By Dr. Kelly Houston Jones
One of my favorite stories within the book is the story of a man named Jack, sometimes called “Chunky Jack,” who ran away from James K. Polk’s cotton plantation in western Tennessee in 1833. He actually fled repeatedly, much to the frustration of the future president and his overseer. But when Jack ran he didn’t head North, but West—to Arkansas Territory.
That’s because the landscape of eastern Arkansas provided some level of refuge for many runaways from slavery. The huge swaths of swampland and thick canebrake made it difficult for whites to pursue the men and women who fled there. Although not quite analogous to the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, this eastern section of Arkansas Territory was a magnet for people who did not want to be found. (This is actually an early component of Arkansas’s long reputation as a lawless, backwards, uncivilized place.) Even whites in Little Rock, the closest thing to an urban area in Arkansas, complained of runaways “lurking” outside of town, hiding in the woods during the day and sneaking into neighborhoods at night to steal provisions, dodging white posses.
The presence of fugitives for freedom in territorial Arkansas got in the way of white speculators and slaveholders’ designs for order and production upon the landscape. I explore this tension throughout the book—the contest between whites’ vision for Arkansas’s ground and enslaved people’s geography of resistance. White settlers were remarkably successful in claiming Arkansas for chattel slavery. They mapped and gridded thousands of acres, driving Native Americans out as impediments to progress and cultivation while forcing African Americans into the region to transform the landscape for cotton and corn production. Enslaved people continued to claim Arkansas’s abundant forests, brush, and cane for subversive gatherings, temporary refuge, or complete escape. Whites’ pursuit of stability created uncertainty for enslaved people; the forested and swampy spaces that enslaved people often relied upon as refuge represented chaos and disorder to whites.
To “zoom out” a bit, while white settlers had worried about disorder in eastern Arkansas in the territorial period, western Arkansas increasingly drew their attention as time passed. Indian Territory had always been a source of concern for westward-pushing whites who viewed it as a violent chaotic zone, a threat to civilization and order. In the 1850s that view intensified in terms of asserting property rights over enslaved people. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which implicated all Americans, even in “free” states, in the recapture of enslaved people who had fled from their captors, emboldened whites of western Arkansas. In 1854, the federal government officially declared that the Fugitive Slave Law applied to Indian Territory. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, citizens were justified in heading not only north but now into lands held by Native nations to retake suspected runaways. As a result, whites from western Arkansas launched a series of raids into Indian Territory, capturing African Indians as supposed fugitives and dragging them into Arkansas for sale as chattel.
The Civil War raised the stakes in the contest between enslavers and captive farmers in Arkansas—east and west, north and south. The landscape of freedom and slavery changed dramatically. Enslaved people used the upheaval of war to claim not only control over themselves and their movement but the productive use of the land. I am fascinated by the stories of black Arkansans asserting themselves in places that whites had dominated, while in many areas Confederates become the ones hiding in the woods and swamps.
Dr. Kelly Houston Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Arkansas Tech University.
A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas is available now through UGA Press: https://ugapress.org/book/9780820360201/a-weary-land/