Earlier this year the Arkansas Historical Quarterly published a fascinating article on one of the most remarkable women in antebellum Arkansas, Amanda Beardsley Trulock of Jefferson County.
Written by historian Brooke Greenberg of Little Rock, this comprehensive account tells the story of a Connecticut-born woman who arrived in Arkansas from Georgia with her Southern-born husband, James Hines Trulock, four children, and 40 slaves in 1845, and set about building a cotton plantation. Remarkably, Mrs. Trulock remained on the 555-acre plantation when her husband died in 1849, and with the substantial aid of a skilled slave named Reuben Blackwell transformed the indebted farm into a highly profitable enterprise.
Fortunately for history, Amanda Trulock was an avid letter writer, and her family back in Bridgeport, Conn., preserved her correspondence. In 1948, Amanda Trulock's granddaughter Clara Davis Hatheway discovered the trove of letters in a trunk, and they were shared with cousins in Pine Bluff. The Trulock family donated additional family papers to the University of Arkansas in 2012.
It should not surprise us that Amanda's family in Bridgeport pleaded with the new widow to return to New England. Even before James Trulock died, Amanda's father urged his son-in-law to remove his family from "the sickley [sic] southern climate surrounded by a dense forest and every other abominable I dare not say what ..." Indeed, the family did suffer grievously, with an infant daughter dying on the steamboat before reaching Arkansas.
Amanda refused to leave the farm, though she promised to send her children to Connecticut for schooling, as her late husband had planned. Among the reasons she gave for staying in Arkansas was the responsibility of caring for the slaves in her care, sometimes referring to them as "our black family." On an earlier occasion, Amanda wrote, "... you must recollect that it is no small thing to have 40 souls intrusted [sic] in our charge ..." As we shall see later, Amanda's opinions on race changed when almost all the slaves left the plantation during the Civil War.
Without a doubt, Amanda's success as a cotton planter was due in large measure to her enslaved overseer, Reuben. Though he did not carry the title of overseer, Reuben had performed those duties even before the death of James Trulock. Only a few months before her husband died, Amanda wrote of Reuben's importance to the farm: "... it sometimes appears to me that we could not be able to carry on a farm without him and in fine I thinks [sic] that he does better than most any white man that Mr. T. could hire ..."
Reuben was a hard taskmaster, sometimes administering punishment to poorly performing workers. But he was proud of his accomplishments, informing a Freedmen's Bureau official during the Civil War that he had "paid off $20,000 of debts of the estate, besides supporting the family." Brooke Greenberg believes that the widow deserved some of the credit also: "Amanda handled money more shrewdly than her husband had, while Reuben may have been a better farmer than his master."
Family correspondence documents Reuben's success. By early 1851, the Trulock plantation had sent 145 bales of cotton to New Orleans, garnering $7,540. The 1852 crop amounted to 258 bales, allowing Amanda to pay off remaining debts and send $4,286 to her father for investment.
Amanda, apparently in conjunction with Reuben, took part of the profits and built a steam-powered cotton gin on the plantation. Acknowledging that a horse-powered gin would be cheaper, "we are a going to have it go by Steam ... we think it will be cheapest in the end."
Reuben was prone to worrying about challenges facing the farm, a tendency which Amanda acknowledged more than once. Reuben always tried to get crops planted before neighboring farmers. One neighbor, Peyton Atkins, complained that Reuben pushed the slaves too hard--which Reuben commented on by saying that Atkins "told before a dozen people what time I blowed my horn in the morning and said that I was gaining two days in every week."
As Christmas 1853 neared Amanda wrote: "Reuben said last night that he is a going to try to take things easy next year." She was skeptical, however: "I suppose he will as long as everything goes right on the place." The most trying time with him is the spring of the year, particularly if he is not ahead of his neighbours [sic]."
Reuben also worried that Amanda might sell the plantation along with its enslaved workforce. In February 1857, Reuben told Amanda of his concerns--especially since a rumor was afoot that an offer of $100,000 soon would be made for the place. Reuben's fears were readily apparent as he had tears in his eyes, and he "said that he could not help letting it trouble him, and at times he felt a shrinking in his flesh." He concluded pointedly: "Although he did not think that Mistress would ever sell him, if she did that would be one time he would be deceived."
Amanda Trulock never sold Reuben or Prairie Place, as she named the plantation, but the advent of the Civil War brought freedom to the slaves. Pine Bluff was occupied by federal troops in September 1863, which made it possible for slaves to leave at will. Confederate raiders also carried off several slaves as well as horses and mules.
Reuben's departure hurt Amanda deeply, as is clear from her references to his status in at least two letters. In one letter, she noted that Reuben was working "cutting boat wood like any other Nigger." She had never used that derogatory term previously.
Amanda left the plantation and moved to Connecticut in 1866, living there until she died in 1891. Reuben, a widower, remarried before 1870 when the U.S. Census documents that he was living in Union County. One of his children was named Amanda.
For further reading, see Brooke Greenberg, "'Ties that I have to bind me here': Amanda Beardsley Trulock in the Arkansas Delta, 1845--1866," Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2018.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].
Editorial on 10/21/2018