Senator Robert Latham Owen

Artist: Boris Bernard Gordon

Senator Robert L. Owen was an early Oklahoma political leader, influential both before and after statehood. Owen earned a Master of Arts degree from Washington and Lee University. The Civil War and the death of Owen’s father turned the family’s fortune and Owen decided to move to Indian Territory with his mother in 1879. Owen’s mother, Narcissa Chisholm Owen was a member of the Cherokee tribe, born at Webbers Falls in Indian Territory in 1831. This entitled her and her children to a per capita share in the tribal property.

Upon arriving in Indian Territory, Owen secured a position as principal teacher for the Cherokee Orphan Asylum at Grand Saline. However, Owen had greater ambitions than the classroom. In 1880 he began practicing law and also served as the secretary of the Cherokee Nation Board of Education from 1881 to 1884. Realizing the importance of having a vehicle to communicate his message, Owen became editor and owner of the Indian Chieftain, a Vinita newspaper in 1884. He lobbied and won appointment as the United States Indian agent for the Five Civilized Tribes in 1885. At the time, this was the most important governmental position in Indian Territory.

After his time as agent ended, Owen served as secretary of the Indian Territory Bar Association. He was also active as an attorney, recovering millions of dollars in claims against the United States government for the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes. He supported separate statehood for both Oklahoma and Indian Territories, but conceded this position when Congress defeated that proposition. Owen announced his candidacy for United States Senator as soon as the statehood bill was passed. He received the largest number of votes in a statewide primary on June 18, 1907, then the state legislature confirmed the vote, selecting him as one of Oklahoma’s first Senators.

During his time in the Senate, Owen championed many issues aimed at improving government operations. These included initiative and referendum, mandatory primary and the direct election of United States Senators under the Seventeenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Prior to that time, senators were selected by state legislatures. Owen also served as chairman of the Committee on Banking and Currency and was responsible for drafting and directing passage of the Federal Reserve Act, establishing a central banking system in the United States. Owen retired from the Senate in 1925, leaving public office without ever losing an election. He maintained a law practice in Washington, D.C. until the time of his death.

Artist Boris Gordon studied art in England, Germany and Italy before immigrating to the United States in 1907. He served as a Marine in World War I before opening a studio in Washington, D.C. Known as the “painter of presidents,” thirteen of his portraits currently hang in the United States Capitol and another 37 are on display in state capitols around the nation. According to minutes of the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Historical Society, Gordon’s portrait of Senator Owen was completed in the spring of 1942, after being commissioned by the Society. The portrait is on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.