Albert Pike

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.

Arkansas food traditions

The land now called Arkansas has been inhabited for many generations, and a good number of ways to study and examine the past help to cast light on life in Arkansas then and now. One of the newest subjects to be studied is foodways: what did people eat, how did they obtain it, how did they prepare it, and how did they preserve it? Contemporary Arkansas festivals feature some of the most interesting foodway traditions in the modern world.

Corn (maize), beans, and squash were the primary foods of the earliest dwellers of Arkansas, although they occasionally added meat to their diet. The first European explorers to enter Arkansas were led by Hernando de Soto, who crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas in 1541 and died in Arkansas the following year. After de Soto came Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673. These French explorers were responsible for the name of the state of Arkansas. After asking the Illini of the Mississippi River valley who they would meet in their travels south, Marquette and Joliet were told to expect the Ar-kan-saw, which was merely the Illini word for “people who live to the south.” Encountering the Quapaw villages where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi, Marquette and Joliet applied the Illini’s label to the Quapaw, and the name went on to designate the river, the territory (once a county of Missouri Territory), and the state. The first permanent European settlement in the region was Arkansas Post, located near the Arkansas River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi. Arkansas is included in the land acquired by the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and American settlers began to join the Quapaw, Caddo, Osage, French, and Spanish families who already lived on the land.

While some settlers established large cotton plantations in the flatlands of southern and eastern Arkansas, others took to the hills where they lived off the land as best they could. (This is called subsistence farming.) They planted various crops and raised chickens and hogs, but they also gathered berries and fruits from the forests and hunted deer, bear, and anything else that moved and might be edible. The hillbilly image of the Ozark Arkansan is largely shaped by stories (many highly exaggerated) told by travelers who met these hardy pioneers.

Even as Arkansas developed as a territory and then a state, memories remained of the early foods eaten by Arkansas settlers. Among the annual festivals still celebrated in Arkansas today are the Trumann Wild Duck Festival, the Gillett ‘Coon Supper, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival, the Dermott Crawfish Festival, the Arkansas Rice Festival, the Hope Watermelon Festival, the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, the Camden Daffodil Festival, and the Malvern Brickfest, not to mention Conway’s Toad Suck Daze.

Actually, the ‘Possum Festival has a spotted history. Beginning in 1915 as a challenge to neighboring communities, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival had a long and honorable history through the first half of the twentieth century. However, during World War II, when much of the male population was out of state serving in the armed forces, remaining citizens re-established Prohibition, forbidding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Although the festival was attempted in 1945 and 1946, it was cancelled in 1947. A brief attempt to restart the festival occurred from 1995 through 2001, but with little success. Evidently for a ‘Possum festival to succeed, more than the meat needed to be marinated. J.

Jesus has this covered

On his blog, Wally Fry asks the rhetorical question, “The weatherman says, ‘a storm is coming,’ and everyone panics. The preacher says, ‘Jesus is coming,’ and no one cares.” OK, that’s not a question, but it’s still a rhetorical statement. “Everyone” and “no one” are exaggerations, but the point remains that people react more strongly to a little winter weather than they do to the warnings and promises of the Bible.

So I commented, “I suppose it wouldn’t make much sense to rush to the store and buy bread and milk and eggs and a shovel because Jesus is coming. J.” That was merely a quick and casual reaction. Now that I’ve had a few more hours to think about Wally’s quip, I find that I have more to say.

First, it’s true, at least in Wally’s part of the country (Arkansas), the threat of a little snow or (worse) ice sends everyone to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs. Toss in a little sugar and cinnamon and you could make French Toast. Why people want French Toast with their ice and snow, I don’t know. Of course, they also buy shovels to move snow off the sidewalks and driveways and salt to melt the ice. The city and county and state governments invest very little money in snow removal equipment, since most of the time the snow is gone in twenty-four hours without any human effort. There is always a risk, though, of a longer freeze, possibly with the electricity out, so people in Arkansas have learned to be prepared. And by “prepared,” I mean that they rush to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs.

