Alumnus Profile: Napoleon Breedlove Ainsworth, Lawyer and Choctaw Nation Official

In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, this post highlights UVA Law alumnus Napoleon Breedlove Ainsworth, a member of the Choctaw Nation and a law student from 1881 to 1882.

Napoleon B. Ainsworth, printed in Leaders and Leading Men of the Indian Territory (1911), 106.

Ainsworth, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, was born on February 26, 1856 in Skullyville, Oklahoma, part of Indian Territory. At age fifteen, he enrolled in Roanoke College in Salem, VA. According to Ainsworth’s 1885 testimony before a Congressional committee on “The Condition of Certain Indian Tribes,” the Choctaw government sent a group of students each year to universities and supplied them with stipends. Ainsworth was such a student, and he attended Roanoke College on a scholarship funded through Choctaw coal mining. He graduated from Roanoke in June 1880 with the Orator’s Medal and then enrolled in the University of Virginia for the 1881–1882 term to study law.

UVA School of Law, Catalogue of Students, 1881-1882. Ainsworth was the first UVA Law student to provide a residence location in Indian Territory.

Since a JD was not required to pass the bar at that time, this single session at UVA was enough for Ainsworth to pursue the career he already had chosen as a practicing lawyer. Prior to returning home to the Choctaw Nation, Ainsworth married Emily Thompson in Roanoke, and they eventually had three children, Ben P., Helen, and Agnes. Upon his return, Ainsworth was appointed draftsman for the Council of the Choctaw Nation by Chief Jack McCurtain. He then served as National Weigher at McAlester, in Indian Territory, for three years, before resigning in order to focus on his law practice. Following the death of the National Auditor, Ainsworth was appointed to that position, and then in 1887, he was reelected to fill the same office for a second term.

In 1889, Congress established the United States Court in Indian Territory. Ainsworth became a noted member of the bar of this Court, which held jurisdiction over civil cases between persons residing in Indian Territory and citizens, states, or territories of the United States. He remained active in the affairs of the Choctaw government until he died on August 20, 1922.

The law establishing a United States Court in Indian Territory (links to the full text).

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Kelly Fleming

Kelly is a Curatorial Assistant at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections. She is also a Lecturer in the English department at the University of Virginia, where she earned her PhD in 2019. Her research focuses on the relationship between eighteenth-century British literature, women's property rights, politics, and material culture.

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Remembering Gordon Hylton

I didn’t know Gordon Hylton long, but I worked with him enough to know that, as a scholar, he lived in avid pursuit of the facts. Ask him a question about Robert F. Kennedy’s law school days, and he would write you a detailed memo. Ask him when UVA Law awarded its first L.L.B. degree, and he would head straight to the archives. And then write you a detailed memo.   

With Gordon’s passing last week, I am grateful to have known him as a scholar, even for the short time that I did. Earlier this year, Gordon and I both found ourselves researching the topic of UVA’s desegregation. I had written up some research and, thinking that Gordon might have insights from his own work, I sent it to him for comment. He was gracious in telling me that I had discovered information that was new to him. Then came the memo of his interpretive differences. Facepalm.

Over the next months, in a series of spirited conversations, we debated, we listened, and we defended our points of view. It drove me crazy. But, this was the stuff of being a historian, so I loved it. Gordon and I maintained our interpretive differences, undeterred, but with a deeper understanding of the era and of the people whose lives composed this history. At the end of the day, we shared with each other that our conversations had helped us more than anything else to clarify our thinking on this particular topic. Working with Gordon cemented for me that there are no throwaway sentences when you are writing history. Every piece of information or interpretation you present is a claim about someone’s life, a real person’s life, and there is responsibility there to get it right. 

This week I read with interest about Gordon’s life, and I wondered what else I could learn about him with a new dive into the archives, both here at UVA Law and at Oberlin College, his undergraduate alma mater. Here are some highlights:

-Gordon played for the baseball team as an undergraduate at Oberlin in 1973.  One description in the school newspaper called him the “undeniable Virginian” and noted his “cool ease”:

“Baseball team crushes Kenyon, splits Heidelberg doubleheader,” The Oberlin Review, 8 May 1973, Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

 -Gordon was, in particular scenarios, a man of few words. In 1972 at Oberlin he ran for Student Senate. While other candidates published 500-word campaign pitches, Gordon was succinct: “I think that the student senate do as little as is necessary.”[1]

Gordon Hylton, Oberlin College 1972 Yearbook Photo, Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

-Many know that Gordon co-founded the North Grounds Softball League when he attended UVA Law as a student in the late 1970s. Did you also know that his nicknames at the time included giant of jockdom, Intramural Czar, and “Give-em-hell” Hylton?[2]

-Law Special Collections recently discovered a series of photographs in our archive that show just how at home Gordon seemed to have felt on the softball field (pictured here at a 1978 NGSL game presided over by then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn). Gordon’s the one with the beard:[3]

I will take what I have learned about Gordon this week and smile. I will also value the time that I had with him as a scholar. I am sure he will be present somehow when I footnote that next chapter, even when he is not there with a detailed response memo. I will continue to think deeply about the lives that make up history and find insight in debate.

-Randi Flaherty

• Thanks to the Oberlin College Archives for permission to use the yearbook image and newspaper article above.

•Special recognition goes to Law Special Collections staff member Ryan Donaldson, who poured through 18,000 unidentified photographs and discovered new images of Professor Hylton.

 

Banner image: Virginia Law Weekly staff, 1977, Barrister, UVA Law Special Collections.

[1]Special Senate Election Section,” The Oberlin Review, March 21, 1972. 

[2] Virginia Law Weekly, 9 December 1975 and 1 October 1976.

[3] Records of Virginia Law Weekly, UVA Law Special Collections, CCBY Image courtesy of Virginia Law Weekly and the University of Virginia Law Library.

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Randi Flaherty

Randi Flaherty is the Special Collections Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. She is also an early American historian with a focus on foreign maritime commerce in the early American republic.

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