Alfred Butler: Sojourn in Arkansas
By Steven R. Butler, Ph.D.
Shortly after returning to Alabama from the Mexican War, Levin Butler either resumed or began a courtship with a young woman named Celia I. Sanders, the twenty-year old daughter of William and Nancy Sanders. On Monday, September 6, 1847 the young couple were married in Greene County by Justice-of-the-Peace W. Coleman. At some point not long afterwards, the newlyweds migrated north to Tennessee where they settled in Giles County, located on the Tennessee-Alabama state line. There, in 1849, their first child was born - a daughter named Mary. Another girl, Zetilla, arrived three years later, in 1852.
Around this same time, Alfred Butler also left Alabama. But he did not follow his supposed younger brother to Tennessee. Instead, he traveled west, no doubt on horseback, his destination being the rich Mississippi River valley land of southern Arkansas. It may be that he had been influenced by a letter from someone living there, a letter not unlike the one William A. King, a resident of Union County, Arkansas, wrote to his brother in Alabama, telling him, "...the longer I stay here the more I become acquainted with the country (and) the more my goodwill or love for it increases." King added that the area where he settled, namely Union County, "...appears to be the greatest vine country in the world," with grapes "as large when ripe as the English grape." Further, he claimed that if the timber was cleared from a piece of land, "...it will be covered with the finest strawberries you ever saw." King also boasted about fishing in the nearby Oauchita River where, he said, he caught a fish two and a half feet long, bragging, "When a man fishes for cat I am told he can soon catch two hundred pounds."
Union County, Arkansas is situated on the Louisiana-Arkansas state line, roughly three-hundred miles northwest of Greene County, Alabama. It lies across the meeting edge of two geographical regions: The Mississippi Valley Alluvial Plain and the Gulf Slope or Pine Belt. An area of relatively flat land (in contrast to the mountainous upper two-thirds of the state), the county in the late 1840's was still part of a sparsely settled wilderness with woods full of wild game, including bears, wildcats and "deer thicker than domestic cattle in the bottoms."
It may be that Alfred Butler's decision to settle in Union County, Arkansas was influenced by a former Greene County, Alabama resident named Mathew F. Rainey. Of Irish descent, Rainey was born on March 3rd, 1800 in Henry County, Virginia. As a young man, he came to Alabama, settling in Greene County. In 1826 and 1827 he served as the county's representative to the Alabama state legislature. Later, Rainey was elected sheriff of Greene County.
The Raineys appear to have been among Greene County's prosperous as well as prominent citizens. The 1840 U.S. Census shows Mathew F. Rainey owned 23 slaves at a time when the average southern yeoman farmer had no slaves at all.
The Rainey family, removed to Union County, Arkansas sometime between 1840 and 1843, by way of New Orleans. Whether they meant to stop in southern Arkansas, or not, is in question. One story says Rainey was just passing through Union County when his wagon, laden with goods he'd brought up from New Orleans, broke down and that he was persuaded by farmers in the area to sell some things to them. Convinced a general store would do good business there, Rainey set one up and that was the beginnings of the town of El Dorado. But another source says Rainey, by 1843, had already staked off and secured, by right of pre-emption, 160 acres of Union County land chosen for the site of a new county seat by a group of county commissioners. Indeed, on file in the Union County courthouse is a deed signed by Rainey transferring title to the "South West quarter of Section 28, Township 17S, Range 15W" to the "Commissioners elected and appointed to locate the Court House." In return for giving up his claim to the site, located about twelve miles west of the Ouachita River and said to be the highest point in the county, Rainey received four acres outside the town limits, presumably along with other considerations.
Regardless, not long afterward, and before the courthouse was built, Rainey did set up a business, selling a portion the goods he'd brought from New Orleans to the area's settlers. One of the county's early residents later recalled Rainey's store: "There was but one building and that a very small pine pole cabin with a dirt floor. The inmate was a grocery keeper. He had a barrel in his pen and a piece of old broken gourd which was used for drinking water and whiskey." This, so it is said, was the beginning of the town of El Dorado, the county seat of Union County.
The Raineys seem to have became as prominent in Union County, Arkansas as they had been in their old home in Alabama. Not only was Mathew F. Rainey credited with being the founder of El Dorado but one of his sons, Theodore Rainey, served on the town's first city council. Another son, Christopher Columbus Rainey, was El Dorado's first postmaster.
