James Johnston Houston. One of the most important phases of early Oklahoma history was the subject of “free homes.” A great deal has been said and written on that subject, but perhaps no one states the matter with greater clearness, as a result of personal experience, than James Johnston Houston, former commissioner of the school land office in old Oklahoma Territory, and now a prominent business man of Henryetta.
In the fall of 1893 Mr. Houston came from Kansas and joined the grand rush that gathered fifteen thousand people at the Perry land office. During the next four years, besides being active in business, he was connected with the various political movements of his locality and the Oklahoma Territory. While refusing office for himself he acted on committees of his party, both local and territorial.
“ At this time,” says Mr. Houston, “ the settlers of Oklahoma were indebted to the United States for the benefit of the Indians to the sum of $16,000,000, amounting in some localities to an imposition of about five hundred dollars to each quarter section. That is, each settler had to assume this obligation in addition to the heavy investment of labor and hardship requisite to the development of the raw land. The delegate to Congress, Hon. Dennis T. Flynn, had introduced a bill in Congress relieving the settlers of this impossible load. The settlers of Oklahoma were universally poor people wanting homes, and with this load during the depressing times the task of improving the prairie and paying out such a debt seemed hopeless. The people were organized into clubs in every school district of Oklahoma under the name of the Free Home League. During this time many congressmen were importuned by friends and relatives and all prominent men were besieged to such good effect that in the platforms of the national parties a plank was inserted guaranteeing to the people of Oklahoma free homes. It finally culminated in the ‘Free Homes Bill,’ which was one of the most important governmental measures adopted during the early years of Oklahoma Territory.”
Mr. Houston afterwards became active in agitating this subject of free homes among the people, and for two terms served as president of the state organization known as the Free Home League. On the change of administration in 1897 Mr. Houston became assistant to Hon. William Jenkins, then secretary of Oklahoma Territory, under William McKinley. The secretary’s office at that time was very important, comprising the department of oversight of corporations, insurance, and disbursing offices, and having custody of the legislative records. His connection with this office gave Mr. Houston other opportunities for wide experience and acquaintance with the early political life of Oklahoma.
In 1901 Mr. Jenkins was made governor of Oklahoma Territory by appointment from President William McKinley. On account of the warm friendship which had grown up between them, Governor Jenkins tendered Mr. Houston the position of secretary of the board for leasing public lands, a position generally known as commissioner of school land office. This position was all the more important at that time because of the opening to settlement of the Kiowa and Comanche Indian reservations, as well as the leasing of all other public lands in Oklahoma. In connection with the Kiowa and Comanche opening there was involved the selection of the indemnity lands at Washington City. An annual rental value was placed upon each quarter section of the four sections in each congressional township to be opened to settlement. The lease on each piece was then offered to the highest bidder. Nearly a million dollars was deposited with the bids, and when the land was finally awarded $188,000 bonus money above the rentals was added to the treasury.
After the assassination of President McKinley and the accession of Roosevelt to the presidency there followed the usual realignment and changes in political offices subject to partisan control. As a result Governor Jenkins lost his position and T. B. Ferguson was appointed governor. Governor Ferguson and Mr. Houston had both belonged to the same political faction, and Mr. Houston .was retained in the land office. A year later Mr. Flynn dropped out of territorial politics and Mr. McGuire became the territorial delegate. This introduced a new influence with Governor Ferguson and among the numerous changes that followed one was the displacement of Mr. Houston from the land office.
The Houston family represented by this Henryetta citizen have always been pioneers. Mr. Houston himself came to Oklahoma Territory in its early days and helped to build the modern state. His father, D. W. Houston, had gone to Kansas in the struggle over the free state and was an influential factor in its progress and development. Mr. Houston’s great-grandfather had lived in Ohio when it was a part of the great Northwest Territory, while another great-grandfather took part in the erection of the State of Pennsylvania and the formation of the United States. Some of the first ancestors were settlers in the early provinces of the Atlantic colonies.
It was at Newcastle, Pennsylvania, October 18, 1857, that James Johnston Houston was born. He is of Scotch-Irish ancestry. His great-grandfather, John Houston, was a soldier in the Revolution. The other great-grandfather mentioned, on the maternal side, was a Rankin, and was a member of one of the first sessions of the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Shortly after James J. Houston was born his parents moved out to Kansas, where his father, D. W. Houston, took part in the struggle for freedom, riding miles over the prairies to attend the free state meetings and to attend the different territorial conventions preceding statehood. He joined the Union army at the first call, as a private in the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, and afterwards he was discharged as a lieutenant-colonel. In later years he served in the State Senate and House and as United States Marshal of Kansas.
In such a country and from a father whose associations were so prominent, James J. Houston naturally acquired broad impressions, the habit of judging matters on principle and with positive conviction, and from childhood has been mostly familiar with the life and spirit of the great western country. He attended the common schools and the Leavenworth High School, was a student at the University of Kansas, and had begun the study of law before it became necessary for him to depend upon his own efforts for advancement. For a time he taught school, and after serving as register of deeds and county clerk in his home county of Kansas he was engaged in the real estate and insurance business and in other lines of mercantile and professional work. Between times he served two terms as mayor of Barnett, Kansas. From there he came to Oklahoma at the opening of the Cherokee Strip, twenty-two years ago. Since leaving the Oklahoma land office Mr. Houston has applied his time and energy entirely to business matters. In 1913 he removed from Guthrie to Henryetta, believing that a great industrial center would eventually grow up at the latter town.
In 1881 Mr. Houston married Mary Elizabeth Parks. They are the parents of one son and one daughter, and the son, following the traditions of the family as pioneers, has gone to the Far West. Mr. Houston is one of the ruling elders of the First Presbyterian Church at Henryetta. In politics he is a republican practically since childhood.