ARKANSAS POST NATIONAL MEMORIAL

Here we are at Arkansas Post National Memorial, enjoying the annual educational colonial encampment and historical programs offered by the park staff and guest interpreters. This was the site of the oldest permanent European settlement on the Mississippi River. It was established in 1686 by Henri de Tonti during a search for his missing boss, famous French explorer La Salle. Arkansas Post is older than New Orleans, older than Natchez, older than Memphis, older than St. Louis, older than Davenport or Minneapolis.

This spot was so important that the settlement was rebuilt five times after being periodically washed away by floodwaters between 1686 and the American Civil War 175 years later. The particular importance was that several major western river systems joined the Mississippi here or just upstream from here. The channels and tributaries of the Arkansas, White, St. Francis and Black Rivers represented the major trade and transportation routes of present day Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, southern Missouri, the southeast quarter of Colorado and even bites of northern Texas and New Mexico. In the days when river travel was the only way to move bulk cargo, something like a fourth of the eastward moving goods from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River had to pass Arkansas Post on its way to eastern markets.

French Trapper
Shading indicates combined drainage area of Arkansas, St. Francis, White and Black Rivers.

Arkansas Post was destroyed the final time during the Civil War as a rear-guard acttion of the Vicksburg campaign. The invention of the railroad killed off a lot of river towns, and this was one of them. Prior to that, however, this was one valuable piece of real estate. It was also right in the middle of a swamp that was a hundred and fifty miles wide and four hundred miles long. That's a lot of snakes and mosquitos and alligators and heat and discomfort and this was no place for whiners.


You don't hear a lot about the colonial period in Arkansas. Civil War reenactments and Mountain Man rendesvous are pretty regular, but there was stuff going on in Arkansas during the revolutionary period. In fact, the very last documented battle of the American Revolution on present-day U.S. territory occurred right here at the Post and included a small skirmish up river as the besiegers were chased off.

French Trapper
French trappers often wore a combination of European and Indian garments.

There was a Scottsman named Colbert who had been leading a band of assorted whites, Chickasaws and some ten or so of his mixed-heritage sons and nephews. He had been involved in the defense of Pensacola in 1781, and after losing there, he had moved up the Mississippi where he raided commerce and river towns in the name of the British Empire. He was always threatening and planning a siege of the Spanish (and therefore allied to the U.S.) Post.

One reason it took so long to put together a proper siege is that the principal parties couldn't gather enough white men in one place at one time way out here on the frontier to carry off an ambitious operation. Indian allies made great guerillas, scouts, partisans and raiders; but were impatient and technologically unprepared as infantry or siege troops. There was a lot of "hearts and minds" stuff going on with the native tribes, and the situation was always fluid, depending on which side had the most desirable trade goods at any given moment. A white commander could also lose the support of an entire tribe if they got the impression that he was being unfair or showed cowardice at any time. On top of the fact that no commander could be a hundred percent sure of his native allies, it was common for commanders to lie to their enemies as well as their superiors about the state of their forces, their capabilities and the immediate tactical situation.

There was a lot of crude disinformation and propagandizing going on, too. Before the outbreak of official hostilities, Colbert and members of his partisan band complained to Spanish authorities about the commandant of the Post, falsely claiming that he had stolen furs from traders and gouged them on prices for supplies. Apparently these accusations were intended to distract and harass the Spanish, who were covertly helping supply anti-British forces.

Even before formal declarations of hostilities between Britain and Spain, Arkansas Post had been used as a link in the supply chain between American rebels in the West and sympathetic Spaniards. American agents in New Orleans would sell to French and Spanish trappers who then moved the supplies upriver and sold the supplies ostensibly as private traders. Denying bases, even removing one or two from a thinly drawn line, makes such supply movement more difficult, more expensive, less regular and more vulnerable. It was Colbert's intention to knock this link out of the supply chain.

On April 16th, 1783 (222 years ago this month) Colbert made his move against the post, slipping past the Arkansas lookouts in the middle of the night, paddling with muffled oars. Boats were left on shore with a handful of guards. A force of roughly a hundred attacked the Post at about 2:30 a.m.

British and French Marines
The tricorner hat of this era was designed to accommodate the long musket barrel with bayonette affixed. A soldier at attention could hold his weapon with the butt at his feet and the barrel at his cheek without knocking his hat off. The cuff on the sleeve was a military invention of this period, too. It could be folded out to cover the hands in cold weather.

