Sagamore of the Wabash


Jeffrey Graf
Reference Services Department
Herman B Wells Library
Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington

      In Britain appointment to orders of chivalry acknowledges accomplishment, unless the sovereign graciously bestows a more glorious feudal rank. The French Republic rewards distinction with membership in the Legion of Honor, originally created by Napoleon for worthies of his empire. For the United States, the highest civilian honor is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In case one does not quite deserve that distinction, there is a second-highest civilian honor, the Presidential Citizen's Medal. Not to be outdone by the executive branch, the Congress created the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest award.

      Other nations and their constituent governments offer civilian honors as tribute to the distinguished, as do professional societies, institutes, universities, associations, businesses, museums, clubs, fraternal groups and any number of other organizations devoted to all kinds of endeavor from the fine arts to professional sports. These organizations present scrolls, plaques, medals, trophies, certificates, keys to the city and other tokens of esteem to their laureates.

      The county fair awards blue ribbons; the Kennel Club chooses Best in Show. Athletes compete for the gold and silver and bronze or the Stanley and Davis and Ryder cups. For mathematicians there is the Fields Medal; in the same intellectual realm, there are the Nobel Prizes. The range is wide, running from the House of Hapsburg's Order of the Golden Fleece to the Boy Scouts' Silver Beaver Award.

Honorary Colonels

      Among the states, perhaps the best known honor is the designation as a Kentucky Colonel, "the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky." It is the most venerable, its tradition dating from 1813 "during the second term of Governor Isaac Shelby, when he bestowed the title of Colonel to his son-in-law, Charles. S. Todd, a member of his staff." (Kentucky. Secretary of State.) It also owes some of its more recent popular recognition to fried chicken franchises, a sports team and a cocktail of bourbon and Benedictine. In 1932 Governor Ruby Laffoon added "Honorable Order" to the name "to reflect the honorary status of its members." Although the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is dedicated to "good works within the Commonwealth of Kentucky," the Colonels may be men or women from any state or nation, deemed worthy by the governor for their contributions in any field. (Kentucky. Secretary State.)

      In keeping with the Kentucky's military tradition, the governors of Tennessee , Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico also commission honorary colonels. In Alabama the title reads, Honorary Lieutenant Colonel, Aide-de-Camp in the Alabama State Militia. In Georgia the title is Honorary Lieutenant Colonel, Aide-de-Camp, Governor's Staff. In Louisiana and other states the rank varies, and the award creates an full honorary Colonel. North Dakota continues the martial theme with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award (and an honorary rank of colonel in the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Riders), "North Dakota's highest award made to persons who have been influenced by this state in achieving recognition in their fields of endeavor, thereby reflecting credit upon this state and its citizens." (North Dakota. Governor.)

      Texas adopted a naval motif and names Admirals in the Texas Navy. The practice, popularized by Governor Price Daniels in the 1950s, is not limited to Texans, although "native-born Texans are designated 'admirals;' non-native Texans are 'honorary admirals.'" (Texas. State Library and Archives Commission.) Landlocked Nebraska also honors notables as admirals, appointing the as an Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. Since 1966 Ohio has had commodores (Executive Order of the Ohio Commodore), named by the governor in recognition of contributions to the economy of the state.

Colonel Darrow

      The successful play and popular movie Inherit the Wind presented audiences with a tale of two honorary colonels. Based more or less on the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and ignoring historical fact to make a broader point, the drama featured fictionalized versions of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. In welcoming Matthew Harrison Brady (Bryan) to Hillsboro, the mayor announces that the governor has appointed Brady an honorary colonel in the state militia. At the trial, the Judge refers to Brady as "Colonel Brady," and Henry Drummond (Darrow) objects to "all this damned 'Colonel' talk" as clear judicial favoritism, prejudicial to his case. The situation is resolved, pending the governor's approval of course, by making Drummond a "temporary honorary colonel." Drummond remarks about his new appointment, "Gentlemen, what can I say? It is not often in a man's life that he attains the exalted rank of 'Temporary Honorary Colonel.'" (Lawrence and Lee, p. 38)

      Bryan did not need an honorary title. Although a pacifist, he actually was a colonel, a rank he held during the Spanish American War. In his Summer for the Gods Edward J. Larson describes how the real trial judge, John T. Raulston, applied the honorific to Darrow and "adopted the practice -- already used by some in town -- of referring to Darrow as 'Colonel.'" Larson ponders the significance of Darrow's informal honorary title: "Yet some wondered whether the judge extended this designation to Darrow and Malone as a way to avoid calling them 'mister,' a title of respect in the South." (Larson, p. 149-50) If so, the judge in this instance turned upside down the usual distinctions of rank and reduced Darrow to a sort of generic colonel among colonels, rendering what was a mark of honor a sign of no honor at all.

Non-Commissioned Laureates

      State honors are not limited to colonels' commissions. Alabama created in 1965 a second way to recognize achievement, the Alabama Academy of Honor, limited to a membership of one hundred living Alabamians "who have made a significant contribution to the life and times of the state of Alabama and the nation." (Alabama. Department of Archives and History.) The highest award in Arkansas is the Arkansas Traveller Award . Delaware recognizes its distinguished citizens with the Order of the First State. The governor of Florida presents the Florida's Finest Award to "Floridians who make their communities better through dedication, hard work and good deeds." The governor's office further explains, "These are the unsung heroes in our State: volunteers; philanthropists; those who place someone else's safety and welfare above their own; and those who go beyond the call of duty to find ways to significantly improve the quality of life for their communities. Nominees selected for this honor receive a certificate and a letter of commendation. In addition, each week the Governor calls a small number of award recipients to thank them personally for their contributions to our society." (Florida. Governor.)

