Slave Narrative of R. C. Smith

Person Interviewed: R. C. Smith
Occupation: Prophet

One morning in May I heard a poor rebel say; “The federal’s a home guard Dat called me from home…” I wish I was a merchant And could write a fine hand, I’d write my love a letter So she would understand. I wish I had a drink of brandy, And a drink of wine, To drink wid dat sweet gal How I wish dat she was mine. If I had a drink of brandy No longer would I roam, I’d drink it wid dat gal of mine Dat wishes me back home.

I’ve heard the soldiers sing that song a heap of times. They sung it kind of lonesome like and I guess it sort of made them home sick to sing it. Us niggers learned to sing it and it is about the only one I can sing yet. I remembers the words to another one we used to sing but I’ve forgot the tune but the words go like this: Old man, old man Your hair is getting gray, I’d foller you ten thousand miles To hear your banjo play. I never was much at singing though. I guess my voice is just about wore out just like my body. I’ve always had good health and I never had a doctor in my life. In the last three or four years I’ve had some pains from rheumatism. I think all our sickness is brought on by the kidneys and I made my own kidney medicine and allus stayed well. I used to get a weed called hoarhound, it grows everywhere wild. I’d make a tea and drink it and it would cure the worst kind of kidney ailment. Peach tree leaves tea and sumac seed tea also were good kidney medicines. These were old Indian remedies. My father was half Cherokee Indian. His father was bought by an Indian woman and she took him for her husband. She died and my grandfather, father and Auntie were bought by John Ross. He later bought up a lot of land claims from some Indian people named Tibets and he paid for the claims with slaves. My father was in this trade. Ross kept my grandfather till he died and he gave my auntie to one of his sisters. All of her offspring live up around Tahlequah now. My father played with Cornelius Boudinot when he was a child. Cherokee Bill was my second cousin. My auntie hated being a slave. She had to take care of the babies on the farm while their mothers worked in the field. Sometimes she would git cranky and wouldn’t speak to any body for a week. This only made it harder for her but I guess she just couldn’t help it. My father was a big man, he weighed around 225 lbs. He had never been treated bad and it was purty hard for him to git used to being a slave. His master ordered him to be whupped and he wouldn’t stand for it and he put up such a fight that they had him took to Fayettesville, Arkansas, and put in jail and held them there for sale. Didn’t anybody want a big unruly ox of a nigger so he stayed in jail a long time. Presley R. Smith was the jailer and he was kind to Pappy. They was two outlaws in jail at the same time pappy was and one day he overheard them plotting to git out. They planned that when the jailer brought their meal to them that they would overpower him and take his keys and git out. Sure enough when he come in that evening one of them knocked him down. No sooner than he done it my pappy waded in and took them by surprise and laid them both out. He kept them both from escaping and killing the jailer. Smith went right out and hunted up pappy’s owner and give him $600 for him. Pappy’s owner was more than glad to sell him as he considered him a bad old darky. Smith took him home and never from that day on did he have a bit of trouble with him. He never allowed his grown slaves to be whupped and when they went away from home he didn’t write them no passes either. The patterollers didn’t pay them no mind for they knowed Smith took care of his own niggers. We was all knowed as “Smith’s free niggers.” My mother was give to Smith by his father when he married.

Our family didn’t live in no quarters but we lived in one room of the big house. The house was built in the shape of an “L.” A big white house, three rooms across the front and three in the “L.” We lived in the back one in the “L.” A big gallery ran clean across the front and one went down the “L.” The kitchen was away from the house but was joined to it by a plank walk. All around the house was big trees that we called “Heavenly trees” but the right name for them was Paradise trees. They made a heavy shade. Old Mistress had lots of purty flowers and they was a row of cedars from the gate to the house. The house was built in a rocky place and up above the house pappy built a stone wall and we had a garden on the level place along side of the wall. We called it the high place. There was enough level ground for a nice size garden. We also had a peach and apple orchard. We raised figs, too. Master Smith always remembered about my father saving his life and he was good to him. Pappy learned the stone mason’s trade and old Master let him hire out and he let him keep the money that he made. Old Master’s children went to school and they would come home and try to learn us every thing that they learned at school. I couldn’t be still long enough to learn any thing but my pappy and mammy both learned to read and write. Old Master Smith was elected County Clerk and he held the office till the war broke out and for a while after. There wasn’t much work for my pappy to do as he just looked after the garden and yard so old Master let him work at his trade as stone mason all over the country. Old Master was reasonably wealthy and very prominent. He owned a big farm but it wasn’t all in cultivation. He had nine slaves besides our family and they worked the farm. Pappy took care of the yard, garden and barn and mammy done the cooking. Us children run errands, minded the flies off the table at meal-time and also minded them off Old Mistress when she took her nap. We also brought the cows or calves and as soon as we got big enough we helped mammy with the milking. None of us worked very hard except mother. I think back and I don’t hardly remember ever seeing her setting down unless she was sewing or weaving. Poor thing, hard work was all she ever knowed. My master refugeed me to Texas at the outbreak of the war. We went down in the winter and it was awful cold. We crossed the Indian Territory and the snow was two foot deep. We went out in west Texas on a ranch. The Kiowa and Comanche Indians give them a lot of trouble. They was always slipping into the country and stealing horses and cattle. The owner of the ranch had a boy named Charley. He and I would ride, rope calves, and play around. We had good times together. His father would let us go with the boys sometimes when they went on round-ups. One day the men started out to round up and brand the young stock and we wanted to go. Charley’s father, for some reason, did not want us to go and he told us to stay at home. After they left he saddled his horse and started after them. He said that his father would let him stay with the outfit if he just caught up with them. I wouldn’t go with him so he went without me. I can still see him as he turned and waved at me just before he rode out of sight. I couldn’t help wishing that I could go with him but I dassent disobey the Master.