Even a casual student of history might have noticed that this battle occurred seven months after the Treaty of Paris was signed. Communications were slow in those days. The papers were signed in Europe, sent by boat to America, around Florida, across the Gulf to New Orleans then upstream by canoe to the remotest part of the remotest colony. These were about the last government-sanctioned forces to be notified of the end of the war, and they got the word very late.

Defending the Post were the new commander Jacobo Dubrueil, his lieutenant Luis de Villars, and a double handful of enlisted men.

Not only did the attackers achieved complete surprise, they also quickly discovered two serious flaws in the Post's defenses. First, the town had been built so close to the fort that an attacker could use the buildings as cover safely to approach within musket rage. Second, a quirk of the natural landscape created a hollow a few dozen feet from the palisade that could not be hit by canon fired from within the fort. In short, bad engineering had created a safe zone that allowed attackers to creep right up to the walls.

The de Villars family was sleeping in town that night and were captured in the first moments of the attack along with five soldiers a pretty big handful of civilians, many of whom later found themselves being used as hostages, pawns and human shields. The geurillas killed two soldiers (one of whom was scalped) and wounded one more.

Sergeant Pastor, also in town that night, managed to escape into the fort as did the families of trappers who were away.

From about 3:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. there was a noisy stand-off. They fired at each other like crazy for six hours. Over three hundred canon shots from within the fort failed to draw blood. Likewise a steady hailstorm of musketry from without did no damage within.

Ladies' Travel Habit
You can tell these clothes are intended for travel because the corset is on the outside. Once in the carriage it can be removed for comfortable travel. Before the lady reemerges from the carriage, she puts the corset back on.

Then both commanders simultaneously decided to take bold, yet incompatible action. Dubreuil couldn't wait around for Colbert to find a canon that could knock down his wall. While he still had powder and ball he had to try to break the siege. Unknown to Debrueil, Colbert had no canon to bring to bear. He quietly withdrew his force to just out of sight of the fort and sent his Lieutenant and Mrs. Villars to demand Dubrueil's surrender. At exactly that moment, Dubrueil sent a force of fourteen men charging out the gate to try to break the siege lines, which he did not realize had already been withdrawn.

So there's Colbert's second-in-command with Mrs. DeVillars walking up to the gate carrying a flag of truce and demanding the surrender of the fort when suddenly the gates burst open and out comes an assault force of Spanish soldiers. The guy panics. He metaphorically browns his britches, jams the surrender document into the hands of Mrs. Villars, and bolts for the woods, screaming alarms that the fort has been reinforced with new allies.

The panic spreads and Colbert's force beats a hasty retreat back to the canoes.

Ex-hostage Mrs. Villars tries to convey Colbert's demand for immediate surrender to Pastor, but he and his squad can hear the enemy fleeing and they want to chase them as far as possible and scare them as much as possible before they figure out there are just fourteen of them.

By this time a driving rainstorm has begun, further reducing Colbert's ability to communicate with and control his larger and more diverse force. Rallying them in these conditions is out of the question. They were paddling canoes all night, fighting all morning, running away from attackers in a rainstorm since noon. They also have the burden of dragging along with them all these hostages they took the night before. Colbert's unit loses its cohesiveness. It fragments and disperses.

The Spanish pursuers eventually managed to get close enough to kill one of Colbert's men and wound another. Angered by this, one of Colbert's sons tried to shoot the hostage Lieutenant Villars, but the rainstorm had soaked the powder in the pan. The pistol misfired. Colbert quickly abandoned all hostages and skedaddled, but not before leaving an empty threat with Villars about how many Royal Marines he's going to return with.

That covers most of the excitement of the Revolution in Arkansas. Visit Arkansas Post National Memorial along highway 165 between Dumas and DeWitt. Right next to the entrance is the Arkansas Post Museum, which is run by the Arkansas State Parks.

RTJ--4/1/2005


Sources

Arkansas Post National Monument colonial encampment programs, March 2005.

Caldwell, Norman, Tonty and the Beginnning of Arkansas Post, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 8. pp. 189-205.

Corbitt, Duvon Clough, Arkansas in the American Revolution, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 1, pp. 290-306.

Lewis, Anna, PhD., Documents: An Attack on the Arkansas Post, 1783, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol 2. pp. 261-267.


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