Arkansawyers Blog Series: Part Two

Historic Arkansas Museum - Tuesday, August 11, 2020

When British Naturalist Thomas Nuttall arrived at the Arkansas Post, he commented that a particular Arkansan“did not appear to have had much acquaintance with the civilized world.” This perhaps also applied to the natural state around him. Prior to the introduction of mass-settlements, infrastructure, and agriculture, the Arkansas Territory was still a remote place. Soon, however, the “dregs of Kentucky, Georgia, and Louisiana” brought their existing customs to the wild country. Without waiting for high society to establish itself in Arkansas, artisans and craftsmen moved from the east coast and replicated fine household goods for settlers and their families.

Evenpredating the Arkansas Traveler tale, Arkansas inhabitants have always carried a bit of an inferiority complex. Fighting against this stigma after the Traveler story gained nationwide popularity, Arkansans sought to prove the stereotype wrong by elevating themselves, their surroundings, and their belongings into something more refined. A trait Arkansawyers still exhibit today, territorial Arkansans constantly strove to elevate their standing, looks, and belongings from backwoods pioneers to sophisticated gentlemen.

Carrigan Knife, James Black, Washington (Hempstead County), ca. 1830, steel, walnut, silver, overall length: 10 ¼ in., collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, gift of Mary Delia Carrigan Prather, 2005.5

In 1853 Judge Thomas Hubbard gave this knife to Augustus Garland, his stepson, upon Garland’s entrance into the legal profession. Garland treasured this gift, especially because the knife was made by James Black. Both men knew Black and knew that he made a knife for Jim Bowie. Garland called his knife a Bowie knife, assuming only Black made “real” bowie knives. When serving as United States Attorney General under President Grover Cleveland, Garland monopolized an entire cabinet meeting exhibiting this knife and telling the story of Black and Bowie.

This “guardless-coffin” knife is well known among collectors as one of the most distinctive and fine Bowie knives in existence. This knife shares so many design qualities with Bowie No. 1 that they are most certainly from the same shop. The knife is unmarked by its maker, but the provenance is so clear that we can use it to help evaluate the origin of other similar unmarked knives, such as Bowie No. 1.

Like the maker of the “fancy” ladderback chair, James Black served the needs of Arkansans in the early 1820s and 30s – he created a functional knife that satisfied the fashion requirements of a gentleman. Black used a basic form of handle and blade that could be enlarged for the customer, with a variety of decorative elements centered primarily on the application of silver or silver plating (he had apprenticed to a silver plater in Philadelphia before setting out on his own). Eventually the coffin handle became one of the most popular handle shapes for this new style of knife, which its owners called a Bowie knife or Arkansas toothpick.

Ladderback chair, attributed to Jared C. Martin, Little Rock (Pulaski County), ca. 1840, hickory, 36 ¾ x 17 ½ x 14 in., collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, gift of Charles H. Lewandoski, 93.30.1

Pioneer settler Jared C. Martin arrived in Little Rock soon after the territorial capitol moved there from the Arkansas Post in 1821. He worked at a variety of trades including blacksmithing and gunsmithing, and may have been the maker of this classic form of the American ladderback chair, referred to at the time as a “common” chair. The middle slat of the chair is stamped “JC” for Jared C. Arkansas’s history of furniture production celebrates individual cabinetmakers and large-scale furniture factories, humble ladderback chairs like this, and intricate parquetry tables. The marriage of maker, material, and form exemplify the stylish and vernacular work of the state’s artisans. The ladderback chair is without a doubt the most prevalent type of seating furniture found in antebellum America. However, as steamboat imports began to increase in the early 1800s, new “fancy” chair styles started to appear in household furnishings. The maker of this chair attempted to construct their own fancy ladderback chair, marrying the two styles using basic ladderback form and construction. By flaring the stiles backwards and curving the rails to “hug” the sitter, the maker elevated this humble ladderback into a fancier version of itself – something Arkansans have long been accused of doing to themselves, elevating the common and humble. Does it work? The chair – yes. Arkansawyers – unsure.