Nobody ever saw Charley again. They tracked his horse for several miles. That was easy as his horse had shoes on it. His horse was running and there was other tracks along with his that we supposed belonged to a band of Kiowas or Cheyennes. They were hidden and the cowboys passed them but when Charley come by they surprised him and finally captured him. I’m sure they killed him for he would acome back if he could have. I always wished I’d gone with him for they wouldn’t bother a nigger but they sure had it in for white folks. I missed my friend so I could hardly stay on at the ranch. I never had no good times any more.

My Master went to Clarksville, Texas and bought a herd of cattle and I went over there and we took them to the Indian Territory around Webbers Falls in the Cherokee Nation and herded them there. I was there till the close of the war. My father and a lot more of the slaves of the neighbors around Fayettesville had slipped away and joined the northern army in Kansas. They belonged to the first and second Kansas regiment. They heard that if they would join up with the Yankees they would be free so that’s what they done. Father died in Lawrence, Kansas at the close of the war. He and Mother never saw each other again after he enlisted. He died with pneumonia. Never got to enjoy his freedom after he fought so hard for it. I was 17 or 18 years old when Abe Lincoln declared us free but I never got my freedom till August 4, 1866. Slaves in Texas never got their freedom till June 19, 1867. We had an awful hard time after the war. My brother and I got a job in the Indian Territory as cowboys and we sent our money to mother when we could. She was an extra good cook and she managed to make a living for herself and my two sisters. Brother and I had a few head of stock that we sold and we bought her a house in Fayettesville and after that we got along purty well. We had a home to go to when we wanted to. I was a purty bad boy. I knowed a lot of outlaws. Knowed Belle Starr well. I never got mixed up in any of their shady dealings though. Its a wonder that I didn’t though as there was plenty of it going on and I was a regular little dare-devil. I was always so peart that it seemed like everybody wanted me to work for them. I never did have no trouble gitting a job. I never had nobody that I ever worked for to turn me off.

There was an old man in Fayettesville, old Judge West, that we always sort of shunned. He and my father had a little trouble once and we supposed he would hold it agin us boys. My father’s master took the job of putting a fence around the court house and grounds and he had my pappy out doing the job. Old Judge West come out and found fault with the way he was setting the posts. A nigger wasn’t supposed to talk back but Pappy got back at the Judge. The old Judge got mad and said that he was going to have him whupped and he went to pappy’s master and told him that he had to have him whupped publicly. Old Master wouldn’t do it and for a while there was a sight of hard feelings over it. One day after the surrender I met up with old Judge West. He asked me who my master was and I told him Presley R. Smith. He said, “Oh yes, you are one of Dave’s boys.” I told him that I was and he said, “He had a heap more sense than that master of his.” Jest before the war they had a heap of trouble with the Underground Railroaders. Nearly every body lost one or two slaves. Old Judge West had a sight of vexation about that time. I remember he lost one of his men who got clean away to the north and he couldn’t git him back. Another one decided he would try his hand at gitting away so he stole a horse and a suit of clothes and away he went. He got away to free territory and if the fool had had sense enough to a sold the horse they never would a done nothing about it but he strutted around with a fine horse and a fine broadcloth suit and his master told them that he’d stole the horse so they had to let him go back with his master. Judge West was purty hard on his slaves.