      Illinois established the Lincoln Academy of Illinois which honors its chosen laureates with the Order of Lincoln and its medallion to acknowledge "individuals whose contributions to the betterment of mankind have been accomplished in or on behalf of the state of Illinois, residence, or by their dedication to the principles of democracy." ("Weber to Receive the Order of Lincoln") The Iowa award, created in 1948 by the state legislature recognizes "outstanding service of Iowans in the fields of science, medicine, law, religion, social welfare, education, agriculture, industry, government and other public service." Unlike other honors, the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation bestows its award only "approximately every five years." (Iowa. Secretary of State.)

      On August 2, 1997 Governor Ralph Pataki of New York announced the creation of the Jackie Robinson Empire State Freedom Medal, and his press release described it as "New York State's Highest Honor." The reverse of the medal is to read "presented to honor conduct exemplifying the spirit as demonstrated by the life of Jack Roosevelt Robinson." (New York. Governor.) Like Illinois and New York, Washington also presents a medal, the Medal of Merit, defined by state law as "the state medal of merit with accompanying ribbons and appurtenances for award by the governor, in the name of the state, to any person who has been distinguished by exceptionally meritorious conduct in performing outstanding services to the people and state of Washington, upon the nomination of the governor's state medal of merit committee. " (Washington. Secretary of State.)

      North Carolina's highest civilian award is the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. South Carolina, like its neighbor to the north, names its distinction for one of its natural resources and, being the "Palmetto State," awards the Order of the Palmetto. Other state honors include the Order of the First State (Delaware) the Arkansas Traveller Award, Florida's Finest, and Distinguished West Virginian.


      The highest distinction in Indiana is the designation Sagamore of the Wabash. According to the Governor's Office:

      The Sagamore of the Wabash award was created during the term of Governor Ralph Gates, who served from 1945 to 1949. Governor Gates was to attend a tri-state meeting in Louisville with officials from the states of Ohio and Kentucky. Aides to the governor discovered that the governor of Kentucky was preparing Kentucky Colonel certificates for Governor Gates and Senator Robert A. Taft, who was to represent the state of Ohio. The Hoosiers decided Indiana should have an appropriate award to present in return.

      The term "Sagamore" was used by the American Indian Tribes of the northeastern United States to describe a lesser chief or a great man among the tribe to whom the true chief would look for wisdom and advice.

      Each governor since Gates has presented the certificates in his own way. It has been said that one governor even resorted to wearing a full Indian headdress as he read the scrolls. The award is the highest honor which the Governor of Indiana bestows. It is a personal tribute given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the State or to the Governor. Among those who have received Sagamores of the Wabash have been astronauts, Presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians and ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to our Hoosier heritage.

      It should be noted that Sagamores have been conferred upon both men and women since the beginning of their existence. There is no record of the total number which have been presented, as each governor has kept his own roll; just as each has reserved the right to select recipients personally. (Indiana. Governor.)

Harrell, Pantzer and Gates

      The Sesquicentennial Scrapbook is more specific about the creation of the Sagamore award. It was, the Scrapbook says, "the invention of business executive (and World War I pilot) Samuel R. Harrell and attorney Kurt Pantzer -- both good Hoosiers and friends of Governor Gates." (Guthrie, p.78 ) Harrell (1897-1982) and Pantzer (1892-1979) had a lot in common. Both attended (at different times) Wabash College and completed their education in the east, Harrell at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School, Pantzer at Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Both were Presbyterians, and both belonged to the Athletic, Woodstock, University and Dramatic clubs of Indianapolis. The two also worked together as attorneys in the firm of Smith, Remster, Hornbrook and Smith between 1924 and 1926.

      Neither Harrell nor Pantzer was a stranger to organizations. Over the years they served as members or officers of various boards, committees and associations. Harrell, among other things, was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania where a chair in named in his honor at the Wharton School. (Harrell) As an undergraduate he had been president of his class and held the position of Chief in the Sphinx Senior Society. While Harrell drifted out of the law into the family milling business, Pantzer became a prominent attorney, a legal authority, a patron of the arts and a mover and shaker in the Indiana Republican Party (Chairman of the Indiana Republican finance Committee, 1955-1966). He also assembled an outstanding collection of the watercolors of the British artist J. M. W. Turner.

      In his entry in Who Was Who in America, 1977-1981, Pantzer is listed as "co-founder Council of Sagamores of the Wabash." (Who Was Who, p. 441) Harvey Lewis Carter elaborates in The Life and Times of Little Turtle, First Sagamore of the Wabash and says, "In 1946 Indiana governor Ralph F. Gates created the Council of the Sagamores of the Wabash in response to a suggestion made by Samuel R. Harrell, who had been named a Kentucky Colonel and felt that Indiana needs a similar reciprocal honorary organization. Kurt Pantzer joined with Harrell in devising the details." (Carter, p. xiv)

Sycamore and Sagamore

      Carter continues by considering the suggestion that the Sagamore title may have been influenced by the nickname of Daniel W. Voorhees (1829-1897), a U. S. representative and senator. Voorhees, an accomplished orator, was known as the Tall Sycamore of the Wabash, a designation he acquired "not only because he was tall -- over six feet, massive of head, and broad over shoulder, but because, in the excitement of forensics, his hair stood out like the quills of a sycamore's buttonball." (Wilson p. 111)

      A Voorhees inspiration is unlikely, Carter concludes. That may be, although it is hard to ignore the similarity between the sobriquet and the award and the euphony of the two phrases. Still, Gates (1893-1978), Harrell and Pantzer were good Republicans, unlikely deliberately to create award specifically with Voorhees in mind. Voorhees was a Democrat with "long and steadfast service to his party in Indiana." (Wilson, p. 111) Not only that, he was, perhaps with some justice, considered by many to be a copperhead during the Civil War. He opposed freeing the slaves and questioned Lincoln's power to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. (Wilson, p.111) He also opposed other policies of the president, including "conscription, violation of habeas corpus, and war finances." (American National Biography, v. 22, p. 408) After the war he favored soft money and low tariffs, anathema to reliable Republicans of the Gilded Age, who vigorously supported a high tariff and a strict gold standard. Carter finds "more likely" that the choice of sagamore as an honorific by the Governor and his friends lies in its association with Little Turtle, "a genuine and original sagamore of the Wabash." (Carter, p. xiv) He explains that "Governor Gates was from Columbia City, in Whitley County, where Little Turtle was born and resided for most of his life, was a determining factor in their thinking." (Carter, p. xiv)

