Visit to Fort Smith

On Saturday, in company with a friend, I started to Fort Smith to spend the Sabbath, and to conduct religious services in the absence of the stationed minister. We spent the night at the residence of Mr. A., who had formerly resided in the city of Pittsburg, extensively engaged in mercantile pursuits. He was an intelligent and gentlemanly old man, who had been accustomed to mingle with the wealthy and refined; but, having met with reverses of fortune, he had been greatly reduced in his circumstances, and had emigrated to the frontier settlements with the hope of being able to improve his financial condition. The family consisted of Mr. A. and wife, and three grown­up daughters, who were educated, accomplished, and fully qualified to mingle in the most refined and polished society. The dwelling consisted of two small cabins, built of round poles, and covered with shakes. The floors were of loose, rough, boards, and bare, while the scanty supply of furniture was of the cheapest and plainest description; and yet the family were cheerful, hopeful, and happy, not entertaining a single doubt that a brighter day would soon dawn upon them, and their lost fortunes would be retrieved.

There was but one church edifice at Fort Smith, which was in an unfinished condition; it was built by the community, and occupied by ministers of the various denominations. At that time the standard of morality was deplorably low. The religious influence was scarcely perceptible, yet there were a few faithful and consistent Christians.

The most active, devoted, and zealous disciple of the Savior was Mr. J. B., who was a Congregationalist, a dry-goods merchant, and formerly of the city of Boston. He had the reputation of a good master, which was not contradicted by the appearance of his slaves; they were fat and sleek, cheerful, well­dressed, and apparently quite happy.

On Sunday morning it was my privilege to preach the word to about one hundred persons, who were convened in the sanctuary for divine worship. The congregation was unique, embracing the greatest variety of character, and the extremes, so far as posi­tion and intelligence were concerned.

General Taylor, afterward President of the United States, Majors Hoffman and Hunter, with a full corps of captains, lieutenants, ensigns, sergeants, and corporals of the United States army, were present ; then there were merchants, mechanics, professional men, and day laborers making up the assembly.

General Taylor and family occupied a plain, neat dwelling half a mile south of the officers’ quarters, where he occupied his leisure time in the cultivation of a garden. The General was said to excel in horticulture, not failing to have the earliest and best vegetables in the market. His habits were scrupulously correct and his private character irreproachable. When the crisis had arrived, and war with Mexico became inevitable, General Taylor was removed from the South-Western and placed in command of the Southern Division of the United States army.

In passing along the streets we saw scores and hundreds of Indians of the various tribes of the border, but the most of them were Choctaws and Cherokees. Many of them were intoxicated, and more than a score might be seen lying in the shade of the buildings and fences helplessly drunk. At Fort Smith and Van Buren alone over three thousand barrels of whisky were annually sold to the natives in violation of law. It was, indeed, humiliating to know that men, educated in a Christian land, could sink themselves so low in the scale of morals and virtue as to consent to engage in the liquor traffic, and pander to the vicious appetites of a destitute and degraded people, who were utterly incapable of self control! The man who does it commits murder without any extenuating circumstances. Were he to take a Colt’s revolver and shoot down the besotted Indians by scores, his hands would not more certainly reek with human gore, and his soul would not more surely be steeped in guilt, than they now are by that foul traffic.

The natives hanging about the shops and stores were considered inoffensive; occasionally, however, they would yield to temptation and purloin a much coveted article. An instance of theft had just oc­curred which was rather amusing in its termination. A merchant went into a back room of his store for a moment, and, returning, missed a bolt of calico, which he had placed upon the counter. He examined the shelves and searched the counters to find it, but without success. Stepping into the street he looked in all directions, but could not discover any thing of the thief or the lost goods. When about to return to the store-room he heard a cry of distress, and saw an Indian in the middle of the Arkansas, apparently drowning. A skiff was immediately sent to the rescue, and the unfortunate native was brought to the shore. It proved to be a Cherokee woman and the thief who had stolen the calico. She had taken the goods, and, concealing herself under the high bank of the river, had wound the entire bolt of calico around her waist, and then had plunged into the stream to swim to the opposite shore, a feat which she could easily have accomplished under ordinary circumstances; but, when the goods had become thoroughly saturated with water, the weight overcame her strength, and caused her to sink to the bottom of the river. While the merchant rejoiced in regaining his lost goods, the poor woman was forced to depart with the sad reflection that she had no rich and gaudy prints with which to adorn her person and render her comely in the eyes of her forest lord.

Having an appointment for preaching at Massard, on our return, it was necessary, for us to leave Fort Smith shortly after the conclusion of the morning services. A pleasant ride of an hour and a half, through level, open country, brought us to the cabin where religious worship was to be conducted. Having preached to the little congregation the benediction was pronounced, and we prepared to resume our journey to the mission. As the distance was only twelve miles we hoped that we should be able to travel it before sunset; but when we came to the Poteau river it was overflowing its banks, and there was no ferry-boat at hand to carry us over. Whence had come the flood? There had been no rain, and not a cloud was to be seen in the heavens above. On the preceding day we could have walked over the bed of the stream upon the rocks without wetting the soles of our boots; and within the lapse of thirty hours the river had become impassable, and the torrent was now rushing up the channel toward its source as if the laws of gravitation had been reversed! But the solution of the mystery was easy; there had been heavy rains in the mountains a thousand miles west, where the Arkansas has its sources, and the immense quantities of snow had been melting, and a mighty volume of water was pouring down its channel, causing it to rise from ten to twenty feet in as many hours. From its full and overflowing banks a torrent had rushed up the empty bed of the Poteau river, causing it to deluge the low lands adjacent. Finding the river impassable we knew not how to proceed; for it was almost night, and in a few minutes the sun would be below the horizon. Having no blankets we were not prepared to encamp for the night; nor was it by any means desirable, for there was one lady in the company, who did not relish the prospect of contending with an innumerable army of musketoes till the dawn of the morning; the bare thought was horrible!

