Friday, February 26, 2010

Something Will Rogers said...

A friend asked me what I know about Will Rogers, famous TV and radio personality, part Cherokee...

He asked, in particular, about this:

"My ancestors may not have come over on the 'Mayflower' but they met 'em at the boat!"

Those seventeen words are all over the Internet, from one quotations page to the next. But!!! That is not all Rogers said...

Take a look at The Papers of Will Rogers: The Early Years, by Will Rogers, Arthur Frank Wertheim, and Barbara Bair. See, specifically, page 31. I'm using bold to mark the part that is left off in all those quotation sites:

"When questioned about his heritage in a scene in one of his films, he informed a passport officer, who had inquired whether he was an American citizen, that his mother and father were both part Cherokee and he "was born and raised in Indian Territory. Course I'm not one of these Americans whose ancestors come over on the Mayflower, but we met 'em at the boat when they landed. And its always been to the everlasting discredit of the Indian race that we ever let 'em land."

That passage is footnoted, and the corresponding note reads (p. 39):

"This passport office scene is from the 1930 Fox film, So This Is London. Rogers continued his soliloquy by reaffirming his statement in the face of scandalized expressions from a pair of onlookers: "It was," he said, referring to the discredit due the Indians for letting the Pilgrims land. "That's the only thing that I'd ever blame the Indians for."

Interesting, isn't it? What gets left off?  I wonder about biographies of him, written for children and young adults. Is the full quote in them?

As a society, America reveres Will Rogers, 
but I wonder if they know he said that Indians 
never should have let the Pilgrims land?

(Thanks, Brian, for asking me about him...  Given the embrace of Will Rogers, it is worth looking into what children and young adults are told about Rogers!)


Pam said...

The full quote was in the biography I read a few years ago. I will look up the book and link it here to you.

I am part Cherokee and grew up in Chilhowie. (Land of many deer)I always thought he was an amazing character and a great advocate (when he felt like it).

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Pam,

Can you say more about how he was a great advocate---when he felt like it?

My impression is that he is a much-loved person because he was folksy and witty, and that he is characterized as a terrific American. I'm wondering if that characterization deliberately ignores his swipes at America.

Pam said...


I think he had the power to do and say more but didn't. There were times when he said something like your quote there that usually gets taken out of context and then that was it. He allowed it to be viewed as a funny remark instead of saying what I really meant was...

I think if he would have been a bit tougher with the few comments he did make in life he would have been a better advocate.

Debbie Reese said...

Beverly Slapin was unable to make the comment submission work. I have trouble with that, too, on some blogs. Beverly sent me her comment via email. I'm sharing it here. (And if you ever have trouble, send your comment to me via email and I'll put it up.)

Beverly Slapin said:

I think Will Rogers was a brilliant writer and wonderful performer. The public loved him because of the stances he took and the ways in which this “cowboy gum chewer” was able to educate “ordinary” people. In his own inimitable way, Will Rogers was quite the fearless radical, taking on US imperialism, politicians and millionaires, poverty and racism, and hypocrisy of all kinds. He headed up huge fundraisers for the hundreds of thousands of survivors of the 1927 Mississippi flood, and kept public attention on the suffering dirt farmers, the “poorest people we have in America.”

Although most of his writing and performance was laced with the kind of humor, irony and sharp satire that made him famous, a lot of it was dead serious: “Another levee broke today; another hundred thousand standing on the banks. Don’t forget that when you eat your big dinner and sleep in a nice dry bed tonight.” (5/25/1927)

Rogers is well known for his stance against U.S. imperialism, in the kind of “plain talk” that everyone could understand. “If Nicaragua would just come out like a man and fight us, we wouldn’t have to be hunting away off over in China for a war.” (12/26/1926) “We will stop those Chinese from fighting among themselves if we have to kill them to do it.” (2/4/1927) “(In Mexico), I didn’t see a single Russian Bolshevik plotting against us. Mexico had received their morning note from our State Department telling them how to run their country.” (3/1/1927) And one of my favorites, which I will have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find the exact wording: “We will send the marines to any country where we can find two people to invite us.”

And, of course, Will Rogers wrote about Indian people (in the context of American history): “This is Thanksgiving. It was started by the Pilgrims, who would give thanks every time they killed an Indian and took more of his land. As years went by and they had all his land, they changed it into a day to give thanks for the bountiful harvest, when the boll-weevil and the protective tariff didn’t remove all cause for thanks. So here is what the Republicans have given us the past year: A war in Nicaragua and China, and a rehearsal in Mexico, two floods and a coal strike, and pictures of the Black Hills. And all we got in return is the promise of a new Ford car and lower taxes.” (11/23/1927)