Aaron Anderson “Rock” Van Winkle (1829–1904)
African American frontiersman Aaron Anderson “Rock” Van Winkle was recognized throughout northwestern Arkansas as a skilled lumberman, builder, farmer, businessman, and principal agent of Peter Van Winkle, owner of the preeminent sawmill business of the region that supplied lumber throughout the Ozarks for over forty years in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His life spanned seventy-five years during times of turbulence and change in the nation and in Arkansas—from slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the unprecedented industrial and technological development that was the Gilded Age.
Aaron Anderson was born enslaved in Alabama in 1829 and brought as a child to Arkansas by slave-holding farmer Hugh Anderson, on whose Benton County farm he came of age. After Hugh Anderson’s death in 1848, Aaron became the property of Peter Van Winkle of Van Winkle’s Mill enterprise. It was at this point that he became known as Aaron Van Winkle.
Central to Peter Van Winkle’s rise to prominence, Aaron Van Winkle helped manage thousands of acres of Van Winkle timberland and oversaw operation of the first steam-powered sawmill in Arkansas. Referred to as an engineer, he was named foreman of mill operations. As such, he conducted business with white elites as he traveled the Ozark region delivering lumber. His status among influential white businessmen afforded him advantages unusual for an enslaved man, which led to opportunities for entrepreneurship and land ownership after emancipation.
Peter Van Winkle, a Confederate sympathizer, provided the lumber and the enslaved workforce that built Camp Benjamin near Cross Hollow (Benton County). Aaron Van Winkle would likely have been involved in that project. During the war, Van Winkle and the other enslaved people were moved with the Van Winkle family to Texas but returned to Benton County by 1866 to rebuild the mill and surrounding community, which had been destroyed during the war. Van Winkle, by then a freedman and paid employee, was instrumental in the rebuilding process.
In 1867, Aaron Van Winkle married formerly enslaved woman Jane Rich. The couple raised a family of ten children in a home Van Winkle built in Van Winkle Hollow. By 1880, he had purchased property in Washington County but continued to be a key employee in the Van Winkle enterprise until 1884. His plans to establish residency on the new homestead never materialized due to the unexpected death of his employer in 1882. He stayed at the mill to facilitate the transition of power to the new mill owner. His value to the organization is reflected in the fact that he was paid higher than some white male employees of the mill, allowing his family to live a middle-class lifestyle. In 1884, when the transition of mill ownership was finalized, the family moved to an eighty-acre farm he had acquired in Osage Township. After selling that farm and moving to Bentonville (Benton County), he continued to prosper through various independent enterprises.
Aaron Van Winkle’s life was in many ways exceptional before and after emancipation. Unlike most Black people of his time, he traveled freely, conducted business with white leaders, played a central role in a major commercial enterprise, bought and sold property, and saw his children educated.
After a lingering illness, Aaron Van Winkle died on May 9, 1904, and three days later was eulogized by a white businessman before a large crowd of mourners at his funeral at the Methodist Episcopal church in Bentonville. He is buried at the Bentonville Cemetery.
For additional information:
Brandon, Jamie C., and James M. Davidson. “The Landscape of Van Winkle’s Mill: Identity, Myth, and Modernity in the Ozark Upland South.” Historical Archaeology 39 (September 2005): 113–131.
Hale, James. “Van Winkle Family Had Another Successful Side: Those Enslaved and Those Freed.” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 31, 2022. https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/mar/31/james-hales-van-winkle-family-had-another/ (accessed November 4, 2022).
Huggard, Christopher, and Jerry Moore. “Rock Van Winkle: Black Builder of Northwest Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 80 (Spring 2021): 1–37.
Jones, Kelly Houston. A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021.
Fayetteville / Washington County Community Remembrance Project
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