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The American Indian Steamship Company: Fraud during the Reign of Terror

A traveling salesman in 1923 conned the Osage community and the federal government into giving him thousands of dollars to start an American Indian Steamship Company - he almost got away with it

Submitted by John Truden
University of Oklahoma Doctoral Candidate

In 1923, a traveling salesman calling himself Captain Stephen Williams arrived in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

This man – dressed in a naval officer’s uniform – was traveling around the state, pitching to Native investors and the Office (now Bureau) of Indian Affairs on behalf of the American Indian Steamship Company. During this time, the Office of Indian Affairs had control over Indigenous bank accounts.

Williams hoped to use Indigenous money to purchase five steamships constructed by the U.S. Navy during World War I and then crew them with Indigenous sailors. The company was based jointly in New York City and the capital of the Osage Nation, Pawhuska. Williams maintained an office in Pawhuska at the Citizens National Bank Building, Room 508. The sailor said his corporation received a state charter and possessed $100,000 (roughly 1.7 million in 2021 U.S. dollars) in assets.

In addition to the headquarters in Pawhuska, the company had representatives in Oklahoma City, Checotah, Muskogee, and Tulsa. Most importantly, Williams claimed that the Office (now Bureau) of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee had approved the investment of federally managed Indigenous bank accounts into the company.

The American Indian Steamship Company might seem bizarre in hindsight, but it was not an unreasonable idea. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, enormous numbers of Native Oklahomans – including many Osage people – crossed oceans with Wild West Shows going to Europe and U.S. military units colonizing parts of the Caribbean, Latin America, Oceania, and Asia. In 1900, the United States, Japan, and various European nations sent soldiers to crush a Chinese movement (known internationally as the Boxer Rebellion) that aimed to free their country from foreign oppression by force of arms.

Arthur Bonnicastle – a future Chief of the Osage Nation – traveled across the Pacific with the U.S. Army. At the Battle of Tianjin (sometimes Tientsin), he stormed a Chinese position and raised the American flag.

Many Indigenous people who called the prairies or the plains their homeland were also intimately familiar with the taste of salt in the air and the gentle sway of the ocean beneath their feet. Some were experienced sailors, particularly those who served in the U.S. Navy. Moreover, at least one community in Oklahoma did raise their own ship through a salesman. Fifteen years after Bonnicastle traveled to China, Alfred Sam – a British subject from modern-day Ghana – convinced African American and Afro-Indigenous people across Oklahoma to invest in and travel to his West African colony via a repurposed ocean liner, the S.S. Liberia. A Native American steamship company might have been very successful, but it was not to be.

“The Captain” was lying through his teeth.

He was a con man or a grafter in the language of the day. It was never clear exactly what the company would do (shipping? transportation? sightseeing? travel?). The actual company proved difficult to nail down as well. A special investigator with the Office of Indian Affairs visited the headquarters in Pawhuska, he found three “handsomely furnished” rooms that were largely empty apart from a secretary. Stephen Williams was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, the American Indian Steamship Company applied for a charter but received a rejection letter from the state commission. It is unlikely that the company possessed a New York office or the considerable assets that Williams quoted to investors. He certainly did not have the cooperation of the Office of Indian Affairs in Muskogee. In August 1924, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs – the head of the entire federal agency – banned any financial transactions with the company.

Not much else is known about this bizarre story. Little survives beyond some dusty old correspondence between state and federal officials in the bowels of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Most of what we have are questions. How did Osage people respond to this idea? How many – if any – Osage people invested in the American Indian Steamship Company? If so, where did the money go? Did Fred Lookout, John Joseph Mathews, or other prominent Osage leaders and cultural figures weigh in on this odd case?

It is clear that Stephen Williams was not alone in his efforts to steal Indigenous wealth. The Reign of Terror – a horrifying series of events in which a predatory ring of White settlers married and then deliberately murdered their Osage spouses to inherit Osage oil money – is the most famous of many disturbing cases that devastated Indigenous communities in Oklahoma in the early twentieth century.

Through a variety of means – sometimes barely legal, sometimes outright illegal – settlers targeted and stole Indigenous land, resources, and children. Some of the perpetrators were powerful people: state governors, members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, state legislators, county judges, and a mess of lawyers. At the time, they faced few repercussions and most settlers moved on.

In Indigenous communities like the Osage Nation, this era continued to quietly echo. In the present, Indigenous communities are revisiting these stories through museums (the Osage Nation Museum, the First Americans Museum), media (the Osage News, Reservation Dogs, Killers of the Flower Moon, etc.), and a collective resistance to Governor Kevin Stitt’s assault on tribal sovereignty.

Telling the story of the American Indian Steamship Company means one more story is uncovered. However, the real value of this tale may be that it leaves more questions than answers and serves as a reminder that much still needs to be accounted for and reclaimed.

John Truden

About the author

John Truden received his B.A. from UNC-Wilmington in 2016, his M.A. from the University of Oklahoma in 2018, and advanced to doctoral candidacy within the same program in 2021. His dissertation explores how Indigenous people in Oklahoma wielded alliances with White settlers to combat a century long assault on Native ways of life. He has published in notable academic journals such as Western Historical Quarterly, collaborated with public institutions such as Metro Library Podcast and Oklahoma Humanities magazine, and served as a volunteer researcher for the Cultural Preservation Office – Absentee Shawnee Tribe and the Oglala Lakota College Archives. In early 2021, prominent Native American Studies scholar Amanda Cobb sought out and hired John Truden for the 2021-22 school year as part of her fellowship from the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. 

Osage News Staff
Stories that are not primarily written by an Osage News staff member will have a “Osage News” byline. These stories include press releases and other community content that was drafted by someone externally but reviewed and approved for publication by Osage News. As an independent news organization, we strive to report news and information with fairness and balance. While being the official news organization of the Osage Nation, we base our news judgements on our loyalties to our readers and Osage citizens, and we are not directly beholden to the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial branches of the Osage Nation.

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