Because of his family's prominence in both Greene County, Alabama and in Union County, Arkansas, as well as his obvious entrepreneurial bent, it seems reasonable to assume Mathew F. Rainey may have written letters to Greene County residents, or perhaps returned there, for the purpose of persuading people to join him and his family in Arkansas. It may be that Alfred Butler was among those convinced by Rainey to leave Alabama and settle in Arkansas.
The nature of their relationship is unknown, but there's little doubt Alfred Butler and Mathew F. Rainey were at least acquainted with one another. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Union County, Arkansas, both men are listed on the same page. Thus, they were probably neighbors. In addition, Rainey, in his capacity as a Justice of the Peace, signed and witnessed three of the four deeds on file in the Union County courthouse to which Alfred Butler was a party.
So, did Mathew F. Rainey influence Alfred Butler to leave Alabama and come settle in El Dorado, Arkansas? The answer is that, based on the evidence available, it appears he may have.
Although some four or five years had passed since its founding, the town of El Dorado was still a raw frontier settlement when Alfred Butler arrived there in the late 1840's, a much smaller place than it is today. The only substantial buildings of note were the brand new brick courthouse (built to replace an earlier log structure), John McLemon's hotel near the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue, some stores and offices, and a few houses.
In Arkansas, the young Mexican War veteran soon found the girl he would marry. Her name was Mary Frances Stanley. She was sixteen years old and like Alfred, born in North Carolina (or possibly, Virginia). The second eldest daughter of a restless pioneer named Thomas Stanley, Mary had spent her life moving from one state to another. Starting in either Virginia or North Carolina, the Stanleys had lived in Tennessee, Mississippi, and finally Arkansas, where they arrived about 1844. Mr. Stanley, Mary's father, was also a North Carolinian. His wife, Elizabeth Rose Stanley, was a Virginian. Their many children, Mary's brothers and sisters, had been born in the various places the family had temporarily settled during their slow journey westward.
How Alfred and Mary met is unknown but it's possible Alfred was hired by Mr. Stanley, a building contractor, to do some carpentry work for him. Perhaps the older man took a liking to him and brought him home for dinner and to meet his family. Regardless, on Tuesday, May 22nd, 1849, in her parents' home in El Dorado, Union County, Arkansas, Mary Francis Stanley became Mrs. Alfred Butler. The Reverend William S. Lacy, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of El Dorado, of which Thomas Stanley was an elder, officiated.
Probably, like most of their neighbors, the Stanleys lived in a log house and into it, on that long ago spring day, were no doubt crowded a large number of wedding guests. Perhaps Alfred's best man was Thomas Williams, with whom he'd served in Mexico, and who had also come to live in Arkansas. Among the Stanley's relatives present was surely Mary's red-haired older sister Lucy Ann. Her husband, Madison Owen, had also been in Mexico during the war, probably as a civilian teamster. With their recent war-time experiences in common, as well as the fact they'd married into the same family, it's not hard to imagine the groom and his new brother-in-law "taking a horn" of celebratory whiskey and swapping stories.
Doubtless, Lucy and Madison would have brought with them their two young daughters: Jane, then about two years old; and baby Virginia Alice, born just that very spring. What would the parents have thought if they could have known that nearly thirty years later, Virginia would marry a son of Alfred and Mary, as yet unborn?
Following their marriage, Alfred and Mary probably lived with her parents, at least until Christmas time when Alfred bought a small parcel of land from John Newton and his wife Penelope for $65. The property adjoined that of the Reverend Lacy and a neighbor, one M. Callicoate. The deed of sale, dated December 20th, 1849, was witnessed by Justice of the Peace Mathew F. Rainey.
There, probably in a log cabin on their newly-acquired land, Mary Butler, who had become pregnant almost immediately following the wedding, gave birth to her first child on Friday, February 22nd, 1850. It was a girl. They named her Mary but called her "Mollie" to distinguish the child from her mother.
In that same year the federal census was taken, including an enumeration of all the slaves and slave-owners in the United States. Both Alfred Butler and his father-in-law, Thomas Stanley, were listed among the latter in Union County, Arkansas, as was the Reverend Lacy. In nearby Dallas County, Alfred's brother-in-law Madison Owen was counted among the slave-holders in that place. None of these men owned large numbers of slaves. Both Alfred and his father-in-law had but three each. Madison Owen kept five. This was not unusual in that time and place. Contrary to modern popular belief, most Southerners had no slaves at all, and of those who did, only a few owned the large number necessary to run a vast plantation. Alfred Butler and his kinsmen were of that largest body of Southerners known as "yeoman farmers." Neither very poor or very rich, they survived by subsistence farming, that is by growing the food their families needed, plus perhaps a few acres of some cash crop - usually cotton or tobacco, which could be sold to pay for the few manufactured items they could not make for themselves.
