The Arkansas Gazette ran information about the act that expelled “free persons of color”

from the state of Arkansas on March 5, 1859.

Among the most overlooked groups in Arkansas history have been free African Americans before the Civil War.

The 1835 territorial census in Arkansas counted 176 free black people, who were also called free persons of color. Historically, the term referred to people of African, and sometimes African and European, descent who were not enslaved. In the U.S., many were slaves who had been freed. Others were the descendants of freed slaves.

Free African Americans lived in nearly every county in Arkansas, except Union, Jackson, Pike, Greene and Conway counties. Izard County had the highest number of free African Americans with a total of 45 people on the census.

Life as a free person of color was restrictive. For example, in 1836, Little Rock passed an ordinance prohibiting African Americans, both free and enslaved, from carrying any kind of weapon within city limits. If an African American was found carrying a weapon, including gunpowder, then law enforcement was required to confiscate the weapons, and the person received 30 lashes. Housekeepers were allowed to possess firearms, if they had a city license.

However, free African Americans could sue and be sued, own property and travel around the state at will, as long as they had access to documents to prove their freedom. Free people also could rise to prominence.

Gad Bradley came to Arkansas in the 1830s and settled in Washington, Arkansas. He brought with him his wife, who had been an Army officer’s slave in Oklahoma, which was considered Indian Territory. Bradley had fallen in love with her and had been determined to buy her freedom. He worked hard and saved money until he had enough to purchase her. The couple married and left Oklahoma, settling in Washington, where Bradley worked as a gunsmith. Bradley bought land and built a house, where he raised his family for the next 20 years.

Others were born free. A case in point is Peter Caulder, who was born in South Carolina around 1797. His father, Moses, was a free man. In 1814, Caulder enlisted in the United States Third Regiment of Riflemen during the War of 1812. He accompanied Major Stephen H. Long to western Arkansas Territory in 1817 to establish a fort. Caulder became one of the first inhabitants of a new settlement, which was called Fort Smith.

Caulder later married Eliza Hall, the daughter of David Hall, a free man who lived in Marion County. The couple then set up a homestead in the county and began a family.

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