Both of William Keeler’s paternal and maternal grandfathers, George B. Keeler and Nelson F. Carr, were white men who had settled in Cherokee territory and married Cherokee women. They were notable for their roles in founding the community that is now Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Carr owned the sawmill and grist mill in town. George Keeler was one of the men involved in drilling the first oil well in what would become the state of Oklahoma. Keeler’s parents were William and Sarah Louisa Carr, both of whom were of Cherokee descent. William was a stockman who had traveled from Bartlesville to the Texas Panhandle in 1908 to buy cattle. Sarah was then expecting her fourth child, but decided to accompany her husband. She delivered their first son in Dalhart. Only two of their children survived to adulthood: “Bill” and a sister, Blanche. Young Bill attended Bartlesville public schools. During high school and college, he spent his summers working on construction sites for Phillips Petroleum Company. In 1924, Blanche married Kenneth S. “Boots” Adams, who would later become president of Phillips Petroleum Corporation. The couple divorced in 1945.
William Keeler was born into the Long Hair Clan of the Cherokee. He moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma as a child and lived with his grandmother due to his mother’s ill health. She instilled into him “Indian ways” and Cherokee principles of morality. His mother eventually returned and attempted to raise him with white man principles and pushed for him to assimilate. The starkly contrasting influences from his mother and grandmother conflicted Keeler in his early life, but he ultimately successfully assimilated into white society. He began working part-time for Phillips Petroleum on various construction sites at age sixteen while still in high school, and continued during the summers while attending college. Keeler graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Chemical Engineering in 1930. He accepted a full-time engineering position at Phillips’ Kansas City, Kansas Refinery even before he graduated. While living there, he met Ruby Lucille Hamilton, who had graduated from the nursing school at Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. The couple married in Kansas City on September 15, 1933. They remained in Kansas City, where their first two sons were born, until 1939, when he transferred to the Phillips refinery in Borger, Texas as chief chemist. The family moved back to Bartlesville in 1941, where their youngest son was born. During World War II, he supervised the construction of a new refinery Phillips built in Mexico. After the end of the war, he was promoted to manager of Phillips’ refining department in Bartlesville.
William Keeler’s work with Phillips Petroleum was quite a step forward for Indians of the time. He managed to climb through the ranks of a white owned company despite being a Cherokee Indian. After working for nearly half a century with Philips Petroleum, he rose to CEO of the company in 1968 until he was forced to retire in 1973. His success with Phillips Petroleum drew the attention of the federal government and displayed him as a leader that could be appointed to higher positions. Keeler was quoted as saying “easterners… are aghast” at finding he is Indian due to his success in the oil industry. In 1948 he was selected as Vice Chairman of the Tribes Executive Committee. President Truman appointed Keeler as Chief in 1949. He would remain in that position until 1975, having been reappointed by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. During a period from 1945-1972 he also served as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Texas Cherokees and Associate Bands and was instrumental in getting the 1836 Treaty of Bowles Village brought before the Indian Claims Commission. He resigned that post in 1972. Under President Johnson’s Administration, Keeler was appointed as a member of the National Advisory Committee for the War on Poverty Program and was put on the President’s Committee on Economic Opportunity. Alaskan Governor Walter Hickel appointed Keeler chairman of a task force to find ways to improve utilization of native labor. Also under President Johnson, the Secretary of Interior of the time appointed William Keeler to head a group to with the focus of reorganizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although these appointments are most likely attributed to his success as a businessman as well as a white appearance, they should not diminish his success and accomplishments in the Cherokee nation.
William Keeler’s success in the oil industry and work with the federal government coincided with his older, more conservative upbringing. Clyde Warrior, an Indian activist during the 1960, once mockingly described him as “a little brown American.” Some consider Keeler to be the most influential person to the Cherokee nation aside from John Ross, who battled the removal of Indians and fought against the “Trail of Tears.” He promoted infrastructure building within Cherokee land while serving as chief. Although Keeler would eventually manage to create great leaps in Cherokee infrastructure and life, he did not promote Indian sovereignty in the late 1950s. Also, while serving as Chief, he did not endorse the radical change of the late 1960s and 1970s but instead promoted more conservative changes and equality. William Keeler actively supported education and welfare work among his people, stating “Indians should not be entitled to more rights than anybody else, but they should still have all the rights of everyone else.” He also advocated hard work of Indians as means to progress stating that “Indians cannot win friends by force and that militancy damages constructive causes.” In 1971 Keeler was democratically elected as Chief of the Cherokee Nation, this was the first democratic election of chief since 1903. Ross Swimmer—who followed Keeler as Chief after Keeler decided not to run for a second term—stated that Keeler “was the Cherokee tribe. He was the one who established the tribe and he did a lot of it with his own money and energy.”
William Keeler also promoted and accomplished great infrastructure building in the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee owned several office Buildings including the Tribal Business Office, a BIA leased building, and a building housing education programs. He also created several Cherokee buildings targeted at industry building; such as a garment manufacturing company with Cherokee employees, the Cherokee Nation Builders Corporation (with Cherokee Indian construction crews), and skills training programs to assimilate to the new industrialized world as well as crafts and child care training for women at home. He also established a national Cherokee newspaper and oversaw the Tribal Housing Authority, which offered low cost housing to Cherokees. Keeler helped establish the Cherokee Foundation and through legal legislation attained $14,789,000 from the federal government over land dispute. He also presided over the drafting of a new Cherokee constitution in 1975 in his final year as chief. William Keeler died in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on August 24, 1987 after four years of failing health.
- April, 05, 1908
- Dalhart, Texas
- August, 24, 1987
- Bartlesville, Oklahoma
- White Rose Cemetery
- Bartlesville, Oklahoma