[An early Arkansas trader’s letter written during the Indian Removal period]. Jonas Bigelow.
[An early Arkansas trader’s letter written during the Indian Removal period].

[An early Arkansas trader’s letter written during the Indian Removal period].

Fort Smith, Arkansas Territory, 26 August 1833. 8vo (25 x 20 cm), white paper. 7 pp. of manuscript.

A substantive and important 7-page letter written by a trader and whiskey dealer operating in Fort Smith, Arkansas Territory, offering an intimate and detailed account of his activities in the region—chronicling his travels, business, and the broader scene in Arkansas. At Fort Smith, he contracts with the U. S. government to supply emigrating native people during the 1830s Indian Removal.

The frontier military post of Fort Smith was established in 1817 for the purpose of patrolling the neighboring Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and maintaining peace between the Osage and Cherokee tribes after they had entered Arkansas Territory. Soon a town developed around the fort, which became a hub for fur trading and other mercantile activity. While the Army abandoned Fort Smith in 1824 and moved 80 miles further west, the federal government would re-establish a military presence there during the Indian Removal. After being selected in 1825 as Choctaw Agent by the Arkansas territorial governor, William L. McClellan established several agencies in Arkansas—one of which was located at Fort Smith. In 1828 McClellan reported that only eight emigrating Choctaw had reported to the agency, while 40 to 50 were living on the Red River and another thousand were living in small villages in Louisiana. When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1829, he increasingly pushed the eastern tribes to land west of the Mississippi River which had been opened up by the Louisiana Purchase. Upon signing the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the Choctaw became the first to be removed to Indian Territory. At the time of the present letter, troops stationed at Fort Smith were used to escort the Choctaw and Cherokee from their ancestral homelands in the southeast to reserved Indian Territory. Known by the Cherokees as the Trail of Tears, many native people and African-American slaves perished en route. Numerous displaced Native Americans would fall out of the march and settle in Fort Smith and other nearby locales looking for work—causing the population of Arkansas to spike; in turn, the Choctaw would have a profound influence on the development of Arkansas.

Writing from Fort Smith on 26 Aug. 1833 to one Otis Arnold in Troy, New York, Jonas Bigelow begins this rich and fascinating letter—penned in his “usual bungling manner”—by noting he received Arnold’s letter a few days ago. Pouring much into his letter, Bigelow remarks, “the more I write the more I still have to say until I begin to think it would take a volume to contain all.” Judging a “short history of myself will not be uninteresting,” Bigelow describes the circumstances of his departure from Albany and his subsequent travels through Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and New Orleans—following which he ventures to Arkansas. “After I arrived in Orleans the river still continued froze up and as I was anxious to be doing something I concluded to purchase a small lot of goods and go up the Arkansas river and trade for fur and Bear skins.” After banding together with a young man named Matthews, whose brother had recently passed away, Bigelow and Matthews recover the property his deceased brother left behind. “Such was the confidence which I had in him with my goods when I was absent every thing went on smoothly until we arrived at this place & then offered my goods and marked 100 per cent on them and commenced selling. In ten days we had taken 600 dollars besides beaver and bear skins.”

With his stock running low, he sends Matthews back with a bill of articles he needs while he continues trading. “I gave him all the money I had and he started which was the last I have ever seen of him. I still kept trading expecting him back and got about two hundred dollars more which I sent by a steam boat and never received but two barrels of whiskey for it.” Still hoping Matthews might return and his stock drying up, Bigelow decides after much speculation to go up the Arkansas river “about 200 miles above this place and get out Cedar Rafts.” “I accordingly bought horses and provisions and hired men and started in the month of Octr and by the next month April I had three large rafts that would have sold in Orleans at 1200 dollars each.” However, because the river does not rise as expected, he goes down to the settlements there to procure provisions—as he “had nothing but venison and bear meat for a long time and began to want bread.” The river soon rises and he loses two rafts and a third becomes inoperable. He then comes down with a 3-month long sickness and becomes “pretty well reduced in flesh and purse.” After recovering, he raises $125 by selling his watch and best clothes so as to begin trading again and raises $400 within six months. In turn, he ventures to New Orleans where he buys “a small lot of groceries” and—upon reaching Fort Smith in June 1832 he establishes himself: “I turned in to baking altho I never saw a cake baked in my life I succeeded admirably and in a short time was appointed Post Master at this place but what troubled me most I had more business than I could possibly attend too.”

