Michelle Martin: Helmerich Center for American Research Fellow

Meet Michelle Martin, a member of our inaugural class of Helmerich Center for American Research short-term fellows. A post-doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of New Mexico, she worked on her project “Dark Taboo: Kate and Douglas Bemo, Interracial Marriage, and the Power in the Indian Territory, 1870-1898” while in residence this summer. Learn more about her work and future fellowship opportunities in the video below.


My name is Michelle Martin and I’m a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico. I’m doing research here at the Helmerich Center for American Research on a short-term fellowship. My dissertation looks what happens when individuals of different races come together and fall in love and marry and try to navigate the waters of life in the Indian Territory from 1870 to 1898.

My research is important because today more than ever we’re becoming a more diverse society in our country, and even globally. And people of different races, different faiths, different ethnicities are coming together, falling in love, marrying and having families. This is not something new. And by looking at the past, maybe we will be able to create better relationships between peoples of different races and ethnic groups in our future.

The research materials I have found here at the Helmerich Center for America Research and also at the McFarlin Library special collections, I have been able to find materials directly related to the people that are involved in my dissertation, and it has helped me view them differently. So, I have been able to actually answer questions in my dissertation research that I’ve been searching for answers for eight years. Finally. And that changes how I view them, view their relationships with one another and the people around them, so it’s going to change how I situate these individuals into the larger context of Indian Territory moving here on forward.

The unique relationship between The University of Tulsa and the Gilcrease Museum gives scholars a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of two collections, The Helmerich Center for American Research Archival Collections and those at the McFarlin Library in the special collections. And for many scholars, you don’t get that opportunity to be able to write for one fellowship and have access to distinct collections of materials that help you create a more rounded portrait, or help broaden the amount of material you’re able to pull in for research. So this is really unique, and it’s something that I think if scholars who were working in Indian Territory, Oklahoma History or the west completely, knew existed they would be taking or the west completely, knew existed they would be taking advantage of this in droves.

It’s rare to find academic institutions so intimately paired with museums because that constitutes the public history side of things and normally public history and academic history are seen as almost two separate disciplines, and it’s like the two trains that, you know, are on parallel tracks but they never cross and meet with one another at the station, and that’s something that’s fantastic about the partnership between The University of Tulsa and the Gilcrease Museum, the Helmerich Center for American Research and the McFarlin Library Special Collections. They’re, not only are they trains on their own tracks, but they come together in ways that help scholars make meaningful collections between their research, the collections that are here and the resources that are available through the university, the museum and the research center.

Many of the materials I’m utilizing here at the Helmerich Center for American Research are found only here. A good example is the Vincent Lackey collection. Vincent Lackey collected historical materials about the built environment in Indian Territory to create a series of paintings that were commissioned by Thomas Gilcrease. Those are giving me a fantastic link to the physical world that the folks in my dissertation inhabited so long ago.

When I was starting my research here at the Helmerich Center for American Research, I didn’t expect that I would find materials specifically related to the individual who plays a role in my dissertation. And I knew I would find things about this individual’s father, because he was quite prominent. And lo and behold, I found there are a collection of original newspapers here that are from the Muskogee area and from the nineteenth century, and I thought “I’m just gonna take a long shot.” Renee got out the materials for me, laid the newspapers out. The very first newspaper I looked at, I was reading the front page and they talked about a report that was done regarding the conditions in the African American schools within the Muscogee/Creek Nation in the 1870s and right there in the article, the name of my individual and his wife that I’ve been studying for eight years was right there on the front page of the paper. It’s a paper that has not yet been digitized, so this was a piece of information that I didn’t have, that I’ve been searching for eight years.

Being able to go over to McFarlin and see a desk calendar written by a missionary, and I needed a death date for one of the individuals in my dissertation and lo and behold, on a whim, on a hunch, I flipping through her desk calendar. She had tiny little handwritten notations, and I find the day he died and she noted the day he was buried, and that clears up a lot of controversy about when his life ended.