In 1850, Alfred Butler's slaves included a twenty year old black woman, a black boy nine years of age, and a mulatto male infant born in January of that year.
In the 1850 federal census, Alfred Butler's occupation is identified as carpenter, the same as noted on his Mexican War discharge certificate. No doubt this was his principal means of making a living. Any farming he did was probably only to provide food for his family. A carpenter in a pioneer community such as El Dorado in the early 1850's was usually not a specialist, building only houses or furniture. Rather, he was someone who could, and did, construct almost anything from wood that another person was willing to pay for, be it a table, a cotton gin, a coffin, a hen-house, or a log cabin.
Mary Butler was probably typical of pioneer women of her day. No doubt she cooked her family's meals over an open fire, washed their clothes in a big iron kettle or nearby creek, and made that same clothing herself from cloth purchased by the yard, perhaps, at Rainey's general store in El Dorado.
To put meat on the table, Alfred Butler may have gone into the nearby woods to hunt for game - like deer, squirrel, possum or rabbit. Perhaps he used the same musket or rifle he'd carried in the War with Mexico. He also kept a few hogs, to be slaughtered for their pork, as well as some cows. Whether they were dairy or beef cattle is unknown.
Mary surely made all her own soap and candles. Perhaps at night, by the flickering light of one of those tapers, she may have taught her husband how to write his name, a skill he acquired sometime between 1847 and 1855.
Less than a year after he'd bought his land from John Newton for $65, Alfred was able to sell it to a fellow named James W. Adams for $400! No doubt this incredible increase in land value is attributable to the growth the town of El Dorado must have experienced during that period. The deed to Adams was dated November 6th, 1850.
Where the Butler family lived for the next two months is unknown. Perhaps Adams allowed them to stay on for a while, or maybe they moved back to live with Mary's parents. At any rate, on January 2nd, 1851, the Butlers purchased, for $300, a thirty-acre parcel in Union County from Thomas P. Whitt and his wife, Elizabeth. Curiously, the county deed records reveal it was not Alfred but Mary to whom the land was deeded. Why this was done is unknown. Married women rarely bought property in their own name during the nineteenth century. One possible explanation is that perhaps Alfred had gone to California to try his luck in the Gold Rush there. Many men did so during that time, only to return home, disillusioned, after they realized they weren't going to strike it rich after all. However, there's no evidence to support this supposition.
The 1851 Union County tax records reveal that for the purpose of taxation, the Butler farm was valued at $150 and that Alfred Butler now only owned one slave over the age of five, valued at $400. Other taxable property included one horse over two years old, worth $60, and three cows worth $30 together. The total tax bill? $1.28 due to the State of Arkansas and $1.30 to Union County.
By the spring of 1852, for reasons unknown, the Butlers had decided to move again. Only this time, they were going further, to Texas! But first, they had to sell their property. In October of 1851, Alfred had borrowed the sum of $610 from a man named A.L. Wetherington. Two friends, John M. Brown and J.C. Hightower, had co-signed the note. In exchange for Brown's assuming the debt, Alfred and Mary deeded over to him not only their thirty acres of land but "one negro woman named Dophen aged about forty years yellow complexion, two horses, one a brown poney, the other a sorrel, two cows and yearlings, one of the cows a brindle the other red and white pied, Also twelve stock hogs, and one three horse wagon." The negro woman, by her description, was obviously not one of the three he had owned two years earlier. How he came to be rid of them and to acquire "Dophen" is unknown.
Westward expansion played a significant role in nineteenth century American history. Over the course of decades, millions of intrepid men, women and children made their way across the continent by wagon, horseback, or even by foot - all in search of their dreams and the hope of a better life in a new land just over the horizon. That Alfred and Mary Butler were part of this great migration is hardly surprising and that they chose Texas as their destination seems appropriate. After all, as a soldier in the Mexican War, Alfred had helped secure its place in the Union. Not only that, but Texas was a new state then, and the largest, with plenty of cheap land and room for lots of settlers like the Butler family.
