Early African Presence in Ft. Smith
The year was 1817 when the first known settlers, came to the area along
the banks of the Arkansas. The area, having been travelled only occasionally
by white explorers, traders and hunters. Beyond that the land was familiar
to the native inhabitants. Ocassionally the Osage would cross the river on
their hunting trips, in the region.
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
travellers through the settlement. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit was signed
beginning the Great Migration of the Native people of the South east to Indian
What is seldom mentioned is that alongside of the thousands of Native People
being removed from their homeland, were Africans making the trek, walking along
the same, Trail, and shedding as many if not more tears. Some of these
Africans were free persons, but sadly many of them were 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
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. 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 poopulation. 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 continous 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 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 opportunitities 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 35 people living
in the two towns, law abiding, and staking their claim in the west.
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 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 for 3 more years, when several dozen 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--the
USCTs. They would be one of 6 black Union regiments to be formed in the
state of Arkansas.
From Negro Abraham of Florida to the Courageous USCT's,the city of Ft. Smith,
would rest by the banks of the Arkansas, as a witness to the changes affecting
the people of color. Ft Smith 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. The city 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 residents that this page
May they not be forgotten!