Tom Dillard: Three notable politicians changed course of Arkansas history

Many of the most interesting politicians in early Arkansas are not well known today. Three of those men are Thomas W. Newton, Elias Boudinot and Robert H. Crockett. Much history of both Arkansas and the nation are represented by these men and their families.

Thomas Newton is a great symbol of the lopsided political composition of antebellum Arkansas. Elected as a Whig in 1847, Newton was the only non-Democrat to represent Arkansas in Congress prior to Reconstruction.

Thomas Willoughby Newton was born in Alexandria, Va., in 1804. His early years are not documented very well. He relocated to the new Arkansas Territory in 1820, eventually settling in Little Rock where he practiced law.

He was involved in setting up government, serving as secretary of the Territorial Council during most of the 1820s, and serving as an early Little Rock postmaster and clerk of the Pulaski County courts. Like many Little Rock residents, Newton was a Whig and a close associate of the state's leading Whig, Robert Crittenden.

It was Newton's defense of Crittenden which resulted in a duel in 1827. Newton challenged Ambrose Sevier, speaker of the Territorial House of Representatives and a leading member of the Democratic "family," whom he accused of disparaging Crittenden unfairly. The duel was stopped after one shot was fired with no one injured.

As was so common at that time, Newton's political career did not suffer from the duel. He was elected as a Whig to the state Senate in 1844. He resigned that seat in 1847 when he was elected in a multi-candidate campaign to fill the vacancy created when U.S. Representative Archibald Yell resigned for service in the Mexican War (where he was killed). It was a hollow victory because only one month was left in Yell's term.

Newton died in September 1853 and was buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock. Newton County is named in his honor.

Elias Cornelius Boudinot was born in 1835 in Georgia, the son of Cherokee leader Elias Boudinot and his white wife, Harriet Gold. The senior Boudinot, who had been educated in New England mission schools, founded the first Cherokee newspaper, the Phoenix. He also supported Cherokee relocation to what is today northeastern Oklahoma, earning him the wrath of the larger group opposed to the relocation treaty. In June 1839, three Cherokee anti-treaty partisans hacked the senior Boudinot to death.

His father's death left the 4-year-old Elias and his five siblings in need of protection, and they were moved to New England and raised by their mother's family. In 1853 the by-then-educated Elias moved to Fayetteville, where he read law.

Cultured, educated and affable, Elias quickly settled into Fayetteville. He was elected to the city council, and with a partner started the Arkansian, a newspaper which survived for several years, and among other innovations published the first newspaper political cartoons in Arkansas history.

Elias Boudinot, like many educated Cherokees, functioned in a world of ambiguity, coming to believe that resistance was futile, but at the same time he deeply mourned the conflict within the Cherokees. Ultimately, he came to lose hope and endorsed citizenship as the only way to access Constitutional protections for Indians.

At some point early in his career, Elias Boudinot decided to acculturate fully, including becoming a partisan Democrat. He became an enthusiastic member of "the family," the clique which, though by this time was being challenged, had controlled Arkansas for more than two decades. He was rewarded for his loyalty by being named editor of the True Democrat newspaper in Little Rock.

Elias Boudinot served the Confederacy during the Civil War. He helped Albert Pike negotiate a Confederate treaty with the Cherokees and helped his uncle, Stand Watie, enlist men in the Confederate army. He was an aide-de-camp in both major battles fought in Arkansas: Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. Later he was the Cherokee delegate to the Confederate Congress.

He continued his political activity after the war, including serving as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention. He practiced law, gave lectures and lobbied for railroads. Professor Thomas Colbert, author of the entry on Elias Boudinot in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History, noted that "he stayed controversially active in Cherokee politics." Colbert also reported that Elias' "letter to the Chicago Times in 1879 about unclaimed land in Indian Territory inspired the Boomer Movement."

Elias Boudinot died suddenly from dysentery in 1890. He is buried in Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith where he lived and practiced law. He married late and had no children.

The Crockett family of Arkansas County provided several political leaders to Arkansas history and needs a higher historical profile.

Robert H. Crockett was the grandson of Davy Crockett, and he brought the family to lands near the White River, an area apparently already known as Crockett's Bluff due to another relative settling there earlier, William Finley Crockett, a son of Davy Crockett.

John Hallum, author of the first book on Arkansas history, included a wonderful sketch of Bob Crockett as a youth growing up in New Orleans -- including the fact that he ran away from home and went to sea. Tiring of "skipping before the wind," Crockett returned home and promptly joined a rebel army trying to wrest control of Cuba. Things in Cuba did not go well, and young Bob Crockett "learned to crave and enjoy all the good there [are] in a hasty retreat ..."

Crockett moved to Arkansas in 1856, opening a law practice. Later he would move to DeWitt. He served with distinction in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, first as commander the Crockett Rifles then promoted to commander of the 17th Arkansas Regiment. Hallum thought "no braver knight than Bob Crockett ever wore a plume or drew a sword."

In 1884, Crockett was elected to the state Senate, where he served one term. He was promoted as a probable gubernatorial candidate in 1888, though he did not run.

At the time of Crockett's death in February 1902, the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic published a long and interesting obituary, including this physical description of the 70-year-old: "[Crockett] was well formed and of athletic build. His hair was thick and long, falling to his shoulders, and his beard of medium length, both were steel gray. His eyes were blue-gray and lighted up with brilliant animation a face still ruddy and little wrinkled ..."

Bob Crockett's son, John W. Crockett, served in the state House of Representatives, two terms as secretary of state, and several years on the state Railroad Commission.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at [email protected].

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