Narcissa Chisholm Owen

Narcissa Chisholm Owen (October 3, 1831 – July 11, 1911) was an American educator, memoirist and artist of the late 19th and early 20th century. The "mother of Cherokee painting",[1] she was the daughter of Old Settler Cherokee chief Thomas Chisholm, wife of Virginia state senator Robert L. Owen Sr. and mother of U.S. Senator Robert Latham Owen Jr.

Narcissa Chisholm Owen
BornOctober 3, 1831
DiedJuly 12, 1911
NationalityAmerican, Cherokee
Known forpainting, fingerweaving, tapestry
AwardsLouisiana Purchase Exposition Medal

Early life and family backgroundEdit

Born on October 3, 1831 in a log cabin near Webbers Falls (in what was then Arkansas Territory, soon became Indian Territory and would become Oklahoma) to Cherokee chieftain Thomas H. Chisholm (1790–1834)[2][3] and his Virginia-born wife Malinda Wharton (1803–1864) (great-granddaughter of British Jacobite politician Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton),[4] Narcissa had several siblings. Her sisters married and became Mrs. Jane Bruton and Mrs. Emma Breedlove. Neither of her brothers, Alfred Finney Chisholm (1830-1862) and William Wharton Chisholm (1830-1862) survived the American Civil War.

Thomas Chisholm had owned land and slaves in Alabama, but had moved to Arkansas, and then moved his family to Beattie's Prairie. He caught typhoid fever during a gathering at Talequah. His wife brought him back home, but he did not recover, dying in 1834 when Narcissa was only 3 years old, shortly before eastern Cherokee moved through the area, forced from their homes along the Trail of Tears. Narcissa later wrote of witnessing a group of Army-supervised Cherokee camp on their mother's farm in January 1839, noting the cruelty of herding human beings accustomed to warm winters through the cold and wind. She described how many refugees were sick and dozens died and were buried in what had been the family graveyard.

Narcissa's mother remarried a widower and future Judge William Wilson (1811 - 1897)[5] His first wife was Ruth Drumgould, whose mother was Kah-ta-yah, whom young Narcissa met in 1836 when the grandmother was nearing 100. Young Narcissa also learned about her Cherokee heritage from "Granny Jenny," her father's former nurse and the daughter of enslaved Africans.

Narcissa later spent many pages of her Memoirs describing her Scots-Irish heritage, as well as labeling her Cherokee heritage as "royal," explaining in part the native names she had given her sons. Her paternal great-grandfather, John Beamor, had emigrated to the Carolinas to spread the gospel among Cherokees. In 1699 the 23 year old English missionary married 16 year old Quatsis, sister of chief Caulunna. Rev. Beamor later became a member of South Carolina's House of Burgesses and owned a plantation and at least 10 negro slaves. Around 1730 he also traveled to England with several Cherokees, and made a treaty, which other Cherokees (led by Oconostota) opposed as one-sided favoring the British. Eastern Cherokees later entered into treaties with the Americans in 1777 and 1782 (after further conflict and a smallpox epidemic). One of his grandsons, Rev. Jesse Bushyhead (1804-1844), became a noted Baptist preacher, as well as a schoolmaster.

She also related both her maternal history of ancestors slain by French and/or Indian raiders near the Cumberland Gap, as well as Cherokee history for her readers. In 1819 the Old Settlers or Western Cherokees (including Narcissa Chisholm's grandfather John D. Chisholm), moved westward with their slaves and settled on the Spada and Arkansas Rivers. A century earlier (according to an estimate of Christian Priber whom Narcissa labeled a French Jesuit, but who was actually a German utopian), the nation had about 50,000 warriors, but by 1819 only about 15,000 remained, of which a third (including the Chisholms) lived west of the Mississippi River. In 1827 the Cherokee Nation held a general convention and adopted a national constitution, at a convention led by John Ross and which elected Charles R. Hicks Principal Chief. Owen depicted President Thomas Jefferson as a hero, not only for acknowledging Thomas Chisholm's leadership role by giving him a medal circa 1808, but because he wanted to unite the Eastern and Western Cherokees. She later named her ranch in Oklahoman near the Kansas border "Monticello", although its elevation above the river was only 150 feet. By contrast, Owen thoroughly disagreed with those who lauded President Andrew Jackson, instead portraying him as wanting to rid Georgia of all Cherokees and using military force as well as deception by Rev. J.F. Schermerhorn to get it.