Other Influences

      Other influences may have been at work. The men surely would have been familiar with the adventure tales of James Fenimore Cooper, either as a boy's reading or part of the school curriculum. They may have recalled The Last of the Mohicans, in which Chingachgook, the father of Uncas, describes himself as a sagamore and says, "Then they parted with their land. Foot by foot, they were driven back from the shores, until I, that am a chief and a Sagamore, have never seen the sun shine but through the trees, and have never visited the graves of my fathers!" (Cooper, p. 28) They may also remember the dramatic moment when Uncas, taken captive, appears before the venerable Tamenund, and proclaims his heroic heritage. Tamenund exclaims, "Uncas, the panther of his tribe, the eldest son of the Lenape, the wisest Sagamore of the Mohicans!" (Cooper, p. 371) On Uncas's chest, too, is the bright blue tattoo of a small toroise, proclaiming him one of the "children of the Turtle." (Cooper, p. 372)

      A more contemporary source of inspiration may have been Theodore Roosevelt, who named his home Sagamore Hill. In his autobiography Roosevelt wrote, "Sagamore Hill takes its name from the old Sagamore Mohannis, who, as chief of his little tribe, signed away his rights to the land two centuries and a half ago." (Roosevelt, p. 342)

Sachems and Sagamores

      If the men were uncertain about the term "sagamore" and wished to verify it, they could consult any good dictionary of the time. For that matter, the term appears in Noah Webster's original 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, and Webster gives the definition: "Among some tribes of American Indians, a king or chief." Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1938) defines "sagamore" as "An American Indian tribal chief, probably of second rank, tho considered by some writers as equivalent of Sachem." The 1917 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary lists the term as "A chief of a tribe among certain of the American Indians; -- generally synonymous with sachem but some make sachem a chief of the first rank and sagamore one of the second rank."

      The term sagamore an old one in the American lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes its usage in a source from 1613, as does A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles. Most authorities observe that its origin is Algonquian, although some cite more specifically its etymology as Abenaki or another Algonquian tongue. While there is etymological agreement, when it comes to its precise meaning, especially the relative ranks of sachem and sagamore, there is some dispute. Like other sources, A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (1938-44) has it both ways. It gives the word its Algonquian origin and defines it as "originally, among the Algonquian Indians, a lesser chief, the head of one of the tribes in a confederation presided over by a sachem. At times, however, sagamore has been considered synonymous with sachem." Most of the uses of sagamore it cites, however, point to the secondary status of the sagamore, as in the c.1618 quotation that notes "Many provinces... [are] governed in chief by a principall commaunder or prince .. who hath under him divers petty kings, which they call Sagamoes. [sic]"

      The second unabridged edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English language (1948) echoes previous dictionaries. It finds "Sagamore. orig., among the Algonquian Indians of North Atlantic Coast, a lesser chief, or the chief of a tribe forming part of a confederation; -- sometimes synonymous with sachem." The word also continues as part of the contemporary Abenaki vocabulary. In Gordon M. Day's Western Abenaki Dictionary, "a dictionary of the Western Abenaki language as it is spoken in the last half of the twentieth century," (Day, p. iii) under "chief" appears the entry: Chief, hence secondarily President, lord, also the cusk Brosmius brosme [a food fish of the cod family]: zogemo AN pl. zogemok loc zogemok. In the initial position the "z" is pronounced as an "s," Day notes, and the "o" is pronounced as in the French "pont." The term, its meaning and pronunciation consistent with its English rendering, still exists in its native form.

      In a presentation, "Cooper's Indians: A Critique," given before the Cooper Seminar in 1979 William Starna further fixes the difference between sachem and sagamore. He writes, "Leadership roles manifest themselves in different ways. Among the Iroquois, for example, the most visible leaders were of two classes; war chiefs and civil chiefs. The latter are called sachems, a word derived from the Algonquian term Sakamak or Sakamaker [sakamak] [sakam] (cf. Erickson 1978; Goddard 1978). Sagamore, the term most often applied to Algonquian civil chiefs, is also derived from and represents a corruption or Anglicization of Sakamak." (Starna)

No Sachems for Indiana

      Superior in rank or not, the title Sachem would never have done for Indiana's premier civilian award. It was too intimately and notoriously associated with New York. A group of thirteen sachems, headed by the Grand Sachem, presided over the Wigwam, headquarters of the Tammany Society, the New York County Democratic organization. The Society, infamous since the days of the Boss Tweed for its corruption, greed and power, found enemies among reform-minded men such men as Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, whose campaigns brought additional national attention to the political machine's already unsavory reputation. If memories of Tammany and its sachems had dimmed over the years, the Seabury investigation would have freshened recollections, as would Fiorello La Guardia's victory over the still powerful group in his election as mayor of New York City.

      No, a sachem would not do, but a sagamore had no negative connotations. By happy linguistic accident the term also suggested wisdom by association with the English "sage" and "sagacious," and if recalled, Cooper's fictional Uncas was described as "the wisest Sagamore of the Mohicans." A sagamore, though, had to be a sagamore of something. If Little Turtle was the model after all, he provided little guidance for the name of the sagamore's realm. His encampment lay along the Eel River, but Sagamore of the Eel as a title does not sound particularly impressive, and it would represent only a small corner of the Indiana. If a geographic designation representing the entire state, or a great portion of it, was necessary, especially if it were a river of significant size, there was only one choice. Indiana could hardly select to honor Sagamores of the Ohio. That left the Wabash, and by coincidence Little Turtle's Eel is one of its tributaries.

