Peter Caulder (1795?–1861?)
Peter Caulder was born in Marion County, South Carolina, and was of African descent. The U.S. Army listed him as “a colored man.” In three U.S. censuses, he was categorized in race as “mulatto.” His life in Arkansas represents the success free blacks could achieve prior to their banishment by the state government.
At the beginning of the War of 1812, seventeen-year-old Peter joined a state militia unit for three months. He was discharged without seeing any action in the war. When the British burned Washington DC in August 1814, Peter Caulder and his father, Moses Caulder, joined the Third U.S. Rifles and marched with the regiment to defend the capital. Four other Marion County mulattoes, friends and relatives of the Caulders, enlisted at the same time and served integrated with the Southern whites recruited for this regular army unit.
When peace came, Caulder and his Marion County fellow soldiers were sent to Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania to enter training for the elite Rifle Regiment that would soon be posted to the western frontier. Caulder and his mates were under the command of Major William Bradford when the company received orders from General Thomas A. Smith to establish a fort on the upper Arkansas River.
Caulder and Martin Turner were selected for an advance party under Major Stephen H. Long, who was to determine a suitable site for the fort. Thus, in November 1817, Caulder clambered out of Long’s six-oared skiff at a flat rock called Belle Point by French trappers. Here, Long would lay out Fort Smith (Sebastian County), which was built over the next two years by Bradford’s sixty-five man company of riflemen—Caulder, Martin Turner, James Turner, Joseph Clark, and Caleb Cook among them, all men of African descent and veterans of the War of 1812 who were serving side by side with their fellow white soldiers.
Caulder served in the U.S. Army on the frontier for the next ten years, often on detached duty as he scouted the terrain, hunted for the fort, and pursued deserters.
By 1827, Caulder was ready for a personal transition from the life of a bachelor rifleman who spent much of his time in the saddle to that of a homesteader, husband, and father. Caulder married Eliza Hall, daughter of David Hall, a free black pioneer from North Carolina by way of Tennessee who had settled in 1819 along the left bank of the White River in what is present-day Marion County.
Peter and Eliza Caulder raised seven children while residing in harmony and self-sufficiency on a ridge above the White River that came to bear the Caulder name. Caulder’s ability to provide food, shelter, and security for his wife and children, his prized bear hounds, and his homestead gave him the satisfaction enjoyed by Southern yeoman who were fortunate enough to realize their dreams. For thirty-five years, he lived what could be termed the “good life” of that era.
Caulder signed his name with an X. Like many on the frontier, he was illiterate. Nevertheless, a document record of Caulder’s actions can be traced through antebellum Arkansas. Despite the color line barriers, such as a lack of opportunity for schooling and denial of army promotions, Caulder established a law-abiding, bill-paying, tax-paying, land-owning role for himself. He avoided scrapes with the law, which was just as well—he was a crack shot, rode well, tracked as an expert, stood taller than most, and had a strong constitution.
Caulder’s relationships with his neighbors along the White River, his long years of army service on the frontier, and his freedom to choose where he would live and how to earn his living revealed a remarkable degree of independence for a free African-American man in a slave society. However, his personal paradise and his extended family were shattered by an act of the Arkansas General Assembly in 1859. The slavocracy-dominated law makers in Little Rock (Pulaski County) passed an exclusion law designed to drive free black people from the state. Peter Caulder, Eliza, their oldest son, David, and his siblings—along with the other 129 free black people in Marion County—left the land that they had purchased and homes of thirty or more years, banished suddenly from the state that they had adopted and the only state that many of the last generations had known.
Peter Caulder’s historical record disappeared at the time of the exodus. His son David served with the Twelfth Missouri State Cavalry (USA), married, and settled in Bollinger County, Missouri. In September 2017, Caulder’s name was added to the War of 1812 Memorial Fountain on the lawn of the Arkansas State Capitol.
For additional information:
Field, Hunter. “Pioneer Expelled by State Honored.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 24, 2017, pp. 1B–2B.
Higgins, Billy D. “Peter Caulder, Ozark Homesteader.” Ozarks Watch, Series 2, Vol. 9 (Fall/Winter 2020): 20–27.
———. A Stranger and a Sojourner: Peter Caulder, Free Black Frontiersman in Antebellum Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2004.
Billy D. Higgins
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
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