As I said I was a cousin to Cherokee Bill. He was a good feller when he was sober but he was hard to git along with when he was drinking. He always carried a pistol and he was a perfect shot so he was dangerous and everybody was scared to death of him. I could always handle him and git him to go home with me but I wasn’t always with him. Bill’s trouble come about through ignorance. They was at a dance and several federal officers come there looking for a man. They finally got into a battle and one of the laws was killed. There was about thirty men in the battle and all was shooting to kill but Bill was known as a good shot and everybody said that ever time he shot somebody fell and they accused Bill of murder. He started scouting around first one place and then another. I still say they wouldn’t a done nothing to him if he hadn’t a shot that blacksmith. He went into town to have his horse shod and he didn’t have the money to pay for it and the blacksmith wanted to hold the horse and Bill shot and killed him. Bill’s sweetheart lived in the neighborhood and he’d slip back once in a while to see her. Clint Scales, a colored deputy, said he would arrest him. Clint come to the girl’s house and found Bill there. He never said anything to Bill about going to arrest him and they was setting there talking. Bill stooped over to get a coal of fire to light a cigarette and Clint hit him over the head with a fire stick and knocked him out and took him to jail in Fort Smith. He might of got out of this if he hadn’t shot the jailer at Fort Smith. After he had been in jail about a month his sister managed to slip a gun in to him. If he had waited till the jailer brought his supper to him and of taken the keys away from him he might of got away but he took the gun and tried to make the jailer open the door and let him out but the jailer wouldn’t do it so he shot and killed him. They hung Bill at Fort Smith and when they asked him if he had anything to say he said, “I didn’t come out here to talk, I come out here to die.” He was plucky to the last. We had a lot of trouble gitting things settled after the war. I remember some excitement that we had in Arkansas over a governor’s election. It caused what we called State war. I was about nineteen at the time and I was eager to enlist but they didn’t need me. Baxter, a Democrat, and Brooks, Republican, was both running for governor. When the election was held there was so much fraud that you couldn’t tell who was elected. Sides was drawn and they built up breastworks there on the State house grounds at Little Rock. They actually had war. The state house is right on the river and a steam boat, the Hallis, belonging to a man named Houston went to Fort Smith and came back loaded with Baxter men. Brooks’ men cracked down on the boat with infantry rifles these rifles shot a ball as big as the end of your finger and there was so many holes shot in the boat that it sunk and Houston was killed. Finally the United States militia was sent down and after about two months they settled it peaceably. Baxter was declared governor and Brooks was appointed postmaster. I went back and forth from the Cherokee Nation to Fayettesville until my mother died. Then I married and settled there till I decided to go to Lehigh, Indian Territory and dig coal. My wife died there in 1900 and I’ve been batching ever since. After my wife died I couldn’t hardly do my work. I would go down into the pit and try to load coal and I’d have a room full but I couldn’t load one car. I was so dissatisfied that I decided to go down in the mountains by myself for a while. I went down into the McGee Mountains the other side of Atoka.

I am a prophet, yessum, the kind you read about in the Bible. I was born one. I can see and talk with hosts of people. AmHouf, a famous prophet in London say that I was born to be a prophet but I had a poor chance. I wrote to AmHouf and kept up a correspondence with him till his death. I wandered around in them mountains for days. I never seen a varmit, not even a wolf. One night I took a notion I’d go home. When I come to Boggy, just below Atoka, I started to walk across on a footlog. Just as I started to step on it I heard somebody say, “Look out, You’ll fall.” I looked around and I couldn’t see nobody. I started two or three times to cross and everytime I’d hear them say, “Look out, you’ll fall.” I turned and went to the bridge about a quarter of a mile down the stream. I crossed and come back up to the footlog. I could still hear people talking but I couldn’t see nobody. By this time I done got hungry so I went up to a house to try to buy something to eat. The man told me where there was a store and I went there and bought some sardines and crackers. The storekeeper told me if I could course my way through the wood that it would be a lot nearer. I went on about a mile and built a fire and camped for the night. Next morning I started on and all of a sudden I heard a Wham. It sounded like somebody loading cross ties. Purty soon I seen about twenty-five or thirty people. One real old man and woman in a wagon with wood on it. I walked on to meet them and the man hailed me with the Odd Fellows sign. The woman had on a gray coat and the man snatched it off her and put it on his shoulders and the woman disappeared. I walked up and tried to touch him but couldn’t. Just then I realized that I had seen Father Abraham Yessum, the one we read about in the Bible. I looked around and recognized my father and a lot more people some of them had just been buried but my father had been dead ever since the war. I didn’t talk to them as they all disappeared. When I got home I had a letter from AmHouf saying that he needed me. I answered his letter but another prophet answered me and told me AmHouf was dead. I see things all the time. I’m in what they calls “firey trivets.” I can foresee and foretell. Moses and the old prophets was in the firey trivets. I’m a natural born treasure hunter. I don’t need no instruments to find treasure. I can walk over it at night and tell where it is located. I’m trying to raise one-hundred dollars right now to try to finance a trip for me on a treasure hunt. I know just where it is located but it will take a hundred dollars to git it out. I ain’t been able to do nothing for a month on account of the hosts that surround me. Their presence is so powerful over me that they weaken me. Prayer and faith can overcome everything. Remember Jesus Christ was called Bellzebub but that didn’t make it true.

Ross, Smith,

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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