Education and family lifeEdit

Having lost her father so early, Narcissa Chisholm was to some extent transferred between family members during her youth. Initially, her elder sister and brothers were educated at Dwight Mission School while her mother raised her. Narcissa attended Rev. Bushyhead's mission school circa 1843. Consistent with her later focus on Cherokee civilization and assimilation, Narcissa's memoirs also related how his son Dennis Bushyhead was educated at Princeton University before being elected Principal Chief of the Cherokees, and that his son Jessy Bushyhead became a physician in Claremore, Indian Territory—all far different from the noble savage stereotype.

Narcissa Chisholm moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1846 to live with her decade-older sister Jane and attend an academy there run by Melvin Lynde. She then moved to southern Indiana where she attended a school run by John Byers Anderson.[6] She returned to Fort Smith in 1848 and attended a female academy, Mrs. Sawyer's School, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She received a degree after majoring in music and art and then replaced her music teacher for a year. She also briefly served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of prominent Cherokee Wash Mayes.[3]

She then accepted a position teaching music in east Tennessee. While teaching in Masonic High School in Jonesborough, Washington County, Tennessee, she met Virginia-born civil engineer Robert L. Owen Sr., who was surveying a railroad route over the Appalachian Mountains from Lynchburg, Virginia toward Nashville, Tennessee. They married on October 4, 1853.

They moved to near the Clinch River while Mr. Owen continued his survey work, and then to Lynchburg, where Owen became President of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Narcissa bore two sons: the future U.S. Army Dr. William Otway Owen (born in Tennessee) and future U.S. Senator Robert Latham Owen Jr. (born in Lynchburg). In Lynchburg, the Owen family (and their slaves) lived at Point of Honor, a mansion overlooking the James River and various railroad lines serving the city. Through his mother (and grandmother Betty Lewis, George Washington's niece), Robert Owen inherited several relics of the first President.[3]



During the American Civil War, Robert Owen ran the railroad (a crucial supply and troop line for the Confederacy) and his wife and Mrs. Thomas J. Kirkpatrick led the women of St. Paul's Episcopal Church who sewed uniforms and otherwise assisted the same cause. Their sons were too young to fight, but Robert Owen's brother, Dr. William Owen, ran 30 hospitals in the city (a major hospital center for the Confederacy). Lynchburg never fell to Union forces, which withdrew after false reports (for some of which Narcissa Owen later took credit) of Confederate troop strength in the town.

Shortly after the war ended, Robert Owen resigned as President of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, after losing a fight against merging the railroad with several owned by former Confederate General (and future Republican Senator) William Mahone. Robert Owen served a term in the Virginia Senate, then purchased a plantation near Norfolk, Virginia from a former surveyor buddy, where he died unexpectedly shortly before the Panic of 1873 (which also bankrupted Mahone's railroad empire).

Her husband's death left Narcissa Owen with young children to raise, and what little financial security remained after Robert Owen's death soon vanished. Narcissa Owen returned to teaching to send her sons to college.


In 1880, Narcissa Owen moved (with the piano her husband had given her as a wedding present) to Oklahoma Indian Territory to teach music at the Cherokee Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi River. Her younger son Robert L. Owen, Jr. had graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1887, and already moved to Okhahoma to continue a teaching career as orphanage principal, as well as read law and begin a legal career. Robert Owen became Indian Agent (1885-1889) during the presidency of Democrat Grover Cleveland, then organized the First National Bank of Muskogee in 1890 (and served as its president as well as practiced law for the next decade).