Jesus told a parable (found in Matthew 25:1-13) about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so the wedding celebration could begin. Five were wise and brought extra olive oil for their lamps; the other five were foolish and had no extra oil. When the bridegroom’s imminent arrival was announced, they saw that they had no oil and begged to borrow some oil from the first five, but there was not enough oil for the wise ones to share. Instead, the foolish bridesmaids went to find a store open all night where they could buy some oil. The bridegroom arrived, the doors were locked, and the party started. When the foolish bridesmaids found themselves locked outside of the party, they knocked on the door, but the bridegroom did not recognize them and left the door locked.

Bible interpreters sometimes chase the rabbit of “what does the oil represent?” The olive oil could be almost anything, and the parable still makes sense. Anyone who feels a need to rush out and purchase supplies because Jesus is coming is in danger of missing the party. Like the wedding guests who thought that their own interests and possessions were more important than the wedding of the king’s son (Matthew 22:1-14), these bridesmaids found something to be more important to them than the arrival of the bridegroom. As a result, they missed the party.

Why would you need to run to the store when you know Jesus is coming? Do you need milk? Jesus brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17); he can certainly supply us with all the milk that we need. As for bread, we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), but still Jesus says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he that has no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself with rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2). He who fed crowds of thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish also promises that when he comes, he “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). Do you need to buy eggs? Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12). Believe me, or believe his own words: Jesus has this covered.

Jesus can even provide the shovel. We know that he is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1-7), and we read in the Old Testament that shovels were part of the equipment given to every high priest (Exodus 27:3). They were used for clearing ashes from the altar, but still we know that Jesus has his own shovel. And what of salt? Jesus says to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). So Jesus is prepared for any bad weather. No storm can defeat him.

Jesus has this covered. We do not need to run to the store because Jesus is coming. Instead, we prepare to welcome him joyfully, knowing that when he arrives, the biggest party ever is going to begin. J.

How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

Most people who know at least a little history of the United States are aware that the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Not many people know that the first shots of the Civil War were nearly fired in Little Rock, Arkansas, two months earlier.

In 1838, the United States government built an arsenal south of downtown Little Rock, on Ninth Street. Munitions were stored in the building and soldiers were regularly stationed there, while other units passed through the area on the way to the border outpost of Fort Smith, facing Indian Territory. With some southern states seceding from the Union after the election of 1860, the United States Army began to rearrange some of its troops. One relocation moved Battery F, Second United States Artillery, from Fort Smith to the arsenal in Little Rock. Captain James Totten was the commander of this battery, which left Fort Smith on November 27, 1860, and arrived at the arsenal on December 6.

In January 1861, a convention met in Little Rock to consider the question of seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy or remaining with the United States. Because the convention was evenly divided on this issue, the delegates chose on January 16 to schedule a referendum on the question for the coming summer. Shortly after the convention disbanded, rumors began to travel around Arkansas that the federal government was reinforcing its units in Little Rock to defend the arsenal. These rumors were either the result of Totten’s unit being moved or were speculation about further actions which were not, in fact, being considered by the U.S. Army.

Because of these rumors, militia from various parts of Arkansas began to converge in Little Rock, gathering around the statehouse on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The local militia, called the Capitol Guards, tried to position itself between the other units and the arsenal, but it was outnumbered. Arkansas Governor Henry Rector promised to resolve the conflict, although what he could accomplish was not immediately obvious. Although the soldiers in the arsenal were badly outnumbered by the members of the various militia units, they were far better equipped for battle and were in a defendable position in the arsenal.

