Travels with the Gypsies

The Roma people, more commonly known as Gypsies, make up a particularly obscure ethnic group in Arkansas. I was surprised recently to come across an article in the Fort Smith Historical Journal from April 1983 in which local historian Sarah Fitzjarrald told the story of how Fort Smith took on a special significance to Gypsies across North America by serving as a centralized "post office" for those traveling people.

William H. and Marie L. Cole came to Fort Smith in the summer of 1891 because in May of that year the couple successfully applied to become licensed pharmacists. The couple later told a friend that they were newlyweds on their way to Fort Smith when, as Fitzjarrald tells the story, "they came upon a large group of people near a river ... who were shouting frantically. Stopping to investigate, they discovered that a young girl had fallen into the water and was drowning. That was the instance in which Mr. Cole rescued a young girl and it so happened that the people around the river were Gypsies."

Fitzjarrald concluded, "From that moment the Gypsies were friends of the Coles."

A competing story contends that William Cole had traveled briefly with Gypsies as a young man, though it seems he was not a Gypsy. Maintaining a certain distance from Gypsies was a good idea in the late 19th century, for they already had a bad reputation.

Scholars trace the origin of the Gypsies to northern India, based on linguistic studies. During the Middle Ages the Gypsies spread, with large numbers in southern and eastern Europe. It is believed that some English Gypsies were sent to the American colonies as indentured servants. Many more arrived in America during the great migration of the late 1800s.

Gypsies differed vastly from country to country, but most of them--at least until recent times--tended to be migratory in making a living. The Ludar, also called Romanian Gypsies, were known as showmen, often in traveling groups. Scottish Gypsies who immigrated to the Americas often made their livings as traveling tinkers, menders of everyday housewares and utensils. Many Gypsy immigrants from England became horse and mule traders.

In Arkansas and much of the nation, Gypsies were unwelcome visitors. They were accused of everything from horse-stealing to kidnapping children. Charges were filed in 1885 against a group of "Gypsies pretending to be horse traders" who were caught counterfeiting money in the Cherokee Nation near Fort Smith. A Gypsy mule thief in Desha County in March 1886 jumped into the Mississippi River to escape the authorities. In 1890, Gypsies were blamed for the theft of two horses from the State Blind Institute in Little Rock.

Not all Arkansans remembered the Gypsies negatively. Lloyd McConnell, who grew up in rural Washington County in the late 1800s, recalled that "it was not uncommon to see a band of Gypsies traveling through rural Arkansas." He described the travelers as "a colorful clan, dressed in silks, beads, head wraps and ornaments. There were always children--dark skinned, barefooted, with black eyes."

McConnell recalled that "country folks gathered around the [Gypsy] camp in the evening to watch the colorful figures, to see the picture machine [for projecting lantern slides], and to watch the dancing bear, almost always part of a Gypsy show."

McConnell also reminded readers that a cemetery near Evansville in western Washington County contains the graves of four Gypsies whose camp was destroyed in a flash flood about 1890.

Meantime, back in Fort Smith, the Coles' pharmacy, located prominently on Garrison Avenue, prospered. More and more Gypsies stopped by the store, usually in the evenings when a red lantern discreetly announced that the informal post office was open, to leave letters and parcels for later pickup or forwarding to family or friends. Mrs. Cole came to be known as "the Gypsy postmistress," according to a feature in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In 1923 Mrs. Cole became the administrator of the estate of "Gypsy King" Yanko Urich, who is buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Fort Smith, his grave marked with a large granite cross. When Mrs. Cole died in 1935, she was remembered as having "made Fort Smith the capital of the Gypsy world."

John C. Freshour, author of the entry titled "Romani aka Gypsy" in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, has noted that no estimates exist for the number of Gypsies in Arkansas. However, Freshour wrote that "communities of Romanichals [Gypsies of the British Isles] can still be found in Arkansas, especially in the north-central and northwestern parts of the state."

Modern Gypsies in Arkansas, like elsewhere in America, tend to own homes, and some have regular jobs. Many still follow what Freshour calls "seasonal migration patterns, following seasonal fruit crops and selling used vehicles throughout the Southeast but returning to Arkansas in the winter."

This seasonal migration seems to be common among the Gypsies living in Jefferson County around White Hall. According to a fascinating article published in 1987 by Donald Williams in the Arkansas Times, "several hundred people ... live in clumps of mobile homes and, sometimes, nice brick houses along Highway 365 from the northwestern outskirts of Pine Bluff to the town of Jefferson." Many of the residents consulted in 1987 rejected the name Gypsy, preferring "English Travelers," a common term for Gypsies from the Romanichal, or British, tradition.

English Travelers made up a large portion of the Dollarway Assembly of God Church as well as the Dollarway Baptist Church in 1987, an indication of the growing community involvement by modern Arkansas Gypsies.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living at Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

Editorial on 03/11/2018