​Arkansawyers Blog Series: Part One

Historic Arkansas Museum - Monday, August 10, 2020


What makes Arkansas, Arkansas?

One of the traditional cornerstones of Arkansas folk culture is the futility of trying to classify the inhabitants of this state as any one “type” -- Arkansans have always celebrated their differences over their similarities. Going at least as far back as 1819 and the formation of the Territory of Arkansaw, internal debates raged about the official spelling and pronunciation of our state’s name. Similarly, no one could agree on what to call the people who lived here. Should we be Arkansians, Arkansawyers, or the current favorite: Arkansans, which in a way is the least intuitive of the three, since in 1881 the official pronunciation of our state’s name was finally settled as ArkanSAW rather than ArKANsas. Some of the nation’s most celebrated authors have weighed in over the years, and the prevailing sentiment (beautifully stated in an Encyclopedia of Arkansas article on the subject) is that the term Arkansawyers celebrates the “individualism, self-sufficiency, and general orneriness characterizing the early settlers of the state.” While these qualities have not always been seen as desirable, in an age of mass-production and homogeneity, it seems fitting that our state still retains traces of the geographic and cultural diversity which might have greeted an Arkansas traveler in the 1840s.

The Arkansas Traveller, after an original painting by Edward Payson Washbourne
Leopold Grozelier (lithographer), J. H. Bufford (publisher), Boston, Massachusetts, c. 1859, hand-colored lithographic print on paper, 18.125 x 20.1875 in., Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Gift of Parker Westbrook, Accession No: 87.53

Much has been written about the history of the Arkansas Traveler story and corresponding images, first painted by Arkansas artist Edward Payson Washbourne in 1856, faithfully copied as a hand-colored lithograph by Leopold Grozelier of Boston in 1859, and re-produced in hundreds of different forms thereafter. This folk tale or “big windy” was made famous in the 1840s by Sandford “Sandy” Faulkner, the namesake of Faulkner County and a prominent plantation and slave owner, banker, and wannabe politician. The generally accepted backstory puts Faulkner lost in the rural Boston Mountains with a group of friends and political allies including some combination of Ambrose Sevier, William S. Fulton, Archibald Yell, and Chester Ashley. However, whether this famous yarn is based on a real encounter is mostly irrelevant, since for storytellers and performers like Sandy Faulkner, much of the fun derived from recounting tall tales was in (as folklorist Vance Randolph put it) “victimizing the tenderfoot,” playing a practical joke that took advantage of gullible or naïve listeners.

Similarly, dialog between the Traveler and the Squatter is easily misinterpreted by outsiders who may assume the Squatter is a simpleton; the Traveler typically asks a direct question, which the Squatter seems to misunderstand. The Traveler then redirects his question, and the Squatter provides a similar humorous, confounding, or evasive answer. For example:

Traveler: Sir! Will you tell me where this road goes to?
Squatter: It’s never gone any whar while I’ve lived here; it’s always thar when I git up in the mornin’.
Traveler: Well, how far is it to where it forks?
Squatter: It don’t fork at all, but it splits up like the devil.

The Traveler story, like hundreds of other Arkansas folk tales, hinges on a smooth-talking hillbilly who seems to speak only in riddles. Nineteenth century inhabitants of the state made an art out of prevarication, a somewhat archaic word used to describe a clever form of lying that tells part of the truth while leaving out crucial details. This complex rhetorical dance, a kind of verbal swordplay, was usually deployed to confuse and infuriate strangers or “foreigners,” who often underestimated the intelligence of settlers in remote areas of the state. Modern readers may tire of the constant repartee, but that style of playful banter was a popular form of entertainment common in conversation and literature for hundreds of years. The back-and-forth display of wit that occurs between the two men is an important element in disarming the Squatter’s distrust of the sophisticated Traveler, but ultimately, it is a common predilection for fiddle-playing and whiskey-drinking that cements the bond between these unlikely companions.