- A Stranger and a Sojourner: Peter Caulder, Free Black Frontiersman in Antebellum Arkansas
This book is definitely filled with intrigue. It won a Ragsdale Award for nonfiction about Arkansas history in 2005. If it were possible to interview its subject, Peter Caulder and his family, they would be shocked that the ordinary life of an army deserter would become the subject of a book, let alone an award-winning study. That this book was a cowinner of the Ragsdale Award is a credit to Billy D. Higgins, a specialist on African American history and culture. Higgins has skillfully taken an obscure subject, and broadened it beyond any reasonable expectation, to tell the story about race and frontier life in antebellum America.
Peter Caulder was born in Marion County, South Carolina, in 1795. His state was easily one of the most repressive racial communities in the country. But where it was a slave community for most Africans, it held out subtle possibilities for racially mixed people, whose white parents were willing to protect them. Such was the case of Peter Caulder, whose father, Moses, was mixed. The Caulders "lived comfortably in a mixed community that helped prepare" young Peter (1). When the War of 1812 began, Peter entered an integrated state militia and worked closely with whites without any apparent friction because of race. His service, however, was only partly voluntary. Peter entered the militia through the substitution system, serving in the place of Alexander Lane, a wealthy white neighbor. Lane furnished Caulder with a rifle and other supplies. His service would last for ninety days. Once his service in the militia ended, Caulder enrolled in the regular army, which provided for his sustenance and, upon an honorable discharge, a 160-acre land bounty.
Caulder's odyssey in the Rifle Regiment carried him to distant lands, far away from Marion, South Carolina—forever. His sojourns carried him to Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, his adopted home. He would also acquire skills that would serve him well on the western frontier, such as hewing timber and [End Page 71] manufacturing gunpowder. Frontier soldiers had to be self-reliant, and Caulder learned how to hunt for meat and grow crops for food. Every frontiersman needed these skills, and when Caulder left the army in 1824, he was prepared to exercise his independence for the first time since he was nineteen years old.
If Caulder believed that life would be easy upon his discharge from the army, he was soon in for a rude awakening. The army gave him a land bounty as it had promised. However, the land was barren and unfit for cultivation. He soon abandoned his bounty and headed farther west to visit David Hall, a fellow rifleman. Hall had the good fortune of acquiring fertile land and had actually heaved out a good life with his wife, Sarah, and several children. As good as it was to visit Hall, Caulder decided to return to the army and the life he had once enjoyed. He took the oath on October 3, 1824, enlisting for five years. For unknown reasons, Caulder deserted the army in May 1827, fewer than three years since his reenlistment.
Peter Caulder resurfaced in the Arkansas Territory, returning to the homestead of David Hall. Apparently, Peter had fallen in love with Eliza, Hall's fourteen-year-old daughter, whom he married in 1829. David was thirty-three. Caulder and his wife built a cabin on the White River in the Arkansas Territory, where federal law, in most cases, gave a squatter the first right of purchase when the land was surveyed for sale. Although initially isolated from the day-to-day racial animosity that civilian and enslaved blacks experienced and secluded from whites while he was living on the frontier, the fate of Peter Caulder changed in the 1830s. Arkansas could not escape the slave revolts in the South or the race riots in the North. William Woodruff, the editor of the Arkansas...