Famous women of Oklahoma are remembered

Roseanne McKee

Kay Little, owner of Kay’s Little Adventures, gave a presentation recently at the Bartlesville Area History Museum about notable Oklahoma women. This week’s column is the second in a series highlighting the lives of these women.

Amelia Elizabeth “Bessie” McColgin was the first woman to serve in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

McColgin was born Jan. 7, 1875, in Kansas, but both of her parents died when she was just three. So, she was raised by relatives in Illinois.

She married Grant McColgin in 1895 and the couple moved to western Oklahoma territory, where she worked as a teacher and a postmaster.

Later, she ran for state legislature as a Republican and won.

Elected in 1920, McColgin defeated the incumbent by earning the support of women, who had just recently gained the right to vote, Kay Little said.

She served in the state legislature from 1920-21. While in office, McColgin introduced a bill to create a bureau of child hygiene, was involved in a soldiers’ relief program and helped create a tuberculosis sanatorium, Little said.

McColgin, a Republican, spent most of her time helping Senator Lamar Looney, a Democrat, pass her legislation.

“Unfortunately, not much of her health agendas were passed into law,” Little said.

On her last day in office, a male legislator told her that women legislators needed to be watched, and then presented her with a wrist watch.

McColgin stated that serving in the legislature was her greatest honor, apart from being a mother. She died at age 97 in Sayre in 1972.

Perhaps the most controversial female in her presentation was a local woman named Julia Johnson, a descendant of Nelson Carr, Little said.

Johnson married Bob Gilstrap, a Cherokee, and had one child, Jenny Gilstrap.

On Christmas day in 1889, Bob Gilstrap and Frank Leno, a Delaware, had a shootout in front of Bartles store. Leno was rumored to have had an affair with Julia Johnson, Little said, but this was unsubstantiated.

The men both died in the shootout; Frank Eaton (Pistol Pete) carried Bob’s body to the Keelers.

Rumor was, before she married Gilstrap, Julia Johnson had been married to another Delaware man for his money and to live in Oklahoma territory, which Little tried to verify.

A family member told Little, “‘that is not documented; we do not believe that.’ So, … just know that it was probably not true. … Her first marriage was Gilstrap.”

She did have several marriages, however.

Some said Julia Johnson was involved with outlaw Emmett Dalton after Gilstrap died.

But, Dalton went to jail and Julia married another outlaw, Ernest Lewis.

“Lewis had been sent to Guthrie at one time,” Little said, “but escaped and came back to the Bartlesville area.

“He and Julia even got into a gun fight with law men and were arrested and sent to Guthrie, but they escaped. They returned to Bartlesville, opened a livery and horse sales barn with a café and saloon around 1901 located around Third and Keeler,” Little said.

In the summer 1907, Lewis ran for sheriff as a Democrat, but lost, Little said.

On Nov. 16, 1907 as Oklahoma became a state, it was a “dry” state.

The couple had been warned they could not serve hard liquor, but U.S. marshals, named George Williams and Frank Keeler, checked and found them doing so anyway.

“Ernest opened fire and so did the marshals and when it was all over, Williams and Lewis were dead. Keeler was ruled to have fired in self defense,” Little said.

Julia Lewis wanted her husband’s gravestone to state that he was murdered by Frank Keeler, but instead she settled for “killed by Frank Keeler.”

Little showed a photo of the gravestone at White Rose Cemetery, which is still there today.

After the death of Ernest Lewis, the local newspaper editor wrote a scathing article about him. When Julia Lewis saw the editor on the street soon thereafter, she chased him down the street with a bullwhip, but didn’t strike him, Little said.

The new coroner received the body of Ernest Lewis and completed the coroner’s report. Bartlesville is known as having the first murder in the state of Oklahoma due to Lewis’s death.

Julia Lewis attended the coroner’s inquest with intentions to kill Keeler, and had to be disarmed by the coroner, Little said.

Thereafter, Emmett Dalton got out of jail and he and Julia were married in 1908 in Bartlesville.

They moved to California and made a movie about Dalton’s life. This was controversial because, when paroled, Dalton had been told he couldn’t profit from his crimes. However, Dalton’s argument was that his movie would instruct others about not turning to crime, Little said. The couple died in California and are buried in Kingfisher and Dewey.

Check back next Sunday for the next in my series about Oklahoma Women based on Kay Little’s presentation.