Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Free African Americans Expelled from Arkansas before the Civil War

The Arkansas Gazette ran information
about the act that expelled “free persons of color”
from the state of Arkansas on March 5, 1859.

Among the most overlooked groups in Arkansas history have been free African Americans before the Civil War.

The 1835 territorial census in Arkansas counted 176 free black people, who were also called free persons of color. Historically, the term referred to people of African, and sometimes African and European, descent who were not enslaved. In the U.S., many were slaves who had been freed. Others were the descendants of freed slaves.

Free African Americans lived in nearly every county in Arkansas, except Union, Jackson, Pike, Greene and Conway counties. Izard County had the highest number of free African Americans with a total of 45 people on the census.

Life as a free person of color was restrictive. For example, in 1836, Little Rock passed an ordinance prohibiting African Americans, both free and enslaved, from carrying any kind of weapon within city limits. If an African American was found carrying a weapon, including gunpowder, then law enforcement was required to confiscate the weapons, and the person received 30 lashes. Housekeepers were allowed to possess firearms, if they had a city license.

However, free African Americans could sue and be sued, own property and travel around the state at will, as long as they had access to documents to prove their freedom. Free people also could rise to prominence. 

Gad Bradley came to Arkansas in the 1830s and settled in Washington, Arkansas. He brought with him his wife, who had been an Army officer’s slave in Oklahoma, which was considered Indian Territory. Bradley had fallen in love with her and had been determined to buy her freedom. He worked hard and saved money until he had enough to purchase her. The couple married and left Oklahoma, settling in Washington, where Bradley worked as a gunsmith. Bradley bought land and built a house, where he raised his family for the next 20 years.

Others were born free. A case in point is Peter Caulder, who was born in South Carolina around 1797. His father, Moses, was a free man. In 1814, Caulder enlisted in the United States Third Regiment of Riflemen during the War of 1812. He accompanied Major Stephen H. Long to western Arkansas Territory in 1817 to establish a fort. Caulder became one of the first inhabitants of a new settlement, which was called Fort Smith.

Caulder later married Eliza Hall, the daughter of David Hall, a free man who lived in Marion County. The couple then set up a homestead in the county and began a family.

Even with the cumbersome restrictions placed on African Americans, the state was still a destination for many free black people. Between 1835 and 1840, the population of free persons of color in Hempstead County increased from six to 61.

The population increase alarmed white lawmakers. In 1843, the Arkansas legislature passed a law prohibiting immigration into the state of any free person of color. The aim was to curb the number of free black people in Arkansas. The new law also mandated people provide proof of freedom and to pay a bond of as much as $500 to assure “good behavior” while residing in the state.

There were some exceptions to the law. Many free people in Arkansas, for example, worked on steamboats that required them to move around the country. Steamboat workers often needed to stay in the state for long periods of time. To address this issue, the state gave an exemption but limited the length of time steamboat workers could stay to three months.

Weeks after the law went into effect, John Pendleton, a free man living in Crawford County, was arrested for violating the law. Pendleton appealed his conviction all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In Pendleton v. State of Arkansas, Pendleton’s attorney argued the law was unconstitutional because it violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause of the Fourth Amendment. The state court ruled African Americans, both free and slaves, were not citizens of the country. Instead, African Americans only enjoyed a “quasi-citizenship” that allowed the state to impose different laws on them based on their skin color.

Meanwhile, tensions between northern and southern states were rising. The nation was hurtling toward a civil war.

On Nov. 3, 1858, Arkansas Gov. Elias Conway addressed the legislature and asked lawmakers to adopt a law to expel free African Americans from the state. The existence of free African Americans living successfully in Arkansas belied the tenant that underpinned the justification of slavery, namely that African Americans were inferior and should be enslaved. The state legislature complied with Conway’s request and passed a law on Feb. 12, 1859 that expelled all free African Americans from the state.

The penalty for not complying with the new law was fierce. Under the worse circumstances, free African Americans could be re-enslaved. Most free African Americans left. Out of the 29 free black people in Hempstead County in 1850, there were only two left after the law passed.

Both Peter Caulder and Gad Bradley left Arkansas after the law was enacted. Caulder resettled in Missouri, where he died around 1861. Bradley returned to Indian Territory.

For more information on the history of Fort Smith or Arkansas, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900. Information on researching African American history is also available online at The Arkansas Digital Ark-ives at