Murray, William Henry David [Alfalfa Bill] (1869–1956)

By: Keith L. Bryant, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: May 28, 2020

William (Alfalfa Bill) Murray, a famous political figure in the Southwest, third son of Uriah Dow Thomas and Bertha Elizabeth (Jones) Murray, was born at Toadsuck, Texas, near Collinsville, on November 21, 1869, and grew up in north central Texas. Murray ran away from home at the age of twelve and during the next seven years worked on farms and attended public school intermittently. After attending College Hill Institute, a secondary school at Springtown, he became a public school teacher in Parker County and became involved in the Farmers' Alliance and the Democratic party. During this period he developed his public speaking skills to become a locally known orator and a vigorous opponent of the rising Populist or People's party. Murray embraced the teachings of the Campbellite Church but would never become a practicing member of any congregation. He soon joined the faction of the Democratic party led by James Stephen Hogg and campaigned for Hogg in northern Texas. Murray moved to Corsicana and opened a newspaper, the Corsicana Daily News. He ran twice for the state senate, but was defeated both times. Unsuccessful as a newspaper publisher and editor, Murray read law and was admitted to the bar on April 10, 1897. After briefly practicing law in Fort Worth, Murray moved to Indian Territory in March 1898. He never lived in Texas again but remained a dedicated Democrat and advocate of farmers.

After settling in Tishomingo in the Chickasaw Nation, Murray established ties to the tribal leaders and developed a lucrative law practice. He married Mary Alice Hearrell, niece of the Chickasaw governor, on July 19, 1899. Murray's legal practice made him a prominent figure in the Chickasaw Nation, and when an effort was made to obtain statehood for Indian Territory in 1905, he played a major role. He had become known as a leader of the Democratic party in the territory and as an advocate of diversified agriculture. His speeches in favor of the cultivation of alfalfa led to the sobriquet Alfalfa Bill. The effort to obtain separate statehood for Indian Territory failed, but the leaders of that statehood convention controlled a joint meeting with Oklahoma Territory delegates that drafted a constitution for the proposed state of Oklahoma in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, in 1906. Murray served as president of the convention and wrote long sections of the constitution. The constitution was approved, and Oklahoma was admitted to the union on November 16, 1907. Murray ran for election to the first legislature and became the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He continued to press for legislation advantageous to the farmers of the state. Although he was defeated for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1910, he ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1912 and won an at-large seat. He won reelection from the new Fourth District in 1914, but two years later his strong support of President Woodrow Wilson's preparedness program led to his defeat. A second attempt to win the governorship in 1918 also failed.

During the 1920s Murray led an unsuccessful effort to establish an American agricultural colony in Bolivia, but when he returned to Oklahoma in 1929 he found the political climate of the state receptive to his brand of agrarianism. He won the governorship in 1930, and for four years he fought the Great Depression in Oklahoma with the National Guard and fiery oratory. He championed "the boys at the fork of the creek" by cutting state taxes and sending the National Guard into the oilfields to halt the flow of illegal petroleum. He allowed hungry citizens to grow vegetables on government property between the governor's mansion and the capitol. He called out the National Guard to force the opening of free state highway bridges across the Red River to Texas to replace toll bridges. He sought unsuccessfully to have the other major petroleum-producing states, particularly Texas, curtail output to raise the price of oil. One of the most colorful officeholders in the nation, Murray decided to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932; but his "Bread, Butter, Bacon, and Beans" campaign was a fiasco that got him only twenty-three convention votes. He became a vehement critic of Franklin Roosevelt and opposed the New Deal after 1933. Following the end of his gubernatorial term, he retired briefly to his farm. Murray became a part of the opposition to entry into World War II. He wrote numerous pamphlets and books attacking industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization. Murray had always been a segregationist, and his publications contained strong racist elements. Further attempts to gain political office failed, but one of his five children, Johnston Murray, won the governorship in 1950, and Murray lived in the state mansion with his son. Murray died on October 15, 1956, following a paralytic stroke. Throughout his life he had promoted agriculture and the family farm. He often summed up his basic beliefs in the simple statement, "Civilization begins and ends with the plow."

Keith L. Bryant, Jr., Alfalfa Bill Murray (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Keith L. Bryant, Jr., “Murray, William Henry David [Alfalfa Bill],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 01, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 28, 2020