William Peen Adair Rogers was born on the Dog Iron Ranch in Indian Territory, near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma. He quickly became known as Will to his family and friends. The house where he was born was built in 1875 and was known as the “White House on the Verdigris River. Both of his parents Clement Vann Rogers and Mary America Schrimsher were each of Cherokee heritage. Rogers famously quipped that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower but they “met the boat”. Will’s father Clement Rogers was a distinguished figure in Indian Territory. He served as both a Cherokee senator and judge and he served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. He was so well known that Rogers County, Oklahoma is named in honor of Clement Rogers. Will’s mother Mary Rogers was the daughter of a Cherokee chief. She died suddenly when Will was 11, and his father remarried less than two years after her death.
Will Rogers was the youngest of his parents’ eight children. The family suffered a great deal of tragedy when only three of his siblings, sisters Sallie Clementine, Maude Ethel, and May (Mary), survived into adulthood. Will attended Willow Hassel School in Neosho, Missouri, and later Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri. He chose to end his studies after the 10th grade. Records show that he was a poor student and was much more interested in cowboys and horses, learning to rope and use a lariat
After ending his formal education, Rogers worked the Dog Iron Ranch for a few years. He and a friend left home near the end of 1901 with aspirations to work as gauchos in Argentina. They finally made it to Argentina in May 1902, and spent five months trying to make it as ranch owners in the Argentine wilderness. Unfortunately, Rogers and his partner lost all their money, so the two friends separated and Rogers sailed for South Africa, where he took a job breaking in horses for the British Army near the end of the Boer War. After the war ended and the British Army no longer required his services, he began his show business career as a trick roper in “Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus”. He eventually quit the circus and returned to the United States in 1904, and began to try his roping skills on the American vaudeville circuits.
Will’s success on the vaudeville circuits led to his success in film. At first the medium of silent film seemed to slow him down and damper his enthusiasm since much of his fame depended on his witty commentary. He ended up writing many of the title cards that appeared in his films which made them even more memorable. With the advent of “talkies” Will Rogers became a star. His films became instant successes and his fame was international. He ultimately made 71 films in all.
Will began writing a weekly column, titled “Slipping the Lariat Over,” at the end of 1922. He had already published a book of wisecracks and had begun a steady stream of humor books. Through his continuing series of columns between 1922 and 1935, as well his personal appearances and radio broadcasts, he won the loving admiration of the American people.
In 1908, Rogers married Betty Blake, and the couple added four children to their family: Will Rogers, Jr. (Bill), Mary Amelia (Mary), James Blake (Jim), and Fred Stone. The family lived most of the time in New York, but they managed to make it home to Oklahoma during the summers. In 1911, Rogers bought a 20-acre ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, which he intended to use as his retirement home, paying only $500 per acre.
An avid supporter of aviation, Will undertook a flight around the world with a fellow Oklahoman, world-renowned aviator Wiley Post, in the summer of 1935. Post’s plane was an experimental and nose-heavy hybrid of Lockheed Explorer and Orion. The plane crashed south of Barrow, Alaska, on August 15, 1935 when its engine failed on takeoff, killing both men. Millions around the world mourned his passing.