Artist Mary Anna Goetz and her gallerist husband Jim Cox met in her native Oklahoma, a state that’s long haunted their lives with its pure Americana and reflection of deep national mysteries. This past summer, the couple headed west for an exploratory field trip of genealogical and wider historical research, painting, and mindful rumination about what’s gone into creating our current country.
The idea the two expressed late this past spring, as they spread a large tack-studded map out on a large table in their gallery/home in Willow, was to focus on “the saga of my pioneer/entrepreneur great grandmother, Katherine (Kate) May (1854-1944),” known colloquially by subsequent generations as “Muddy” based on a grandchild’s inability to pronounce the word “grandmother.”
“Her life was full of significant events…some exhilarating, some tragic, many indicative of the hardships and challenges confronting early settlers in Oklahoma Territory,” Goetz recently wrote in a letter describing what’s to become the first part of a several-chaptered voyage of familial discovery, and artistry…which she’s entitled “Muddy Notes.” “Certainly the two most significant occurrences affecting Katherine’s life were the death of her husband, my great grandfather, Samuel Daniel May, the day of the historic 1889 Oklahoma land run, and her subsequent successful effort to make the Run for the Cherokee Strip on horseback, by herself, in 1893.”
The world Goetz and Cox returned to, which she last visited five years ago during the Obama administration’s second term, has been in the news this past year for its successful teacher strike, its gift of former state attorney general Scott Pruitt as an unsuccessful head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and some surprisingly close political races as we head into the November elections that suggest some possible Democratic successes for the first time in decades.
The history they faced was like a rough and tumble western movie — a time when old treaties with Native American tribes were reworked ostensibly because those tribes had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War (and maintained slavery until 1866, three years after sovereignty), but more basically due to white settlers’ economic interests (which also broke brief plans to make Oklahoma either an all-Native or majority-African-American state before its actual 1907 statehood). It was a place of brawling land rushes as a means of sharing new properties, where majorities came out losers and eventually the nation’s worst race riots (Tulsa, in 1921), Depression-years migrations (Steinbeck’s “Okies” of Grapes of Wrath fame), and innate terrorist attack (Oklahoma City, 1995) would occur.
The maps Goetz and Cox worked their trip from were borne of a manuscript written by her uncle Killian, created in 1992. It is a tale of a singularly tough but petite woman taking her brood of seven kids to barren prairie properties in what would become downtown Oklahoma City, that was the “Cherokee Strip,” and then later even farther remote sites in Texas and New Mexico, as often as not in covered wagons well into the 20th century.
“As we tracked Kate’s saga, I painted three locations that related to her story: first the intersection of Broadway and Grand Blvd. in Oklahoma City where Kate built a restaurant which she always claimed was the first stone business building in OKC; second, the train station at Perry, Oklahoma, where Kate filed papers required for staking a claim on the Cherokee Strip; and third, the Chilocco Indian School where several of Kate’s children, including my grandmother, Annie May Goetz, boarded and attended classes on the frontier.”
What comes out is the start of a great American saga involving a husband dead of either food-poisoning or pre-1889 land rush dastardliness, that Goetz’s family has noted, “likely had the dubious distinction of being the first person to die in Oklahoma City.” Numerous failed businesses on sites where failed neighborhoods now sport municipal parks or barren lots attest to places once pegged as sites for great cities that never leapt to life. There was the September 16, 1893 rush of an estimated 100,000 participants onto former “Indian lands” that Kate, or “Muddy,” participated in atop a carefully-selected horse with a pistol on her hip, which would eventually allow her to chase off a “sooner” who’d laid claim on the land she wanted…and would lose to her own poverty a few years later.
“Progress has not overtaken Perry,” Goetz writes of the community her great-grandmother fought to be a part of, and she visited to paint. “A few months after the run, a system of public education was created on The Strip, but Kate could not afford the $1 per student tuition fee for her children to attend. Kate’s time on the Cherokee Strip did not result in a happy ending. Perry did not become the ‘metropolis of the Southwest,’ her restaurant did not succeed and, after 18 months, all of her crops, except the watermelons, failed because of devastating drought. Most distressing was the fact that Kate was forced to return to Oklahoma City when all of her children contracted typhoid fever. How my courageous ancestor survived this setback I can’t imagine. But she did, in spite of more hardships to come.”
Eventually, Goetz got to paint the ruins of the Chilocco Indian School, one of two boarding establishments “Muddy” sent her kids to be educated…“even though she had no proof that she or Sam had Indian blood.” She captures a setting her grandparents talked about, a place where they were accepted, and able to imagine new lives.
“I had an eerie feeling while visiting the Chilocco campus. I could sense what it must have been like when my grandmother attended,” Goetz has written. “Referencing photos in a book on the history of Chilocco, I discovered that the first structure, where my family attended classes, was stark — not as ornate as the now crumbling building featured in my painting. Another photograph of the early days at Chilocco depicts a barren expanse of land, void of trees and vegetation that would eventually sprout amidst the beautiful stone classrooms and dormitories. Kate and her family were, of course, accustomed to life on the bleak, dusty prairie and I don’t doubt that her children relished their time at Chilocco.”
The trip to Perry stopped at the place where home-grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh would later be arrested. A journey to a grand art museum built by oil money in Tulsa, where Goetz’s family lived before her family’s later move to Oklahoma City, results in her wondering if her dad, a painter, had ever taken his grandmother, “Muddy,” to see the art that would define his life, and her great-grand-daughter’s.
The results are the start of something that’s both personal and epochal, in a truly American fashion. A glimpse behind western myths into the formative roots of fact-shifting tall tales…and true political truths.
Cox and Goetz are currently planning further trips that will cover her great-grandmother’s later journeys to Texas and New Mexico…including a place now called Truth or Consequences. Again, with personal ties…