Indiana Gets Sachems After All and a New Top Honor

      The Tammany connection notwithstanding, Governor Edgar Whitcomb, a Republican, created the Confederacy of Indiana Sachems in 1970. The group, open by invitation only, included "top top business leaders (of both political parties) across the state were members. They assisted Whitcomb by welcoming important visitors, promoted the state and even provided spending money for some projects, according to early accounts. There was a dress code (Brooks Brothers, of course), certificates that included archaic and insensitive American Indian references, rules to follow and dues to pay. The bylaws even refer to an annual 'PowWow' each September during the harvest moon." (Guyett) Guyett continues, "Recipients were commanded to show up 'accompanied by your squaw' at the Sheraton Hotel in French Lick to participate in grave deliberations and war dances, partake in feats of strength, feast and drink some 'firewater and sassafras, and the juice of the grape.'"

      Whitcomb's exclusive club of movers and shakers, reminiscent of the Bohemian Grove, faded after he left office and disbanded as an entity in 1989. In 2006 Governor Mitch Daniels revived the Sachem award. The new honor, however, is to be awarded annually to a single person. The 2005 (retroactive) recipient was Indiana-born John Wooden, the basketball coach, and for 2006 the title was bestowed on Father Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame. Later honorees include philanthropist Jane Blaffer Owen (2007), gospel musicians Bill and Gloria Gaither (2008), longtime university trustee. businessman and civic leader Donald C. Danielson (2009), andbaseball player Carl Erskine (2010). Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel prize in economics, did not make the cut and had to settle for a Sagamore of the Wabash award. Of course her turn may yet come. Previous sagamores have become sachems.

     According to a press release from the office of Governor Daniels, "At the time Sachems constituted an honor greater than being named a Sagamore of the Wabash. Bylaws outlined that Sachems were to nominate and recommend Sagamore appointments to the governor." The release adds, "True greatness is rare, and implies more than just accomplishment. Hoosiers believe that character counts, too, that the kind of life you live matters as much as the achievements you've racked up. The Sachem will be reserved for those who led by moral example as well as successful action." (Press release, March 3, 2006)

      Accompanying the honor is "a bronze sculpture of a scroll and pipe tomahawk, with the scroll representing the 1795 Treaty of Greenville between the United States and Native Americans and the pipe tomahawk representing a gesture of peace between General Anthony Wayne and Chief Little Turtle. The sculpture was created by Jeff Fearin, art and design student at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. (Martin) The scroll reads, "In recognition of a lifetime of excellence and virtue that has brought credit and honor to Indiana."

      Perhaps the new administration felt there were a few too many democratic sagamores after the sixeen years of goverment under Bayh, O'Bannon and Kernan. They may also have felt a kind of sagamore inflation had diluted the award. In any event, the time was ripe in the governor's mind for a more exalted title, a new top state honor, the Sachem, a rank higher than the mere Sagamore. The governor does continue to name sagamores. He did not abolish the award. He merely demoted it.

Sagamore of the Wabash

      The information sheet "Sagamore of the Wabash" from the Governor's office suggests some haste in the creation of the award. Kathy Whyde Jesse, an Indianpolis Star reporter, called it a "last-minute face-saving attempt." (Jesse) The choice of the name, and the wording and the design of the document proclaiming membership in the Council of the Sagamores of the Wabash, however, seem to indicate some thought, along with the desire to make Indiana's honor unique, not merely a copy of the colonelcies awarded elsewhere. The 11-by-17-inch certificate (using the example of Governor Welsh) reads:

State of Indiana

Council of the Sagamores of the Wabash

Matthew E. Welsh

Governor of the State of Indiana

Known all men by these presents:

      WHEREAS, the greatness of the Sons of Indiana derives, in part, from qualities possessed by the noble Chieftains of the Indiana Tribes which once roamed its domain; and

      WHEREAS, it has been the immemorial custom of the State of Indiana to attract to its support those who have exhibited such qualities; and

      WHEREAS, there has endeared himself to the Citizens of Indiana one


distinguished by his Humanity in Living, his Loyalty in Friendship, his Wisdom in Council, and his Inspiration in Leadership:

      NOW, THEREFORE, recognizing his greatness and desiring to avail myself of his counsel, I do hereby appoint him a chieftain upon my staff with the rank and title of


      WITNESS my hand and the Seal of the Council of the Sagamores at Indianapolis, Indiana this ________ day of __________ in the year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and _________.

Signed Matthew E. Welsh

Governor of the State of Indiana.

      The words "STATE OF INDIANA" arc over the profile of an Indian facing right whose centered figure separates the two lines Council and Sagamores to its left from of the and of the Wabash to its right In the lower left appears the Seal of the Council of the Sagamores. (Denny; Indiana University. Digital Library Project. The Hoagy Carmichael Collection.)

      The certificate proclaiming a Sagamore of the Wabash was no simple copy of the Kentucky declaration. A 1991 Kentucky colonel's commission features the arched, engraved legend "Commonwealth of Kentucky" above a logo followed by the name of the governor. The text is short, consisting of a standard official greeting "To all to Whom These Presents Shall Come, Greetings," followed by the equally formal "Know Ye That" and the name of the recipient. Then comes "Is Commissioned A KENTUCKY COLONEL" and "I hereby confer this honor with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities appertaining." That is all; that is the entire proclamation, save for the seal of the commonwealth and the date, the place and the signatures of the governor and the secretary of state. (Kentucky. Secretary of State.)

      The Tennessee colonel's commission is hardly more eloquent than that of Kentucky. It dispenses with most of the formal language and gets to the point. "Whereas," the governor states, "reposing special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor and fidelity, I do by these presents constitute and appoint you Colonel Aide de Camp, Governor's Staff." A few words follow, but nothing better than an official closing. ([Terry J. Gill, Susan J. Gill Homepage])

      By contrast the generous clauses of the Indiana award flatter with warm acknowledgement of the recipient's superior qualities. The wording also makes the Indiana governor sound more supplicant than sovereign. The Hoosier chief executive recognizes the need for good advice in the affairs of state and is not too proud to suggest that he may one day need to call upon the new sagamore's "counsel." That may be cant, but it is sweet cant.

