One of the dangers of historical research—especially biographical research—is the unexpected house guest, not seated at the dinner table or sleeping in a bed, but constantly present in one’s mind. I would hate to spend a year or more writing a detailed biography of one person; I know that, long before the research and writing and editing was completed, I would know that person better than I know myself. This fall, I agreed to do a lecture series of eight weeks—eight forty-five-minute talks, covering eight people who have contributed to the history of Arkansas. I chose some people about whom I have written before, figuring it would be easy to restate what I have already learned. I also included on the list a few people I have not studied before, just because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about them. By far the most interesting subject I have covered—and the most vivid and persistent guest—has been a man named Albert Pike.
Albert Pike was born in Massachusetts December 29, 1809. From his youth, he was a genius. He had an unusually high aptitude for languages, including ancient languages and Indian languages. He also had the ability to gather information quickly, retain it accurately, and interpret it thoroughly, combining resources from assorted sources to build greater knowledge. Early in his teen years, he borrowed a thirteen-volume history from one of his older cousins. When he returned the books a few days later, the cousin suggested they had been too challenging for Albert. No, he said, he had read all thirteen and understood them thoroughly. He invited the cousin to quiz him on the content of the books, and he passed the examination easily.
When he was sixteen years old, Albert Pike applied to study at Harvard University. He had no trouble passing the entrance exam, but he could not afford the first year’s tuition. Undaunted, Albert took a job teaching school and applied his spare time to studying the subjects covered in the freshman and sophomore years at Harvard. Returning a year later, having saved his money to cover junior year tuition, Albert easily passed through the tests for Harvard’s first two years; only then was he informed that he must still pay tuition for those two years to receive credit for the courses and move into his junior year. Furious and feeling cheated, Albert Pike left the Harvard campus. His feelings were understandably mixed when he was offered an honorary Master’s degree from Harvard some thirty years later.
With two friends, Pike left Massachusetts to explore the United States. They traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. Arriving in Tennessee, Pike found nothing to capture his attention, so he and his friends proceeded west to Saint Louis. One turned back, but the other friend stuck with Pike as they joined a party heading into Texas. They went prospecting for gold and silver around Santa Fe and Taos with little success. The other friend returned east, but Pike and his new companions continued exploring, meeting scattered settlers, various Indian tribes, and all kinds of bad weather. Finally tiring of the Old West, Pike headed east, aiming for New Orleans. Taking a wrong turn, he found himself at Fort Smith in Arkansas Territory. Penniless, he took a job teaching school, gathering twenty students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. Also becoming acquainted with some of the politicians of the territory, Pike saved his money until he could move to the new capitol city called Little Rock. There he became involved in politics, first as a journalist for the local Whig newspaper, and then as an attorney. He studied to pass the bar but was granted his license to practice with little objection. “At least practicing law you won’t kill anyone,” the examiner quipped.
Pike got married and built a grand house in Little Rock, one that is still standing today. He profited from his law practice and built an enormous personal library. When war broke out with Mexico, Pike became an officer leading Arkansas troops into battle. Later, when he spoke disparagingly of a fellow officer from Arkansas, the two arranged a duel. Standing on a sand bar west of Fort Smith in Indian Territory (because dueling was illegal in the state of Arkansas), the men exchanged shots, but no one was injured. A Cherokee observer sneeringly commented that he could have hit a squirrel at a much greater distance with the pistols held by the duelists. But Pike and his opponent declared that honor had been satisfied and celebrated together with a grand dinner to which they invited all their friends.
Albert Pike was a large man, six-foot-two-inches tall, 275 pounds in prime health (expanding to 300 pounds in his later years, before disease robbed him of his weight). He loomed large in the social life of Little Rock as well. In 1850 he was invited to join the Masonic Lodge. He moved rapidly through the degrees of membership, becoming a Lodge leader; he then spent much of the rest of his life rewriting the Scottish Rite of Masonic membership and researching other aspects of Masonic belief and practices.