The hero of the event was Captain Totten. Knowing that armed conflict would lead to civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian property near the arsenal, Totten exchanged communications with Governor Rector. Understanding that Arkansas had not chosen to secede from the Union (and was not scheduled to make such a decision until summer), Totten offered to hand control of the arsenal over to the governor of the state of Arkansas. Rector agreed, provided that Totten and the men under his command left the state and carried off none of the cannons stored in the arsenal. At noon on February 8, Totten and his man left the arsenal. Totten signed papers giving control of the facility to the government of the state of Arkansas, and his unit began its voyage to St. Louis, Missouri. A group of 107 women from Little Rock gave an engraved sword to Captain Totten thanking him for his peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly a century later, outsiders again poured into Little Rock, this time protesting the desegregation of the city’s main high school. On this occasion federal soldiers were sent to the city to defend the nine African American students who had been enrolled in Central High School. By this time, the arsenal was no longer a federal facility. Some years after the Civil War, it had been exchanged for property north of the river, and the building and surrounding land were converted into a city park. The park was named MacArthur Park, to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the arsenal in 1880 while his father was stationed there. Today the arsenal is a military museum. The strength of its walls was tested and found durable when the building survived a direct hit from a tornado in 1999. J.

For additional information, consult David Sesser’s The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis, History Press, 2013.

Tilting at windmills

Blogging gives me the opportunity to share some of my eccentric opinions and tendencies, but I am not the only eccentric person in my family. I have relatives who pursue interests and espouse causes that are, if possible, even more unusual than my own interests and causes.

One of my relatives is concerned about wasting time. Specifically, she is concerned about the lost seconds that remain when food, cooked in the microwave oven, is ready before the timer has stopped. Most of us take the food out of the microwave and press the stop/cancel button. My relative considers those remaining seconds lost forever. She wants them to remain on the microwave display for the next person to use. This, of course, does not work for me. The seconds she leaves on the microwave are never the number of seconds I need to use. The turntable inside the microwave makes one complete turn every ten seconds while the microwave is running. Whenever possible, I try to choose a number of seconds divisible by ten so the food is in the front of the microwave when I open the door. I’m pretty stubborn about that, so I tend to clear her twenty-five seconds and enter my forty seconds without being concerned about the time I have just wasted.

Another of my relatives also has a microwave oven concern. It bothers him that the numbers seven, eight, and nine are used less often than the other numbers, especially five and zero. He tries to equalize the use of the numbers by making numbers less round. If something is to be heated for one and a half minutes, for example, he sets the timer for 89 seconds rather than 1:30.

One of my relatives dislikes the term “happy hour.” She wants to make a rule requiring bars and restaurants to make their happy hours sixty minutes long. When they have special prices from two until five in the afternoon or from four until six in the evening, she wants to prevent them from calling the occasion a “happy hour.”

I have relatives who live down in Arkansas, and some of them are trying to change a name. It seems (if I follow their argument correctly) that when French explorers first sailed down the Mississippi River, they spent some time with the Illini. Before leaving, they asked the Illini who lived further south near the river. The Illini answered with their word for “the people in the south,” which sounded to the French like Ark-an-saw. The explorers recorded this word, although–being French–they chose to end it with a silent S. (They did the same to the Illini, creating the name Illinois.) When the explorers happened upon the villages of the Quapaw, they decided that these people must be the Ark-an-saw people mentioned by the Illini. The explorers called these people the Arkansas people, and they named the river which joins the Mississippi River near their villages the Arkansas River. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, people continued to call the river the Arkansas River, and the French fortress near that river, now occupied by American citizens, became known as Arkansas Post. When Louisiana became a state, the Missouri Territory was formed, with Arkansas County as the southern portion of the territory. Later, when Missouri became a state, Arkansas County turned into Arkansas Territory, and eventually it became the state of Arkansas. Now my relatives are pushing to remember the Quapaw. They want to start by renaming the stretch of river between Fort Smith and Napoleon the Quapaw River instead of the Arkansas River.

As far as I’m concerned, my relatives are tilting at windmills. No one else is going to stop “wasting time” with their microwave ovens or start using the seven, eight, and nine buttons more often. “Happy hour” is not going to be regulated, and the Quapaw River will never be shown on any maps. Sorry, kin of mine, but that’s the way the world works. J.