      North Carolina also keeps its award short. However the governor does express "special confidence in the integrity, learning and zeal" of those he welcomes into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine "with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary." Members of the "exalted order" may also offer a toast "in select company anywhere in the free world:"

Here's to the land
of the long leaf pine.
The summer land
where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong
and the strong grow great,
Here's to "down home,"
The Old North State!" (North Carolina. Governor.)

The Governor's Choice

      The decision to appoint a sagamore belongs to the governor alone, without reference to the legislature or need for a counter signature. For those unknown to the governor personally, there is a nomination process for the award. The Awards Coordinator at the Governor's office writes, "The procedure to nominate a candidate or candidates for a Sagamore award is to send to this office a resume for the candidate and cover letter describing your request and the event date for which the award is requested." After receipt of the letter and resume, "the request is sent to the Sagamore Review Committee, and their comments go directly to the Governor. Based upon the committee's comments and the Governor's review of correspondence, a decision is made to grant or deny the request." The coordinator concludes, "The Sagamore of the Wabash award is generally given for people of leadership who have completed or retired from a leadership position." (Personal communication from Linda Ventura, September 4, 2001)

      An account from the South Bend Tribune neatly illustrates the criteria a Governor may favor in appointing sagamores, the kind of service and leadership generally honored and the process by which the award is finally given:

While each individual governor of Indiana assigns his own criteria for this honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash is considered by O'Bannon to be a lifetime achievement award. The Governor's office cites Paul's lifetime commitment and loyalty to his community, his region and this state in naming Paul to the honor. According to Richard Paulen, president of the Elkhart Centre board of directors, Paul was recommended for the Sagamore by colleagues and friends on the board of Elkhart's downtown revitalization program.

Letters of support were provided by Mayor James Perron and Elkhart city councilman Timothy Neese among others. Paul was commended for a "unique ability throughout his life to develop and maintain friendships on both sides of the aisle in local and state politics. You might not always agree with Paul, but he is a man you can always respect," said Paulen.

"Paul helped found and has served on the board of directors of the Elkhart Centre -- his nominating organization -- since its inception in 1986," said Gildea. "His efforts to help strengthen and improve the downtown throughout his life have been tireless. Through the Elkhart Centre he has served on a multitude of committees, including two years as president of the organization, and is an active member of the Elkhart Jazz Festival Committee." ("Paul Thomas Accorded Indiana Award")
A letter from the governor accompanies the certificate. Max Mason, honored on September 16, 2001, received with his award a cordial message from Governor O'Bannon:

Governor Frank O'Bannon
Indianapolis, Indiana

Dear Mr. Mason:

      As Governor of Indiana, I am honored to appoint you a Sagamore of the Wabash and to express the appreciation of all Hoosiers for your commitment to making Indiana a better place to live and raise a family.

      As proof of this distinction, please accept this document that proclaims you a "Sagamore of the Wabash." Also enclosed is a special lapel pin, which I hope you will wear so that all may know that the great state of Indiana holds you in the highest esteem.

      The term "Sagamore of the Wabash" was used by Northeastern United States Native Americans to describe a lesser chief or other great person among the tribe to whom the chief would look for wisdom and advice. You max, certainly fit that description. You have distinguished yourself by your humanity in living, your loyalty in friendship, your wisdom in council and your inspiration in leadership.

      Thank you again, Max, for the contributions you have made to your state. Indiana is better off today because of your dedication to it and your fellow Hoosiers.


Frank O'Bannon
Governor ("Democrats in Action")

      In addition to the certificate and the letter, Sagamores receive a lapel pin. Should the idea of a pin seem in any way odd, it has precedent in the rosette of the French Legion of Honor. Nobel laureates also receive a pin, in addition to a heavy piece of gold resembling a diploma and a large amount of money. (Price, p. 21)

The Honored

      Age is no barrier to consideration for the Sagamore award. At 16 the future Olympic gold medal gymnast Jaycie Phelps of Greenfield was honored as a Sagamore for her performance as a member of the bronze-medal team at the 1995 World Championships. ("Sport-by-Sport") Ryan White, who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and fought to remain in the public schools, received the honor before his death at 18 in 1990. In 1988 Brett Gibson, then 19 and president of Mid America Telephone Service, became a sagamore. (Wardell) On Independence Day 2001at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan presented the award to Gustave Streeter, a 104-year-old veteran of World War I, who had served as an artilleryman in France. (Gelston) For that matter, one need not still be living to receive the distinction. State Representative Craig Fry presented the award to the family of Dan Hayes who was recognized a few days after his death for his "years of service to the community." ("Late Elkhard Civic Leader Honored with Sagamore") Bob Klawitter, an environmental activist and founder of the Southern Indiana group Protect Our Woods, died in a traffic accident September 10, 1996. On January 7, 1997 he was "honored posthumously with a Sagamore of the Wabash Award." ("Local Headlines," January 7, 1997)

      Most Sagamores are Indianans, but the Governor is free to select anyone for the honor, whether or not they have a direct connection with Indiana. In 1975 Iron Eyes Cody, the Cherokee actor seen on television shedding a tear over environmental pollution, became a Sagamore of the Wabash -- the first native American to receive the award. ("Notes on People") The evangelist Billy Graham, the boxer Muhammad Ali, the actor Arnold Schwartzenegger, the violinist Itzak Perlman, the baseball player Pete Rose, the pianist Van Cliburn, and presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Harry Truman have been honored with Sagamore certificates. (Jesse; Denny) Appropriate reasons often combine with appropriate occasions. Governor Orr made Singer Willie Nelson a Sagamore for his work on behalf of American farmers with his Farm Aid concerts, and Nelson received the award before his performance at the 1986 Indiana State Fair.

