in Indian Territory and later Oklahoma, was filled with achievements. Despite never having financial wealth, she was in her day one of the most widely traveled and best known women in America. Today, few people know her name or her many accomplishments.

Robertson was born Jan. 2, 1854, at the Tullahassee Mission in what is today Wagoner County. Her parents, William and Ann Eliza Robertson, were missionaries who ran the Tullahassee school for Creek children. She received her education there before going off to New England to live with family and attend Elmira College.

After completing her schooling, she became one of the first women to work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. While living in Washington, she enjoyed doing research at the Library of Congress and watching Congress at work from the visitors’ gallery.

She also learned shorthand, and when she returned to Indian Territory, she was much sought after to transcribe important government/tribal meetings, as she was the first person in the territory with stenography skills. With these experiences, Robertson became an expert on Indian matters and was often the only woman invited to speak at symposiums on the American Indian. It was at one such conference that she met future President Theodore Roosevelt.

With her sister Augusta, Robertson started the Nuyaka School for Creek children near Okmulgee. She later took charge of a school for girls in Muskogee, the Minerva Home. Here, she was the first teacher of “domestic science” in Indian Territory. Her school merged with another to become Henry Kendall College (later the University of Tulsa).

She was appointed the superintendent of schools for the Creek Nation, the first woman in such a post.  Later, her friend, now-President Roosevelt, appointed her to be the postmaster of the Muskogee Post Office. She was the first woman to hold that job, too.

But Robertson’s most important first was that of member of Congress. She was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives after women won the right to vote and was the first woman and first Republican to serve the Third (now Second) District of Oklahoma. As the only woman in Congress at the time, she received more press coverage than President Warren G. Harding and was a household name.

Alice Robertson was a missionary, teacher, farmer, entrepreneur, speaker, writer, postmaster, college founder and congresswoman. She was as comfortable working with the poor as with presidents. She was born outside the United States, but she traveled all across the nation. Her home and gravesite in Muskogee should stand as memorials to a woman of many firsts.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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