Curtis was born in 1860 in what was then known as the Territory of Kansas (Kansas would be admitted to the Union the following year). He was an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation, and was approximately 3/8 American Indian ancestry. After his mother died at age three, and his father was captured in the Civil War, Curtis was raised by his grandparents. His childhood abounded with memorable occurrences. In one instance, an eight-year-old Charles Curtis accompanied a Kaw interpreter on horseback as the interpreter rode to inform the Kansas governor of an invasion by Cheyenne warriors.
Curtis was first elected to Congress in 1892, and proceeded to serve six terms in the House of Representatives. Following this, he served in the US Senate from 1907 to 1913, and then later from 1915 until becoming vice president in 1929. During his time in the Senate, Charles Curtis was known for his ability to forge compromises, as well as his reliable memory of individuals whom he had met on the campaign trail.
Curtis ran for the Republican Party nomination for president in 1928, but lost the nomination to popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Though he had been a vigorous rival of Hoover, Curtis quickly accepted his nomination for vice president. The prospective vice president’s American Indian ancestry does not appear to have been a subject of suspicion among the electorate. In fact, nearly all voters’ prejudice was directed towards the Democratic candidate for president, Al Smith. Smith was the first major party Catholic nominee, and he struggled to compete outside of his political habitat in the Northeast. Even the South, which at the time voted strongly Democratic, was competitive for Hoover and Curtis.
The Hoover-Curtis ticket was elected in a landslide, winning forty states to Smith’s eight. An American Indian jazz band performed at the inauguration, referencing Curtis’s accomplishment. As most American readers likely know, the Hoover-Curtis ticket was not re-elected in 1932. Upon becoming a private citizen once more, Charles Curtis chose to practice law once again. In 1936, however, Curtis died of a heart attack at the age of 76.
It was no small task for a non-white individual to become the second-most powerful individual in American government during the early twentieth century. While most vice presidents tend to fade quickly from the American consciousness, Charles Curtis may be one worth mentioning in future history books.