      Occasionally people become Sagamores as part of a team. Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold, host of the popular, and now syndicated, "Bob and Tom Show" on WFBQ, Indianapolis, did. "The duo," writes the Indianapolis Business Journal, "received Indiana's highest honor -- the Sagamore of the Wabash -- in 1994 in recognition of their charitable work. Their 20 comedy albums have generated more than $3 million for various local charities." ("Who's Who in Media/Marketing/PR") In October 1998 some 1400 people gathered to celebrate the partial restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel. "One of the night's highlights was the presentation of the Sagamore of the Wabash awards. The presentations were made by Governor Frank O'Bannon to Bill and Gayle Cook for their excellence in pursuing the restoration and their fine job." ("Local Headlines," October 12, 1998)

      Two simultaneous awards for a single project or achievement is hardly the limit. Lt. Gov. Kiernan presided over a Veteran's Day ceremony during which he presented Sagamore awards to the six Smith brothers of Washington, Indiana. Of the men, ages 84 to 71, five had fought in World War II and one served in occupied Europe following the war. (Perry) On October 16, 2000 WISH-TV reported that Governor O'Bannon honored 12 Olympians at an Indianapolis ceremony. The broadcast included a visual of the "Ceremony and the Sagamore Wabash Honor Plaque Given to All the Olympians." ("News 8 At Noon")

      No governor has emulated Caligula and appointed his horse a Sagamore of the Wabash. Robert Orr, though, showed that a Sagamore need not be human, or for that matter not even animate. Proving his discretion absolute, Orr whimsically chose to honor a cartoon character, Garfield the cat, the creation of Jim Davis. "Garfield is now going to be a special adviser to the governor," Orr said as he handed the Sagamore parchment to Garfield's creator, Jim Davis of Muncie. "I phoned Garfield to tell him he might be honored today," said Davis, "and his quote was, 'It's about time'."("Names in the News")

      A number of people have received more than one Sagamore award, and to be named twice by different governors at different times is not uncommon. Being selected three times more unusual. Among those chosen three times are Judge William Garrard, honored by Governors Bowen, Bayh and O'Bannon. (Bill of Particulars) and Dean Charles H. Webb of the Indiana University School of Music, honored by Governors Bowen, Orr and O'Bannon. (Indiana University. Office of Communications and Marketing) L. Keith Bulen, an attorney and member of the Indiana House of Representatives who held various other governmental and party positions, received the award from Governors Whitcomb, Bowen, Orr and O'Bannon; he also had appointments as a Kentucky Colonel and Admiral in the Texas Navy. ("L. Keith Bulen: Background Information.")

      According to the obituary of James L. Kittle, Sr, furniture business founder and philanthropist, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette taken from an Indianapolis Star and News account, "Six Indiana governors named him a Sagamore of the Wabash." (Francis) A feature story on William A. Koch, president of Santa Claus Land, Inc., in Indiana Business reported that "Koch has earned six Sagamore of the Wabash honors." It quotes him as saying, "I don't know why I have so many. I really don't think there should be two given. They should just give you another star, or something like that." (Hughes) Herman B Wells, President and later University Chancellor of Indiana University, also received six Sagamore awards, the last in June 1997 when he was 95 from Governor O'Bannon, who said, "There is no question in my mind the person you would call 'Mr. Indiana' is Herman B Wells." (Ross)

Sagamore Inflation

      According to all accounts, Governor Gates appointed only two Sagamores. Henry Schricker, his successor, awarded ten. The third Sagamore was "Judge Will H. Sparks of Rushville and number four was Sanford K. Trippets of Hazelton -- the first two Hoosiers to win the title." George N. Craig "made about a dozen appointments," and Harold Handley "appointed a few, including the first woman member, Miss Mildred French, first Director of the Indiana Youth Council." (Guthrie, p. 78) "That was the trend," wrote Kathy Whyde Jesse in 1991 in the Indianapolis Star, "until Matthew Welsh, political liberal that he was, gave away 100 Sagamores during his term, 1961-65." (Jesse) The reporter apparently interviewed Lawrie Meldrum of the State Archives and learned a good deal from the archivist, who had been trying to collect a full list of Sagamore recipients. "Former Gov. Otis Bowen's list fills 11 pages, three columns per page. Gov. Orr's list fills up four manuscript boxes of paper," Jesse reports, and "Rosa Parks became the 1,150th person to receive that title from Bayh since he took office in 1989. That works out to be about one Sagamore a day." She continues, "If he sticks around for another term, Bayh may break the record set by his predecessor, Robert Orr, who awarded 4,207 Sagamores during his eight-year term." (Jesse) Apparently Bayh did not reach the record; a December 1996 account credits him with "about 3,200 Sagamores." (Denny) Citing Meldrum, Jesse concludes, "Meldrum says that over the years, come pople have nominated themselves for the award. And some nominees have been turned down. But not many." (Jesse)

      A Bloomington reporter, Dann Denny, looked into the award for a 1996 short feature article. Jesse's headline had read "Sagamore List Mushrooming Once More." Denny kept to the same theme with "High Number of Recipients Diluting Significance of Award" under a series of pictures of recipients on either side of a reproduction of the certificate, itself beneath the legend "Many More Sagamores." Like Jesse, Denny pursues the notion of Sagamore inflation. He quotes Martha Wright, a reference librarian at the State Archives as saying, "A lot of governors have handed them out to every Tom, Dick and Harry." He also writes, "'It's still a nice thing, but it's no longer the high honor it used to be,' said Lawrie Meldrum, a former assistant archivist with the Indiana State Archives and a Sagamore recipient himself. 'When you hand out thousands of them, it kind of trivializes the award.'" (Denny)

      During the past twenty years, Denny observes, "nearly 10,000 Hoosiers have received the Sagamore." That represents, however, a small fraction of Indiana's adult population, and the State Library reported that there are fewer Sagamores appointed each year than Kentucky Colonels. One account, although not cited, maintained that "one Kentucky governor reportedly gave out 1,600 Kentucky Colonel awards in a single year (that comes to 6,400 for a 4-year term.)" (Denny)

