EARLY DAYS IN SEVIER COUNTY
"CAPTAIN" W. S. RAY
Some years ago Caleb Johnson McKean agreed to write some reminiscences of the early days of Sevier county Arkansas. No man was better qualified for this task than he, having been born at Ultima Thule, Arkansas and having spent all his days at, or near that place, except the four years of the war between the states, which time he served in the Confederate army; but owing to ill health and disabilities of age, this task was never finished, and with his death passed away the possibilities of some interesting history of the early days of Sevier County, especially the western part of it.
(Note by compiler: When we speak of Sevier County Arkansas in the early days, as referred to by Captain Ray, we are actually speaking of a large section of southwest Arkansas, comprising what is now six or eight of the present counties of southwest Arkansas - David W. Ogden, Researcher - Compiler)
I have been importuned by some of my old friends as well as the editor of the DeQueen Bee Newspaper to give the public my recollections of this part of the country, dating from the close of the war until a more recent date. After this agreement with the editor, and reflecting over the matter, I have concluded that I have agreed to do something overreaching my abilities. Nevertheless, I have made this agreement and I will proceed to do the best that I can, hoping that I may not be criticized too severely, for I propose to give out nothing but the facts as they came under my observation, or have been related to me by some reliable old timer many of whom have long since gone to their rewards.
As to how I came to be in Arkansas at that early date, does not figure in, or belong to, this sketch, but as some of my most vivid recollections of Arkansas carry me back east of Sevier County, I will commence this sketch on Markham street in Little Rock, Arkansas.
One very hot July afternoon in 1865 I could have been seen walking up Markham street carrying all my earthly possessions, consisting of an old oil cloth satchel containing a very limited wardrobe, an old pocket book in my pocket, containing considerably less than five dollars in cash and a parole from a Federal Officer stating that I had been a soldier in the Confederate army and in rebellion against the United States Government, and promising not to violate this parole until lawfully exchanged, which up to this time has never been done, and if I was ever out of the Union (as we were all accused of being) I am still out, for up to this time if I have ever done anything to get back, or if anyone did anything to put me back, I am not aware of it.
At any rate, walking up Markham street, reflecting upon the sins of rebellion and the vastness of the Yankee army, I met another one of the vanquished Army of Tennessee trying to make his way back to his home and mother in Texas, which he had left when a boy four years before, and had not seen since, and which he swore, if he ever reached, he would never leave again.
While we were talking, and he was insisting that I go with him to Texas, we were joined by two young men from Louisiana who were likewise trying to make their way home. We were soon joined by two more of the vanquished from Arkansas. After consulting an old citizen and getting the desired information as to the route we should travel we soon left the city of Little Rock in our rear, I having concluded to go home with the Texas boy, because at that time I had no place in view to go, and one place seemed about as inviting to me as another.
The afternoon sun shone very warm and we walked very fast for a while. I wore a pair of new boots and soon my feet were blistered. We could get nothing to eat and spent the night on a soft bed of leaves until morning's soft sun rays touched our weary brows and reminded us that another day's travel awaited us. About twelve o'clock that day a good old Southern lady gave us a good dinner of boiled cabbage, bacon and corn bread.
That evening the Texas boy and the two Louisianans left us, as on account of my blistered feet, I had backed out of going to Texas with the boy, and concluded to go home with one of the Arkansas boys named Sanders. The next morning the other Arkansas boy left for his home, leaving Sanders and myself alone.
We were now getting to where Sanders was somewhat acquainted and stopped for dinner with one of his acquaintances. While there this man told us of the wolves catching all of his pigs and calves and that it was getting really dangerous for a person to be out at night afoot. This man also told us that the cotton factory on the Little Missouri River was being rebuilt and enlarged, and that they were wanting to hire men to help do the work.
After a hearty dinner of bread and milk (the only things they had in the way of provisions) I bade Sanders and our host goodbye and set out on my way to the factory to try to get a job of work. There were very few people living on the road at that time. In fact there were very few people living anywhere in that part of the country. My feet were still sore from the blisters made on our first days walk from Little Rock, and after leaving Sanders and starting off alone in this strange land of tangled wildwood and mountains I was seized with a feeling of loneliness that I had never felt before, not even on some lonely picket post at night, so I concluded I would try and get lodging at the first house I came to.
