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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 Territory

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 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. 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 is dedicated.

May they not be forgotten!