The Council of Sagamores of the Wabash

      There is no actual council of Sagamores, and it would not be easy to gather its members if one did exist, for there is also no master list of Sagamore recipients. The State Library confirms Denny's number of 10,000 awards, although their "nearly 10,000" dates from the Gates administration, rather than the last twenty years alone. It also acknowledges that "the number of Sagamore winners has become so large that many years ago the Indiana governor's office gave up trying to keep track of them." Further, the Library has no complete list, and what lists they do have "mostly end in the mid-1960s, with a few lists covering post 1960s appointments. What limited lists we have run to several dozen pages" (Personal communication from Darrol Pierson, September 4, 2001) The Indiana Historical society has no list, either, and believes no complete list exits. (Personal Communication from Suzanne Crowe, September 13, 2001)


      Sagamore Awards have gone to a wide range of individuals for a wide range of achievements. The politically connected seem to get their fair share in the name of public service. City and county officials, council members, auditors, recorders, clerks, and mayors receive their rewards, as do members of the General Assembly, party loyalists, and social activists. Yet however one might feel about the policies or party affiliation of state notables, elected or appointed, party workers or issue advocates, most of them have devoted considerable years and much hard work to their cause and often to organizations outside the purely political. A governor who finds a cause congenial or, perhaps more cynically, politically expedient, may choose to name one of its leaders a Sagamore, and at the same time celebrate their non-political service. Congenial, too, may be out-of-state politicians, and for their own reasons governors have honored, besides presidents, men like Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and Rep. B. Carroll Reese of Tennessee.

      A fair proportion of Sagamores are educators. University Presidents and high officers in academic administration seem frequently to reach Sagamore status. Professors, distinguished for their scholarship, research, publications, years of teaching, government service, leadership or positions in national societies, regularly receive recognition from the governor. Occasionally it runs in the family, for at different times at different ceremonies both Steven Beering, President of Purdue, and his wife Jane Beering received the honor.

      Press accounts note awards to coaches James Counsilman, Jerry Yeagly, and Bobby Knight; to entertainers Red Skelton, John Mellencamp, and Hoagy Carmichael; to race car drivers A. J. Foyt and Arie Luyendyk; to the Wright Brothers, not the aviation pioneers, but the family band from Indianapolis, known for their smooth harmonies; to astronauts Virgil Grissom and Charles Walker; to the meteorologist Bob McLain of television station WRTV; to Gregory C. Reed, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans; and to Frederick Lee Kupke of Francesville, who had been held hostage in Iran. The governor's information sheet is right, though, in stating that awards go not only to "astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians [and] politicians," not only to the eminent or to celebrities, major or minor, but to the "ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to our Hoosier heritage." To be among the select, one need not preside over an academic institution, write "Stardust," win the Indianapolis 500, coach a team to victory in the NCAA, or entertain American by creating rustic fools like Clem Kadiddlehopper.

      Volunteer service has traditionally been a reason for making the award, and governors have regularly honored individuals for their contributions to organizations like the YMCA, the United Way, 4-H, the FFA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Little League, the Rotary, Elks and other groups that concentrate on community service. In addition to volunteers, paid employees of non-profit entities are also often acknowledged for their efforts. Paid or not, not-for-profit Sagamores have been named for their work in such varied areas as in economic development, chambers of commerce, job creation, children's rights, health care, help for the homeless, civil rights, and ecological advocacy. Church leaders also receive particular attention. So do teachers and coaches in elementary, middle and high schools. It is hardly unusual to see a headline or read a photo caption something like "Janice Soyez, a teacher at Warsaw Community High School for 32 Years, was named a Sagamore of the Wabash at the Warsaw City Council meeting Monday." (Weisheit)

Sagamores Stumble

      Not all Sagamores have reflected the award with untarnished honor. Ann Gorsuch Burford, administrator of the EPA, was "forced to resign along with 19 other appointees" as a result of "an investigation into political use of waste cleanup funds." (Taylor) There were "charges of mismanagement and hostility to environmental concerns," ("EPA Integrity") and the House of Representative cited Burford for contempt of Congress. To some measure, politics played a part in Burford's problems, but her actions were at best questionable, and the scandal was deep and nasty. Purely personal conduct has also dimmed a Sagamore's luster. In spite of breaking Ty Cobb's record for hits, Pete Rose had to leave baseball, banned for life from the sport for his gambling activities. Mari Hulman George, vice-president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was arrested in October of 1985 at an Indianapolis restaurant and tavern and charged with battery on a policeman, resisting arrest and public intoxication. ("Newswire," October 24, 1985) In February of 1986 she received a "suspended one-year sentence after pleading guilty to public intoxication and resisting arrest." ("Newswire", February 20, 1986)


      The governor's information sheet states that "each governor has presented the certificates in his own way. " It continues, "It was been said that one governor even resorted to wearing a full headdress as he read the scrolls." (Indiana. Governor.) In his article, Denny identifies Governor Schricker as the wearer of the "war bonnet" and notes that Schricker "would make a long-winded speech as he crowned a recipient." Governor Craig, Denny goes on, "liked to have a large audience in attendance and have an accordionist play 'On the Banks of the Wabash.'" (Denny) Such stories sound good, and may even be true, but currently awards are made in a more restrained way, and the governor himself need not necessarily be present. The governor's wife has bestowed the award on his behalf as has the lieutenant governor. Other suitable deputies have included state representatives and senators, mayors, university trustees and officers of private industry associations, volunteer groups or service clubs.

      The setting for making the Sagamore award may be formal or informal. Recognition may come at a regularly scheduled meeting or, more frequently, at some kind of special event, like a banquet, picnic or dinner. A common venue is the retirement party. A description of such an event would resemble the short account of a gathering to honor Norman C. Hester, State Geologist and Director of the Indiana Geological Survey. Dr. Hester "received the honor of being named a 'Sagamore of the Wabash' yesterday at his retirement ceremony. Survey staff, officials of Indiana University, and representatives of numerous state agencies gathered to honor Dr. Hester at a retirement party held at the Virgil T. DeVault Alumni Center on the IU-Bloomington campus. In the name of Gov. Frank O'Bannon, Assistant Director John Hill conferred this award upon Dr. Hester for his service to the state of Indiana in his capacity as Director and State Geologist for the past 12 years." (Indiana Geological Survey)

Whereas, Whereas, Whereas

      Legislatures are not without their own authority to congratulate and commend. Hundreds of times a year the Indiana General Assembly adopts resolutions of tribute, expressed in a series of Whereas clauses describing the major accomplishments and general worthiness of the person or group it wishes to honor. Praise may come from either body of the General Assembly. The House may pass its own resolution on behalf of the House of Representatives alone. The Senate may do the same. They may also adopt a concurrent resolution expressing the sentiments of both houses of the legislature. Most resolutions are agreed to quickly, often in a single day, and the text of the resolutions directs that copies be sent by the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate to those either body or both has chosen to celebrate.