Pike said that slavery was terrible, an enormous injustice; then he also said that trapping workers into factory labor at substandard wages was equally evil. He owned four slaves himself, and he supported the right of southern states to continue to practice slavery. He warned readers in the northern states that freeing the southern slaves would not be a favor unless they were also granted educations and means to make a living; otherwise, their lives would remain miserable. When secession occurred, Pike reluctantly took his position with the Confederate government. Made a brigadier general, he was sent into Indian Territory to negotiate with the tribal groups living there—ideally, to raise troops to help the Confederacy; and, at the very least, to guarantee the neutrality of tribes that would not actively support the Confederacy. Many tribal leaders were open to service to the Confederacy under Pike’s leadership. He brought some of them as soldiers to fight at Pea Ridge in Arkansas. Communication between Pike and the other generals was minimal, Confederate forces came out losers in the fight, and false rumors were spread that Pike’s Indian troops had acted like savages, scalping Union soldiers and forsaking military discipline on the battlefield.
Pike resigned his commission and disappeared into a cabin in rural Arkansas. There he continued work on his Masonic studies. When the war ended, he faced enemies from both sides and even retreated briefly into Canada. He eventually received a pardon from President Andrew Jackson, although his life savings were consumed by legal fees and he barely managed to recover his Little Rock house (which had been used as headquarters by Union General Frederick Steele from 1863 to 1865). Pike’s wife returned to the house and spent her last years there, while Pike lived in Washington DC, lodging with the Masonic leadership there and using their library for his work. After the death of his wife, the house was used for several years as a girls’ college, then was bought by a businessman, John G. Fletcher, who would be elected mayor of Little Rock. Mayor Fletcher’s son, John Gould Fletcher, grew up in that mansion; he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and author. The mayor’s daughter married a lawyer, David Terry, who became owner of the mansion when his wife’s parents died; he was elected to represent Arkansas in the United States House of Representatives.
Many of Albert Pike’s writings were published, and some are still in print. Others remain within the Masonic libraries in Washington DC and in Little Rock. Fantastic stories have been built around Pike, often from modern conspiracy theorists. Allegedly, Pike wrote a letter in 1871 in which he predicted three World Wars—the first fought between Britain and Germany, which would lead to a Communist government in Russia; the second, also fought in Europe, which would bring about a Jewish homeland; and a third, to be fought by Muslims against Christians and Jews, finally bringing about a discrediting of all three religions and a one-world government. I have read quotes from this alleged letter, which some say was on exhibit in a London museum until 1977. The museum now claims no knowledge of the letter and says that, if it ever existed, they never had it. Moreover, the quotes I have read are far different from the writings of Albert Pike that I have studied this year, both in style and in content.
Other researchers accuse Albert Pike of being a Satan worshiper. In my mind’s ear, I can hear a hearty belly-laugh from Pike over this misunderstanding. A Hebrew word meaning “light-bearer” was translated into Latin as “Lucifer.” Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel address human kings (of Babylon and Tyre, respectively) with that title, and both addresses have been seen by Christians as references to the devil. I agree with that interpretation. The two prophets describe one who was blessed by the Lord with glory and honor, but who became proud and rebelled against the Lord, thereby earning God’s rejection and punishment. Because of these two prophecies, many Christians consider Lucifer to be a name of the devil, along with Satan and other titles. But the word was frequently used to describe the planet Venus, especially as it appears in the morning sky. Venus reflects the light of the sun and can be seen as a sign that sunrise is not far away. The label is assigned to the devilish kings by Isaiah and Ezekiel, but the same title also belongs to Jesus, the Son of God, who is called the bright morning star in Revelation 22:16. When Pike wrote glowingly (pun intended) of Lucifer, he was referring to the Christ-like image of the morning star, not of the devil.
Anyhow, I spent several days with Albert Pike living in my head—for all practical purposes, living in my house as well. My talk on Pike was given last Thursday. I hope that soon he will go away… and I hope that my next subject, Sam Walton, will not become such a persistent guest. J.