Early Black Presence in NW Arkansas
The year was 1817 when the first known settlers, came to the area along the banks of the Arkansas. The area, having been traveled had only occasionally by explorers, traders and hunters. Until that time, most of the hunters were from the indigenous people that occupied the lands west of the Arkansas River, and was essentially only familiar to the native inhabitants. Occasionally the Osage would cross the river on their hunting trips, in the region. Some of these settlers were of a variety of backgrounds and it is known that persons of color were among the earliest pioneers and traders to cross the continent. Though not large in number, the possibility that some traders "of color" actually passed through the region of NW Arkansas is there.
By the 1820's the region had turned into a military settlement bringing more traffic to the area, and in 1820 a treaty signed 1500 miles away would bring many travelers through the settlement. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit was signed beginning the Great Migration of the Native people of the South east to Indian Territory
What is seldom mentioned is that alongside of the thousands of Native People being removed from their homeland, in the 1830s and 40s were Africans making the same trek, walking along the same, trail, and shedding as many, if not even more tears, having been brought westward again, against their will. Some of these Africans were free persons, and they appear in early records of Crawford County, but sadly many of them were also slaves. Slavery had become a way of life among the Cherokee, thus earning them and their southeast neighbors the title of "Civilized Tribes." The Cherokees recorded 1200 slaves among them when their migration began.
When the Seminoles were removed in the 1830's there were more free blacks among them, including the African leaders Abraham, Cudjo (Kojo) and the dynamic leader John Horse, who would later take about 200 of his people to Mexico to escape enslavement.
Abraham, or as he is referred to in history books, Negro Abraham, was probably the most famous African to see the early settlement of Ft. Smith. It is also known that many of the Seminoles often went through Van Buren on their way to Indian Territory. He arrived after much interaction with General Jessup in Florida negotiating the successful removal of blacks along with the Seminoles. The issue of whether or not the Africans would remain in Florida and allow former owners to claim them was a major issue of contention before the Seminoles agreed to removal. In the Cherokee Nation, before removal, many of the native people sold personal property in order to obtain enough funds to purchase slaves for the family before the dreaded removal to the west would occur. With the Cherokees the removal was a particularly painful one, for the loss of life was high. It was equally as high among the enslaved population. It has been estimated that more than a third of the population of the Cherokee Nation was lost during the removal. The sounds of the continuous mourning due to loss of life was was eventually gave rise to the name of the Trail of Tears---the many tears shed in the Cherokee Removal. Few mention is made however, of the darkest tears those of Africans being removed westward for the second time against their will.
Ft. Smith and Van Buren would see other slaves passing through, and other free persons of color. By the late 1840's there would be some free blacks not enslaved, who would be seeking opportunities on the western frontier. Some born in Kentucky and other states, would come west and come to live in the frontier city. Between Ft. Smith and Van Buren, there would be a small cluster of more than 35 people living in the two towns, law abiding, and staking their claim in the west. In an 1842 issue of The Ft. Smith Era probably the first obituary of a black person is found. Simply referred to as Claiborne, this man of color died, and a simple reference to him as being a respected citizen of the community is made in the small article about his death. The black communities of NW Arkansas would live quietly mostly without much incident, until the late 1850s.
By 1860, they would be gone. Arkansas passed a law, requiring all free blacks to leave the state. In 1860, Arkansas would be the state showing the smallest number of free blacks to remain of any other state in the nation. Only 144 persons of color were recorded in the entire state of Arkansas. This was in dramatic contrast to the state of Maryland, that boasted more than 60,000 free blacks. In Ft. Smith, and Van Buren, in 1860 they were gone.
Free blacks were not to be a part of the city's history until 3 years later, when hundreds of slaves heeded Frederick Douglass's appeal to men of color and decided to walk off the estates of their masters, and join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. These ex-slaves joined the forces of the 11th United States Colored Troops--organized in Ft. Smith. These were the USCTs organized in the west. They would be one of 6 black Union regiments to be formed in the state of Arkansas. However, there were others in NW Arkansas who got the word, went to Kansas and joined the 83rd US Colored Infantry. Some joined before 1863, and had become part of the now well-documented 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored. They fought early in the Civil War, going into Missouri, then NW Arkansas, Ft. Smith, then later back into Indian Territory. Most major military engagements involved these Kansas black units. Other blacks would come in to Ft. Smith through the efforts of the 57th US Colored Infantry organized in W. Helena. Ft. Smith and Van Buren would later become the home of many of these ex-soldiers who fought for and won their freedom.
From Negro Abraham of Florida to the Courageous USCT's, the cities of Ft. Smith, and Van Buren would hold historical secrets of fascinating historical contributions made by African people These two cities resting on the banks of the Arkansas, would bear eye witness to the changes affecting the people of color.
Ft Smith, the bigger town would not be an immune place of refuge for those in the nation's history. There were Civil War battles to be fought near the city, and blacks would play a part. In Van Buren, and to the north of Crawford County black soldiers would join the USCT, some meeting their deaths in the famous battle of the Saline River. Ft. Smith would be witness to hundreds of black soldiers in her midst, and the National Cemetery in downtown Ft. Smith gives evidence to the courageous black soldiers who emerged in this city by the river.
It is to the legacy of the early African visitors and those who would later endure enslavement, and later freedom, it is to all of these residents that this page is dedicated.
May they not be forgotten!