In 1895, the 62-year old Narcissa Owen retired from teaching, devoting herself to art and also worked to refute misconceptions of Native Americans as primitive and uncouth. She studied at the Library of Congress and the Corcoran Gallery, and painted landscapes (as well as portraits and miniatures) using oil paint, as well as used the more traditional women's medium of needlework.[7] Her self-portrait of 1896 displayed above indicates her Victorian-era respectability and wealth. Her painting "Thomas Jefferson and His Descendants," won a medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. Owen also displayed tapestries at the Oklahoma Territory's pavilion, for she did not believe in hierarchies of artistic medium.

In 1900 her son Robert L. Owen began a 6 year legal battle in Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., which ultimately led to a judgment for the balance due the Cherokee from the 1835 treaty ($5 million including interest from 1838). This catapulted him into prominence, and he was elected one of Oklahoma's first two U.S. Senators after the territory achieved statehood on November 17, 1907. Although some Native American leaders disagreed with Robert Owen and had opposed statehood (and some would later disagree with the disbursement of the funds obtained), the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention (which met in Muskogee in 1905) proved a precursor of the statehood convention.

Narcissa Owen moved to Washington, D. C., where she acted as her son's hostess, and continued working to refute misconceptions of Native Americans. On October 3, 1907, Owen privately published her Memoirs, probably in Washington, D.C., although another copy was found at the multi-ethnic, library-friendly Tuesday Club of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which had gathered at her Oklahoma home ("Monticello", which as she noted was only 2 miles from the Presbyterian ladies of Caney, Kansas) in honor of her 75th birthday the previous May 1, as mentioned at the Memoir's conclusion.[8] As Owen's modern editor has noted, the Memoirs combine traditional storytelling modes (and humor, including trickster imagery) and Native perspectives deriving back to Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Paiutes: their wrongs and claims (1883) and Lucinda Lowery Hoyt Keys' Historical Sketches of the Cherokees (1889).[9]

Death and legacyEdit

Narcissa Owen died in Guthrie, Oklahoma on July 12, 1911 (far from her ranch as well as Bartlesville). Her corpse was returned to Lynchburg, Virginia for a funeral at St. Paul's Church, and burial beside her husband at Spring Hill cemetery (where her son Robert would later also be buried).[10][11]

Her former home, Point of Honor is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Cherokee Female Seminary. The former is now a city museum for Lynchburg; the latter is a coeducational state university.

Her painting of Thomas Jefferson is now in the collection of the University of Virginia. Her painting of Sequoyah (a copy of a painting by Charles Bird King) is owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society, which allows its display at the Oklahoma Judicial Center; the Society also has her self-portrait of 1896 depicted above and gold medal. Several of her other paintings are in the collection of the Oklahoma Museum of Art and Gilcrease Museum.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Meredith, America (7 February 2012). "Ahalenia: Narcissa Chisholm Owen: The Mother of Cherokee Painting?". Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  2. ^ "CONTENTdm". Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  3. ^ a b c "History of Federal Banking". Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  4. ^ Emmitt Starr, History of the Cherokees p. 542
  5. ^ "William Wilson (1811-1897) - Find A Grave..." Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  6. ^ Accounts differ as to whether the college was in New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana (which established a public high school in 1853) or Dearborn County (which had the Moores Hill Male and Female Collegiate Institute founded in 1854 and which ultimately became the University of Evansville after moving in 1919
  7. ^ Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America (Harvard University Press 2001) pp. 141-144
  8. ^ Linda Williams Reese, Women of Oklahoma, 1890-1920 (University of Oklahoma Press 1997), p. 86
  9. ^ Kilcup pp. 11-30, 151-155
  10. ^ The Indian's Friend" Vol 23, no. 12 (August 1911) available at
  11. ^ "Narcissa Clark Chisholm Owen (1831-1911) - Find A..." Retrieved 27 December 2017.

Further readingEdit