1847: George Washington Clarke to Hon. Chester Ashley

Hon. Chester Ashley

This letter was written by George Washington Clarke upon the death of Capt. William Armstrong, the U.S. Indian Agent on the Choctaw reservation at Skullyville [present day Oklahoma]. In it, we learn that Clarke seeks to fill the vacancy created by Armstrong’s death, by soliciting the favor of Chester Ashley (1791-1848), a prominent lawyer and politician in territorial and antebellum Arkansas.

George Washington Clarke was born in the District of Columbia in 1812. It is believed he came to Arkansas Territory in the late 1830s and, as he claimed in the following letter, assisted the Armstrong brothers with the removal of the Chocaw Indians to the reservation in Indian Territory. He is known to have been in the employee of Capt. William Armstrong in 1841. By July 1843, however, he had settled in Van Buren, Arkansas and become an associate editor of the Arkansas Intelligencer — the first newspaper in Arkansas to be published west of Little Rock. “It was established by Francis M. Van Horne and Thomas Sterne with the first copy being issued on January 22, 1842. In March of 1844 Clarke became the sole proprietor and editor of the paper. Previously, the Intelligencer had been politically neutral, but under Clarke’s control the newspaper advocated the Democratic party’s political philosophy. Thomas Sterne responded to this political change in his old paper by founding the Western Frontier Whig in May of 1844. A heated editorial war ensued between Clarke and Sterne’s partner and chief editor, John S. Logan.”

“In addition to their political differences, the two rival editors’ personalities were likewise at different poles. Clarke was described as being brilliant, impulsive, and forceful, whereas Logan was seen as calm, imperturbable, and self- possessed. The personality dissimilarity coupled with an intense political rivalry eventually culminated in an incident described by Judge Jesse Turner, which went beyond simple editorial bashing. Clarke initiated the conflict by referring to Logan as “Big Mush,” the name of a certain comical Indian chief. Logan responded by labeling Clarke with the equally devastating insult of “Toady.” The Rubicon had been crossed and honor could now only be satisfied with blood. A duel with rifles at sixty paces was decided upon. Two shots were exchanged on the “field of honor” near Fort Smith, but the smell of powder and bad marksmanship led to a rather sudden reconciliation.”

George W. Clarke lived in this frame house in Logtown in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

“The bitter editorial war was soon over as the Western Frontier Whig moved to Victoria, Texas sometime in 1845. Also, in April of 1845 Clarke left the Intelligencer for two years. He resumed ownership on March 21, 1847 and continued his editorial duties until 1853 when he received an appointment as Indian Agent for the Pottowatomie Indians in the Kansas Territory. Besides being an editor, Clarke was elected to the Arkansas State Senate in 1850. It was in the Senate that he first took an active interest in the affairs of the Indian Territories. [Source: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: Clarke-Harrell-Burson House]

Either Clarke’s qualifications for the Indian Agent position previously held by Capt. Armstrong were not as impressive as he claimed, or the favors he hoped to receive from politicians Ashley and Sevier were not forthcoming. The appointment went instead to Col. Samuel M. Rutherford (1797-1867) of Little Rock.

In Kansas Territory, while serving as Potawatomie Indian Agent, Clarke let his pro-slavery views be known. This led to a series of incidents and skirmishes in “Bleeding Kansas” that ultimately resulted in his being driven out of the territory in 1858.

Stampless Letter

TRANSCRIPTION
Addressed to Hon. C. Ashley, Little Rock, Arkansas

Van Buren [Arkansas]
June 20th 1847

Dear Sir,

The news of the death of Capt. [William] Armstrong is confirmed.¹ Of course there will be a great struggle for his place but as you have so often promised me to get me into the first vacancy that happened in the Indian Department, I have no misgivings about your exerting yourself for me. In this instance, Col. [Ambrose Hundley] Sevier has frequently proffered his services for me, for anything I might want, and of course he can have no excuse for not helping me in this matter.

You all know my fitness for the place. I have been engaged doing business among the Indians 12 years — six years of that time I have lived among the Choctaws and I lived as clerk in the office of Maj. [Francis Wells] Armstrong and afterwards of Capt. Armstrong over three years.

I am known to the Choctaw people and meet all the Chiefs and Captains as my abiding friends. Please let me hear from you.

Your friend, — Geo. W. Clarke

FOOTNOTES

¹ “Capt. William Armstrong was the son of James (“Trooper”) Armstrong and his wife, Susan Wells Armstrong. He was born about 1800, and is said to have participated in the Battle of New Orleans. President Jackson appointed Armstrong superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Western Territory, and he was important in the removal of the Choctaws and Chickasaws from Mississippi and Alabama to the Indian Territory. On July 2, 1832, William Armstrong was appointed Special Agent and Superintendent of the removal of the Choctaws from their homes east of the Mississippi River. On the same day his brother, Major Francis Wells Armstrong, received a like appointment for the removal of the Indians from the Mississippi River to their new home west of Arkansas”….Capt. William Armstrong “died at Doaksville in June, 1847” after a painful illness of two weeks. [Source: The Armstrongs of Indian Territory by Carolyn Thomas Foreman]

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