There was an excellent ferry-boat, but it was at the bottom of the river, having been chained to a stake at low water. Hallooing to “uncle Phil,” the colored ferryman, who lived near by, on the hillside, we besought him to come to our relief. We would cheerfully consent to bribe him, in despite of the elements, to land us safely on the opposite shore. But Phil was powerless; he manifested a soothing sympathy for us in our extremity, but could do nothing more.

“You ‘se got desput bad luck,” said Phil; ” ‘spect can’t do nuffin to help gemmen an’ lady ober dis here night! Bery sor’, berg sor’, massa, ‘deed I is; but dunno what we’s able to do! De ribber’s monsous full an’ still risin’ ; de boat’s in de bottom; can’t liff him up no how, dat’s sartin. I ‘lows gemmen an’ lady richer place der foot on tudder shoah dis here night!”

We persisted in stating that we must cross over on some terms; it was absolutely necessary. ” Uncle Phil, have you not a skiff or canoe in which you can carry us over?”

” Yes, massa,” said Phil, “we’se got an ole bon­goe, but he’s ‘strornary small an’ chock full ob water! I ‘lows massa’s not gwine to tote dese here hosses ‘cross de ribber in dis here ole canoe !”

“No, uncle, we shall not attempt to carry the horses, but we can carry ourselves and saddles in it, and let the ponies swim by the side of the boat.”

Light now began to dawn upon the old ferryman’s dormant intellect; and he grasped the thought that it might be possible for us to reach the desired shore, without waiting a week for the stream to become fordable. He went to work and in a few minutes had the water all bailed out, and in less than half an hour we were securely landed on the homeward side of the river. We compensated the ferryman, resaddled our mustangs, and were ready to resume our journey; but it was now dark, and our trail through the low bottom lands was indistinct. The light of the stars which struggled through the dark foliage of the trees was insufficient to give certainty to our steps. Slowly and cautiously we pursued our way till we reached the dwelling of Mr. Ring, just upon the margin of an extensive canebrake. As we were still five miles from home, we concluded to accept Mrs. Ring’s kind invitation to remain with them till morning. Mrs. Ring, though a Choctaw, was intelligent, a neat and tasteful housekeeper, and a woman of more than ordinary intellect. She was ambitious and patriotic to a remarkable extent. She would speak of ” our people,” and “our nation,” and of the schools, academics, council, and prospects of the nation with the confidence and hauteur of a princess. Having slaves to do her work she devoted a considerable portion of her time to reading, was fond of novels, knew something of Dickens, and would, with confidence, criticize the magazine literature of the day.

“Uncle Phil,” the ferryman, is entitled to a paragraph in these sketches, inasmuch as he was a character in “low life.” He was a slave, but his master and mistress–Indians–were both dead. He had been left on the little farm at the ferry, with four orphan children in his care. The children were from four to ten years of age, and left with no protector or friend save the faithful servant. They were the legal heirs of the deceased parents, but there was no court to appoint guardians to take care of the property that it might not be wasted or wrested from its infant proprietors. Phil was in possession, and might have appropriated every thing to his own use and then have absconded; and there would have been no one to pursue him, nor a fugitive-slave law to carry him back at the national expense. But he was a true man, and remained with the helpless orphans, provided food and clothing for them, worked the farm, and kept the ferry. He was so careful of every interest of theirs, and so industrious and faithful, that a neighbor facetiously remarked that Phil owned the farm, the ferry, and four Indian children. He was regarded by his neighbors as a man of unflinching integrity, honesty, and truthfulness.

Returning to Fort Coffee I was doomed to several days’ confinement, suffering most excruciatingly from boils; the whole system was inflamed, and fevers set in, from which there was no relief till abscesses had formed and suppuration had taken place. The boils, no doubt, were caused by seed ticks and the bites of other noxious insects, which abounded in that country. It was not possible to sit down upon the trunk of a tree, or pass through the bushes and escape the insects.

Tarantulas, centipedes, and lizards were numerous, while poisonous serpents were very rare. I remember to have seen but one rattlesnake in the country, and that was of the small black species, and not more than fifteen inches in length, yet its bite would have been fatal. While still lodging in the log-office, we were startled, one morning, at the sight of a huge black snake, known as the “racer,” which was deliberately creeping from under the bed, “dragging his slow length along.” He was about six feet in length, and full two inches in diameter. While procuring a cudgel to give him battle he made his escape; but his place of ingress and egress was never discovered, though diligent search was made. Mrs. B. was indignant at his familiarity; the bare thought of a snake in the bedroom rendered her nervous, and she never again slept soundly in that room, though we remained a month.


Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860.

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