Young Men Making Their Way on the Border

Albert Pike

Albert Pike

How does a young man establish himself in a raw new border community?  In early 19th-century Arkansas, as in many other places, money and family connections were the key.  The men who had already risen to power by the time Thomas Stevenson Drew arrived in the territory in 1827 had come as the heirs of powerful political families, as brilliant lawyers or as ruthless land speculators, with the wealth to support their power.  They brought along equally ambitious cousins, married into each other’s families, and created a tight little group known as the Dynasty, which for a time controlled everything in Arkansas worth controlling.

Young men who arrived with nothing had to choose another way.  Many of them sought prestige by reckless displays of violence.  The New England clergyman Timothy Flint blamed the prevalence of violence on “the ambitious, fiery, and ungovernable spirits [who] emigrate to obtain consequence and make their fortune…[and] have not as yet had their place or their standing assigned them in public opinion.”  According to the English geologist George Featherstonehaugh (pronounced “Fanshaw”), “[a] common practice with these fellows was to fire at each other with a rifle across the street, and then dodge behind a door: every day groups were to be seen gathered around these wordy bullies, who were holding knives in their hands, and daring each other to strike, but cherishing the secret hope that the spectators would interfere.”

What about the less fearsome ones? Thomas Drew and Alfred Pike, almost exact contemporaries, both arrived in the territory with nothing but a halfway decent education.  Their early careers took very similar paths, although Pike’s six-foot-plus frame and talent for rhetoric may have given him the advantage over Drew, who was mild-mannered and unusually short.

If you had nothing but a little education, your first resource on the frontier was to set up a school, assuming you could find enough pupils.  Arriving virtually penniless at a small frontier town, after a couple of grueling years as a member of failed trading expeditions in New Mexico, Pike asked a citizen about the prospects for such a venture.  He was told that there would be “a right smart chance of scholars got,” since the previous teacher had taken “too much of the essence of corn,” gotten into a fight, lost, and skipped town.  Pike was advised to make up proposals for his school, and pass them out at the shooting match the next morning.  He got twenty students, receiving his pay half in cash, half in pigs.  By a stroke of luck he found lodging with a politically active resident, who introduced him to one of the territory’s most powerful politicians.  He ended up with a job on one of Little Rock’s two newspapers, began his career as journalist, poet, and lawyer, and eventually secured his role in the community by marrying rich.

Thomas Drew took a slightly more complicated path.  Like Pike, he started off by teaching school in a small settlement for about a year.  He then moved on to positions as Clerk of Court and Justice of the Peace, in both of which his unusually good spelling and handwriting would have come in handy.  Those two positions also gave him the opportunity to acquire a basic legal education, which would be useful in several of his future careers; law school was not necessary at the time, and men could be admitted to the bar after a remarkably brief apprenticeship.  At the same time, he contracted for several postal routes.  One of them may have taken him north along the Red River Road as far as Greenville, Missouri, where he finally made his fortune – by marrying rich.

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