Louis A. Ledbetter. Probably no Government official in Oklahoma comes in closer contact with the Indian people and their affairs than the United States Probate Indian attorney at Idabel. This is a prominent young lawyer, Louis A. Ledbetter, a young man who was reared in Indian Territory and is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. The real Indian problems of America, as has been well said, are exemplified in all their phases in McCurtain County, over which Mr. Ledbetter’s jurisdiction extends. These problems in all their details and complexities are presented to the probate attorneys that Indian Commissioner Cato Sells has established at convenient points in the Choctaw Nation and other nations of the original Five Tribes. In fact the office of Mr. Ledbetter at Idabel might well be called the clearing house for Choctaw joys and sorrows and all manner of business transactions.
The commission issued to Mr. Ledbetter, bearing the signature of Franklin K. Lane, secretary of the interior, did not state what are the duties of a probate attorney. However he had been in office but a short time before he learned of duties and responsibilities almost beyond the power of a single mind, however penetrating and comprehensive, to grasp. Many incidents might be told to illustrate Mr. Ledbetter’s complex duties. As these cases are of more than temporary interest and serve to give a better insight into Indian problems and many cases of descriptive history, it is proper to mention a few that have come before the official observation of Mr. Ledbetter.
A Choctaw woman had been credited in the office of the Union Agency at Muskogee with $2,080, which represented her share of the sale of certain tribal property. Before she had been advised of this credit some McCurtain County men entered into a contract with her whereby they were to receive half the amount for collecting for her the entire amount. They drew a check for a few hundred dollars in part payment of the commission. This cheek the woman innocently brought to the tribal attorney for approval. There she was advised of the absolute needlessness of employing counsel in this or in any other matter relating to her business affairs. Accompanying her was her daughter of sixteen, a full blood Indian, but able to speak good English. Under her arm she carried a stack, of cheap books purchased of a news agent on a railroad train, and the attorney was not in doubt that she paid three or four times as much for the books as the average white person would pay.
Another case is as follows: A few years ago a white man purchased a valuable tract of agricultural land in McCurtain County, believing he obtained a perfect title. Recently he discovered that the land had been allotted to a woman bearing indeed the same name as the woman from whom she had bought, although the former never knew she had received an allotment while the latter was a full blood. In other words, the woman who made the same never had title to the land she sold. The difficulty of unraveling the complexities of this transaction lies in the fact that the woman to whom the title was issued under allotment can not be found, and unless she can be found the man may not be able to get complete title to the land.
Many wrongs were done the Choctaws before attorneys were sent near the scenes of operations, and only a small fraction of these wrongs can ever be corrected. During 1910-11-12 some attorneys representing lumber interests in this county got themselves appointed guardians of minor Indian estates, practically all of which contained valuable timber. This timber, worth millions of dollars, was sold to the lumber companies, and the records show that the estates did not receive an average of one-third the actual value of the timber. The plan was so perfect that in each case the purchaser was represented by counsel of the lumber companies, and thus there was no competition in the buying. Where it was necessary these sales were made through the Probate Court and the Probate Court, through indifference, rush of business or other cause, neglected to ascertain whether the Indians were receiving fair values for their property.
Under lax court procedure over $300,000 in notes and mortgages exist in McCurtain County against Indian property. Attorney Ledbetter has discovered that a large majority of these instruments are not worth 50 per cent of their face value. But the Indian has no redress. In fact the Indian of half blood or less is at liberty to make any sort of business transaction he chooses without consulting the attorney, and the attorney has no way of undoing many of these transactions. Hence one of the chief duties which Mr. Ledbetter has found imposed upon him has been to educate the Indians under his jurisdiction and to request that he be made their legal and financial agent in all important matters relating to Indian property.
In many places guardians have played fast and loose with the property under their charge. There is the case of an Indian boy who at the age of five was left in Atoka County with a valuable allotment and $5,000 in cash. A guardian was appointed by the United States District Court of Indian Territory and the case was transferred to the Probate Court of the state at statehood. The guardian’s activities were not properly reviewed or checked up by the court and when the Indian boy was twenty-one he was without a dollar of money and had no education. In another case, a guardian, who was the father of the minor children involved, spent $1,250 improving a part of a tract of allotted land and then sold the improved part for a total of $1,225. He advertised the remainder of the land for sale. Meantime the matter had been reported to the interior department and the land was saved for the children.
These and many other cases that have occurred under Mr. Ledbetter’s observation indicate the intolerable conditions to which the Choctaw Indians have been subjected. It is no wonder therefore that these Indians have little faith in a white man’s government and that in spite of the earnest efforts of many devoted and unselfish missionaries they are little responsive to religious influences. Mr. Ledbetter testifies that a majority of grown fullbloods do not read or write the English language. A fullblood Indian, who by sad experience learned that it was best even in small matters to consult the probate attorney, needed $200. She asked Mr. Ledbetter through her interpreter for a check for that amount. The check was prepared and to make it valid at the bank the woman’s thumb print made with indelible ink from a stamp pad was placed on the corner of the instrument.
Louis A. Ledbetter is twenty-five years old. He was born in Gainesville, Texas, a son of W. A. Ledbetter of Oklahoma City, who represented the district now embracing Carter County in the constitutional convention. Mr. Ledbetter attended the grammar and high schools at Ardmore, and in 1912 graduated LL. B. from the University of Oklahoma. He was admitted to the bar in June of the same year, and has since been in active practice. He is a member of the County and State Bar Associations, of the Kappa Sigma College fraternity, and is a member of the Young Men’s Democratic League of Oklahoma and was one of the organizers of the Democratic Club of the university. He is prominently identified with the Masonic fraternity at McAlester, Oklahoma. He was married October 10, 1915, to Miss Margortie Garland, who belongs to one of the oldest and best known families in this county.
Shortly after he began the practice of law in 1912 at Idabel, in which town he has since had his home, he was assigned by Attorney General Charles West to represent the state in a case wherein the Choctaw Lumber Company was charged with dealing in real estate in violation of the constitution. This company, it was discovered, owned 100,000 acres of land in Southeastern Oklahoma. It was charged with advertising much of this land for sale to settlers. The petition prepared by Mr. Ledbetter contained 1,300 separate causes of action against the company. The case was compromised to the state’s advantage, the company paving in fines and costs $17,150.