Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Thomas Gilcrease was known as a collector of Americana at a time when few others were interested in the art, documents, and artifacts of the Western Hemisphere. Eventually, his collection expanded to include nearly 10,000 works of art, a library of 100,000 items, and more than 250,000 artifacts. In 1949 he opened a public museum on his estate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to showcase his collection.

Gilcrease was born in Robilene, Louisiana, on February 8, 1890. His early life in the Creek Nation of Indian Territory was marked by little formal education and much hard work. While still in his teens, his life changed dramatically when the allotted land he had received as a result of his Creek tribal membership became part of a major oil field in Oklahoma. Gilcrease proved to be a skillful businessman, expanding his original holdings and founding the Gilcrease Oil Company in 1922. During the 1920s and 1930s extensive travel in Europe and visits to European museums inspired him to initiate his own collection. Pride in his Native American heritage and interest in the history of the American West provided a focus for his collecting activities.

By the late 1930s Gilcrease was spending most of his time developing the collection. In the early 1950s, faced with increasing debts relating to acquisitions for his museum, Gilcrease offered to sell the entire collection in order to keep it intact. In 1954 Tulsans supported a bond issue for the payment of Gilcrease's debts and the acquisition of the collection. Gilcrease allocated oil revenues to the city of Tulsa until the income equaled the amount of the bond, a goal that was achieved in the early 1980s. Thomas Gilcrease died on May 6, 1962, in Tulsa.

See also EDUCATION: Museums.

Sarah Erwin Gilcrease Museum

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