I passed one or two houses that evening but they had been abandoned and wore a look of loneliness that did anything but cheer my weary soul. It was at last getting dark and a slow drizzly rain had set in when I met a man who told me that he lived at the next house a half mile further on, but that none of his family would be at home that night as they would be with a neighbor off the road whom they were expecting to die that night. I asked him the privilege of going to the house and sleeping that night, but I being a stranger he refused me this favor, as I expected he would do, but he gave me the cheering information that there was a house four or five miles further on where I might be able to stay.
In this strange rough country there were but few people living and most of them were Union people who had been, some in the Union army and some staying at Little Rock for protection from the Rebel Guerrillas, where they found it easier to draw provisions from Uncle Sam's Commissary than to hustle for a living at home.
My spirits had ceased to droop, but had taken a sudden fall to somewhere about the lowest degree. I paid no more attention to my sore feet but started at a lively gait to measure off that four or five miles, but when I reached this place and halooed, a woman's voice answered me from across the road at what seemed to be a cow lot, so I went over and asked her if I could get to stay all night, telling her that I was a stranger, tired footsore and weary. She said that it was a bad chance, as she was not prepared to take in strangers; that her husband was not at home and that she was alone with only her little children. I told her that that would make no difference, as I considered myself a gentleman, and she need not fear anything from my presence, and from her talk I began to feel sure that I was going to get to stay all night. She asked me where I came from and I told her from east of the Mississippi River, and she asked me if I had been in the army and I told her that I had. She then asked me what army and I told her Johnson's, to which she replied, "He was a Rebel was he not?", and I told her that he was. Then with an oath, she told me that if I had been in the Rebel army she had no use for me, that on her way to Little Rock to see her husband who was in the Union army, the Rebel Guerrillas had taken the best horse she had and left an old broken down one in its stead and refused to pay her any difference, and had taken a good beef steer from her and wouldn't pay her a cent for it, and she finished by wishing all Rebels speedy conveyance to a hot country where I hope that I am never consigned to.
I reminded her that I had never harmed or wronged her and that she should not blame me for what others had done; to which she replied in no modern Sunday School language, that if I had not wronged her I belonged to the set that did, and that I could not sleep under her roof. I then asked her what was in the old house in the cow lot and she said nothing but some straw and I asked her if I could go in there and sleep. She said no, that I could not stay on her place at all. I persisted in talking kindly to her until I found that I could not get to stay all night under any circumstances, and that it was four miles to the next house, and no fork in the road that would put me out.
During my four years service in the army I had heard some very rough language used, and that woman had a sample of it all, and I will say that I got some new lessons from her that night. After this dialogue had continued for some time I began to think that her husband might be lying around, and hearing our racket, might slip up and put a bullet in me, so I very unceremoniously left her to finish the debate.
I had gone less than a hundred yards when I came to some water. In the inky darkness I could not tell l how much, how wide or how deep it was, so I pulled off my boots and a part of my clothes and waded in, but found it shallow and waded across all right, sat down on some rocks and dressed myself and started on again. I had not gone twenty yards until I came to more water, so I put into it with all my clothes on and found that I was in a rather deep stream and had gotten above the ford and into deep water, then I began to step on some slick rocks on the bottom and fell down and got my old greasy satchel full of water. After some delay and floundering around I found the way to get out and left the Caddo River behind me.
Some time in the night I came to the house I had been told of, and finished the night.
How long it took the sulphur fumes to clear away from the house across the river, I never knew.
The next night I reached the cotton factory but found no job and two days later I was stopping on Rolling Fork River with a man I had once met in the army. I had my few coarse clothes and fifty cents in cash, which I soon invested in that popular old army game called "poker."
Imagine my condition if you can; many hundreds of miles from acquaintances of boyhood days and friends of long ago, among strangers, stranded, without a job, literally hopeless.
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