It appears the Butler family made the approximately 300 mile journey to Texas from Arkansas during June 1852 and it's likely they traveled in an emigrant wagon train which included friends and relatives from Union and neighboring counties. This assumption is based on a comparison of federal census records revealing that many of the same families living in southern Arkansas in 1850 had taken up residence in the same part of Texas by 1860. Certainly, it's unlikely they all left at the same time but because of ties of family and friendship and also the fact that there is safety in numbers, it's probable that at least some of them traveled together.
Who might have made up the party? Certainly, lacking any kind of evidence, it's hard to say but in addition to the Butlers, families who left southern Arkansas for Texas sometime during the 1850's include the Stanleys (Mary Butler's parents and siblings, the Braggs, the Cloughs, the Raineys, as well as the families of William Blythe, William H. Smith, Alexander Sloan, L.C. Thomas, John C. Miller, M. A. King, James M. Tate, John Davis, John W. Park, John Green, James Howard, Alex P. Black, Thomas W. Williams, Augustin Owen, and James Hodge, to list but a few.
Frederick Law Olmsted, a writer who visited Texas during the early 1850's, and may have crossed the southern part of the county in which the Butlers settled, came across wagon trains in East Texas, probably not unlike the ones with which the Butlers traveled. In his book, published in 1857, he described them:
We overtook, several times in the course of each day, the slow emigrant trains, for which this road, though less frequented than years ago, is still a chief thoroughfare. Inexorable destiny it seems that drags or drives on, always Westward, these toil-worn people. Several families were frequently moving together, coming from the same district, or chance met and joined, for company on the long road from Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas. Before you come upon them you hear, ringing through the woods, the fierce cries and blows with which they urge on their jaded cattle. Then the stragglers appear, lean dogs or fainting negroes, ragged and spiritless. An old granny, hauling on, by the hand, a weak boy - too old to ride and too young to keep up. An old man, heavily loaded, with a rifle. Then the white covers of the wagons, jerking up and down as they mount over a root or plunge into a rut, disappearing, one after another, where the road descends. Then the active and cheery prime negroes, not yet exhausted, with a joke and a suggestion about tobacco. The black pickaninnies, staring, in a confused heap, out of the back of a wagon, more and more of their eyes to be made out among the table legs and bedding as you get near; behind them, further in, the old people and young mothers, whose turn it is to ride. As you get by, the white mother and babies, and the tall, frequently ill-humored master, on horseback, or walking with his gun, urging up the black driver and his oxen. As a scout ahead is a brother, or an intelligent slave, with the best gun, on the look-out for a deer or a turkey. We passed in the day perhaps one hundred persons attached to these trains...One of [which] was made up of three large wagons, loaded with furniture, babies, and invalids, two or three light wagons, and a gang of twenty able field hands. They travel ten or fifteen miles a day, stopping wherever night overtakes them. The masters are plainly dressed, often in home-spun, keeping their eyes about them, noticing the soil, sometimes making a remark on the crops by the roadside; but generally, dogged, surly, and silent. The women are silent, too, frequently walking, to relieve the teams, and weary, haggard, mud be-draggled, forlorn, and disconsolate, yet hopeful and careful. The negroes, mud-incrusted, wrapped in old blankets or gunny-bags, suffering from cold, plod on, aimless, hopeless, thoughtless, more indifferent than the oxen to all about them.
At journey's start, Mary Butler was several months pregnant. But if she and Alfred were hoping the new child would be born in Texas, they were disappointed. Perhaps the jerking and bouncing of their wagon on the rutted dirt trail brought on Mary's labor. At any rate, James A. Butler, their first son, came into the world that June, somewhere in northern Louisiana, his birthing cries emitted, no doubt, from the back of a covered wagon.
As one life began, another ended. Back in Arkansas, on June 23rd, the Butlers' brother-in-law, Madison Owen, died at the age of twenty-nine, at his home near Princeton. Perhaps he and Lucy Ann had also planned to come to Texas. Regardless, shortly after her husband's untimely death, the young widow did make the journey - bringing her three children. Within a year she was remarried.
Why did Alfred and Mary Butler leave Arkansas to come to Texas? The answer may be that Alfred Butler was again influenced by members of the Rainey family, as he may have been regarding his migration to Arkansas. Although Mathew F. Rainey and his son Christopher Columbus Rainey remained in Union County (where they died in 1853 and 1854, respectively), at least two of Rainey's son, Alexis T. and Frank - contemporaries of Alfred Butler, migrated to Texas during the early 1850's, settling in Anderson County. There, both became prominent citizens. During their first two years in Texas, Anderson County was also home to Alfred and Mary Butler and family.
Continue to: A Home in Texas
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