One of the joys of historical research is stumbling upon a previously unknown source. The thrill of discovery is even greater when the source is interestingly written.
Recently I discovered a memoir of a young Methodist circuit rider in frontier Arkansas, and it has been a wonderful experience to read the words of an eyewitness to the rough and tumble Ouachita Mountain region in 1844.
William Graham was born in 1821 to a poor, pious family near York, Pa. His schooling was spotty, but he was better educated than most Americans of his day. Methodism, a rapidly growing denomination and the religion of Graham's brother James, appealed to Graham, and he regularly attended Beaver Street Methodist Church in York. He experienced a religious conversion in 1841, and soon became a leader in his local congregation.
In 1844, Graham was ordained as an itinerant Methodist preacher. Wasting no time, he set out for Arkansas, where he was assigned to what his biographer called "an especially arduous circuit south of Fort Smith in the Ouachita Mountains ..." While he only stayed one year in Arkansas, he provided many keen observations on the area.
Methodists have a long history of traveling ministers. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, traveled thousands of miles throughout his native England, Ireland, and the American colonies. The founding bishop of American Methodism, Rev. Francis Asbury, preached 16,000 sermons as he traveled 270,000 miles around the new country.
On his way to Fort Smith, Graham found lodging with a family near Mount Magazine: "It was rather late when I got there and I had a solid supper of milk, corn-dodger and boiled bear meat. It was the first bear meat I had eaten, and I relished the lean part, but the fat, which the hunters prefer, I never liked."
Graham's circuit extended southward from Fort Smith to the Fourche la Fave River in modern Scott and Yell counties. With few churches, he preached before small groups in private homes in settlements such as James Fork and Vache Grasse. He estimated the entire round trip through his district was 200 miles, which he completed every three weeks.
A 200-mile circuit was not unusual for Methodist circuit riders, though in the early years some preachers were assigned to longer circuits. In 1829, Rev. Jerome C. Berryman was appointed to the 600-mile Hot Spring and Mound Prairie Circuit, which took six weeks to complete.
Graham was not keen on this "extreme frontier," as he called it. He timed his calendar to be in the fledgling frontier town of Fort Smith on alternate Saturdays "to get my mail, and find out what was going on in the world."
Most of his time, however, was spent on the road--usually on horseback. "I had to ride every day going from one appointment to another, no matter what kind of weather I had to make my trip each day."
The travel was made uncomfortable by flora and fauna. "Reptiles and serpents of all sorts and sizes" threatened the young preacher; "... the greatest annoyance of the time was the insects," and the worst of the insects were the ticks.
"One becomes absolutely raw in the summer months, and there seems to be no remedy," Graham concluded. Even the "shrieking parakeets [passenger pigeons]," which were doomed to extinction in only a few years, irritated the youth preacher.
Graham's opinion of the local settlers was only slightly higher than his estimation of the wildlife of the Ouachitas. "The people are generally wanting in enterprise, industry, thrift, and industry," Graham said, repeating "industry" twice. The mild climate allowed the settlers to live with "no need for much exertion or hard work, everything seems to come easy." This would not be the last time a northern visitor would misinterpret the poverty that gripped most Arkansas families.
Portraying the pioneer's simple lifestyle, Graham wrote that "the women used the universal Dutch oven with a lid for cooking; in them they baked their pone corn dodger, or biscuit, fryed their meat, and roasted their yams, or sweet potatoes." With his strong work ethic, Graham was appalled that the settlers had cattle but did not have milk or butter.
Parson Graham might not have been happy with the industry of his parishioners, but he had to admit that the settlers turned out for religious services. "The people were orderly and respectful, and never complained of long service. They were really a clever pleasant people to be among," Graham concluded.
He had few converts, and left Arkansas to teach Choctaw children in Indian Territory. He later returned to Indiana where he had a long and fruitful career as a Methodist minister. At some point, Graham wrote his memoirs, though they were not published until 1998.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published April 19, 2009.