      As with the Sagamore award, resolutions salute all kinds of people involved in all kinds of endeavor. They may commemorate an anniversary, a birthday, or a retirement, or they may acknowledge a victory, a distinction or a special achievement. In 2002 the House introduced a concurrent resolution to commend the Brownsburg Little League baseball team "on winning the State Championship, the Great Lakes regional title and advancing to the Little League World Series." The resolution concludes, "Whereas, the dedication and commitment of the Brownsburg Little League Team players, managers, and families, and their obvious love for their community and state, will stand as an example of Hoosier values for many generations." (Indiana. General Assembly. House. Concurrent Resolution 0013, January 22, 2002)

      A Senate Concurrent Resolution of the same year honored former President Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his ninety-first birthday:

Second Regular Session 112th General Assembly (2002)

A CONCURRENT RESOLUTION to recognize Ronald Reagan on his 91st birthday.
Whereas, President Ronald Wilson Reagan, a man of humble background, worked throughout his life serving freedom and advancing the public good, having been employed as an entertainer, Union leader, corporate spokesman, Governor of California and President of the United States;

Seven more adulatory Whereas clauses follow before the resolution concludes:

Be it resolved by the Senate of the General Assembly
of the State of Indiana, the House of Representatives concurring:
SECTION 1. That the Indiana General Assembly, on behalf of the people of the State of Indiana, do hereby recognize President Ronald Reagan on his 91st birthday and do congratulate and thank Mr. Reagan for his great contribution to American history.
SECTION 2. That the Principle Secretary of the Senate is hereby directed to transmit a copy of this Resolution to Grover G. Norquist, President of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. (Indiana. General Assembly. Senate. Concurrent Resolution 0018, February 5, 2002)

Distinguished Hoosiers

      In response to a query about the Sagamore award, the Indiana Division of the Indiana State Library wrote that "each governor has the right to select recipients as he sees fit." (Personal communication from Darrol Pierson, September 4, 2001) If he does not see fit to award a Sagamore certificate, he does have another distinction at hand. He may name an individual a "Distinguished Hoosier." Peter DeKever, a history teacher in Michawaka, received recognition as a "Distinguished Hoosier" in 1997, and the South Bend Tribune explained, "'A Distinguished Hoosier Award is awarded to those citizens who go above and beyond the call of duty to help their fellow Hoosiers,' said Steve Campbell, deputy press secretary in Gov. Frank O'Bannon's Office." Mr. DeKever's award was "one of 400 given across the state each year." ("Penn Teacher") Earning one distinction does not preclude earning the other. You may be named both a Sagamore and a Distinguished Hoosier. The 1992 obituary of August Ferdinand "Bud" Hook, chairman emeritus of Hook Drugs, reports that "Hook received a multitude of awards and citations during his lifetime, including Sagamore of the Wabash (1969) [and] Distinguished Hoosier (1970)." ("Former Hook Chairman Dies at 85")

Hoosier Living Legends

      In recent years a new honor has appeared for Indianans, although it does not come from the governor. The Indiana Historical Society created the "Hoosier Living Legends" award and introduced it "in 1999 as part of the grand opening festivities for the Indiana Historical Society's new headquarters." The first year recipients were chosen by vote, and the list included Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, David Letterman, Ruth Lilly, John Mellencamp, Oscar Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut and Herman Wells. Since the initial selections, Living Legends have been chosen by "a committee of the Historical Society staff members and volunteers." Among those honored were Joshua Bell, David Baker, Otis Bowen, Jim Davis, Theodore Hesburgh and Lawrence Einhorn. (Personal communication from Suzanne Crowe, January 22, 2002)


      Indiana Sagamores have no toast to raise in praise of the Hoosier State nor special drink to raise it with. Their Council cannot boast of a tradition reaching back to a time when Adams and Jefferson still lived. Some may feel that the enthusiasm of governors for naming an increasing number of Sagamores has diminished the significance of the award. Yet people are pleased to receive the honor. Denny got a quote from one recipient who received the award along with a standing ovation. She said, "It was one of those times when you don't know if you're floating or walking, if you should just smile or try not to cry." (Denny) Another account from the Purdue Exponent reported another new Sagamore as saying simply, "I certainly was overwhelmed." (Jones)

      Governor Orr presented William Prather, Jr., president of the Hardee's restaurant chain, with his Sagamore award at the opening of a Hardee's in Martinsville, where Prather was born. In a short feature on him, Nation's Restaurant News reported that "the honor he treasures most is the "Sagamore of the Wabash Award..." The item continues, "It's the highest civilian award in the state of Indiana. The plaque hangs proudly in my office." (Van Warner) When Cyrus Nifong, 86, received his Sagamore award at a Jefferson Jackson Day dinner, he said, "I was very humbled. I don't really know how to describe how I feel though. I've never done anything for glory." Mr. Nifong, active in church and community affairs for decades, refused to boast. His wife had to do it for him. The presenter at the occasion, the person who had recommended Nifong to Governor O'Bannon, took joy in seeing Nifong recognized and said, "I was thrilled to give him that award. He has been a lifelong inspiration to me." (Ochstein) That is a fine comment, and it illustrates how much meaning the Sagamore certificate has, not only to those whose name is on it, but to those who have the pleasure of presenting it to someone worthy of acknowledgement.


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