The subject of today’s Tombstone Tuesday article has been referred to as the “millionaire Indian”. By all accounts, like the 1980’s Smith-Barney advertisement, he “made money the old-fashion way” – he earned it. His story is widely available, but this article is a summary highlighting his life and accomplishments in honor of November being National Native American Heritage Month.
Most family historians believe that Mathias Splitlog was born in 1812, although exactly where he was born is unclear. Some believe he was born in Ontario, Canada and was one-half Cayuga Indian and one-half French, while others believe he was born in New York. One source indicates that some believe he might have been stolen by Indians and reared by Wyandot Indians in Ohio.
This Genealogy Trails link cites family historians believing Mathias was born in New York in 1812, one-half Cayuga and one-half French. From there, at the age of three, Mathias went to Ohio with some of the Cayuga tribe, settling around the Sandusky, Ohio area, home to the Wyandot tribe.
In 1843 around eight hundred members of the Wyandot tribe were removed to Kansas, a forced migration similar to the so-called “Trail of Tears” which had occurred five years earlier in 1838. Over one hundred and forty thousand acres were assigned to the tribe on the Neosho River. The Wyandots, finding the land unsuitable, made a deal and purchased thirty-nine sections from the Delaware Indians near the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers (or near what is today Kansas City, Kansas).
I think that perhaps around 1845 Mathias married Eliza Barnett, a niece of Wyandot Chief Jacques. Mathias was already well-known as a hard-working and enterprising businessman. After building a log home overlooking his land along the Kansas River, he built grist and saw mills. Apparently, Mathias had quite a skill for mechanical engineering, although he had received little or no formal education.
His mills were run by steam engine and it is said he could study a piece of machinery and build a replica. Mathias later became involved in real estate, possessing a keen business acumen and a reputation for shrewdness. After selling a large plot of his own land to a Kansas City, Kansas business conglomerate, Mathias first gained the moniker “Millionaire Indian.”
However, by the mid-1850’s, white settlers realized that the Indians were occupying valuable land. Of course, that meant another forced removal for Indians. The Wyandots were friendly with the Seneca tribe and were given thirty thousand acres. Many Wyandots settled on that land and were lead by Chief Matthew Mudeater.
After selling his land near Kansas City, Mathias was looking for a new home for his family. Friends began to urge him to come to Indian Territory. In 1874 Mathias journeyed across Kansas and settled on Seneca lands near the Grand and Cowskin (Elk) Rivers in what is now Delaware County, Oklahoma. On the land was a spring which Mathias named Cayuga, later to become the name of the town he founded.
Enterprising person that he was, Mathias set out to establish himself again as a successful businessman. He first built a sawmill and later a grist mill. A blacksmith shop, general store and a ferry business were added. One would think that was plenty to keep anyone busy, but Mathias continued building his “empire”. He built a factory that produced horse buggies and coffins – all of these enterprises providing good-paying jobs for the community.
By the late 1880’s Mathias was already looking ahead to the future when transportation would progress beyond the horse-and-buggy era. He also decided to capitalize on the rich resources of the region. If mining were to take hold in the region, Mathias wanted to be ready to accommodate that new industry, so he built a railroad that ran from Joplin to Neosho, Missouri and onto Splitlog City. The railroad, however, never reached Cayuga – the result of a dishonest business deal involving a fake gold mine.
In 1890 Mathias was elected as the Seneca Chief. Even though he was by then in his late 70’s, Mathias continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the tribe, traveling to Washington, D.C. at his own expense when the need arose. At some point, perhaps around 1893, Mathias, a nominal Catholic, began building a church.
Interestingly, Mrs. Splitlog had been a Quaker and after moving to Indian Territory converted to Catholicism. I located some Quaker Indian Territory census records so that explains the Quaker connection. The area where they settled was under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Arkansas and the general store was a place where all religions were free to meet, although according to Mathias’ grandsons he never participated in any religious service.
Eliza, stricken with cancer, died on September 28, 1894. The church was not yet completed but work resumed the following spring. In November 1895 work was suspended while Mathias traveled again to Washington to represent the Senecas. After his return the church was dedicated in November of 1896.
Shortly after, Mathias was again summoned to Washington on tribal business. He departed on December 22, 1896. After falling ill, he stopped for a day of rest in Monett, Missouri and continued on to Washington. However, by the time he reached Washington his condition had weakened and he developed pneumonia. Mathias Splitlog died in Washington, D.C. on January 2, 1897. His body was carried back to Cayuga for burial next to Eliza.
This is but a summary of Mathias Splitlog’s interesting life and his many accomplishments. You can read more about Mathias here . Be sure and stop by tomorrow for a ghost town article about Cayuga.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!