At this time, he is now also “engaged in public contracts of the U.S. for furnishing the emigrating Indians and am nearly thro and if I meet with no unexpected misfortune I shall clear 4000 dollars this season.” Hoping to travel to Cincinnati to purchase flour and whiskey, Bigelow comments at length on commodities and the cash situation in Arkansas: “there is no such thing as cents used in this country. A small glass of whiskey is a six pence or as we call it a nickiune and we have the best currency in the world. Silver in abundance and U.S. bank notes. There is no place in the U.S. where money is so plenty and of course thought so little of.” Indeed, the Indian Removals brought an influx of money into the cash-poor Arkansas Territory. Elsewhere Bigelow asserts that “this is decidedly the best country for a poor man that I ever saw.” He then remarks to Arnold that, “since in this country I have seen more chance to make a fortune than I ever saw in all my life before provided a person had someone he could depend upon. If you and I had sold out and come to this country when I did with 500 dollars apiece we would without some great misfortune have been worth ten thousand dollars apiece.”

Bigelow also makes note of the regular army stationed at Fort Smith, and notes that “the Rangers are paid four or five hundred thousand dollars a year and the emigration of Indians costs as much more and all this to be divided among a population of 25 or 30000 and which ultimately gets in to the hands of traders for the people live easy and care but little for the morrow.” Bigelow proceeds to offer an extensive portrait of Fort Smith and comments on his bear and buffalo hunting activities; the quality of land, which “produces abundantly without labor almost”; buffalo tongue (“reckoned a great dainty by Epicures”); wages; the prices of various commodities (pork, otter, cattle, bear, deer, beaver, furs, etc.), and so on.

While there is scant information on Jonas Bigelow—this letter evidently adding much to his story—he and his brother George are known to have operated a liquor establishment on Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith, which was apparently the cause of considerable trouble. In 1833—the same year the present letter was composed—the fort received a new commanding officer, Capt. John Stuart. One of Stuart’s primary tasks was to keep liquor out of Indian Territory, and bar its distribution to the Indians. Upon arriving at Fort Smith, Stuart—dismayed—would describe in a letter how “drunken Indians were seen in every direction; some hooping some crying and others fighting.” Many of his own troops were also intoxicated. After threatening the Bigelows, Stuart tried to sue them—but lost when the Bigelows bribed his main witnesses (who were soldiers). After various failed attempts to prevent soldiers from acquiring liquor from the Bigelows, Stuart entered the Bigelows’ shop on 26 August 1833 and got into a brawl with George after hurling a glass of liquor in his face. George is said to have then beaten Stuart within an inch of his life. Stuart’s troops ended up retaliating by blowing a hole in the wall of the Bigelows’ shop with a cannon—which almost caused the building to topple. In turn, the Bigelows attempted to sue the soldiers, but they had fled town. Somewhat unbelievably, this colorful incident occurred on the very day that Bigelow penned the present letter, which he likely wrote before things got lively, as he makes no mention of it.

OCLC records another letter by Bigelow at Louisiana State University dated 20 June 1835, written from Fort Smith and also addressed to Arnold—who was then residing in Cincinnati. Bigelow describes running a steamboat and flat and keel boats loaded with cattle and corn down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The letter also apparently includes a description of a steamboat that Bigelow wanted to purchase or build in Cincinnati.

A fascinating and important primary source on Arkansas trader Jonas Bigelow and the Fort Smith scene during the Indian Removal period.

REFERENCES: Boulden, Benjamin. Fort Smith (Sebastian County) at encyclopediaofarkansas.net; Fort Smith National Historic Site. Attack on the Bigelows at nps.gov; Kent, Carolyn Yancey. Choctaw at encyclopediaofarkansas.net

CONDITION: Good, minor creasing, a few punctures, a few minor losses to the text on p. 7; but overall, very little loss to the text.

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