Saracen was a Quapaw Indian who has been portrayed in Arkansas history as a hero, "the rescuer of captive children."
During the Revolutionary War, a contingent of pro-British loyalists and allied Chickasaw Indians attacked Arkansas Post in retaliation for Spanish support of the American rebels. This little-known skirmish in the Revolution resulted in captives being taken, who were later freed by a party of Quapaw and Spanish troops.
The rescue became the stuff of legend. Old Arkansas history textbooks sometimes included a drawing depicting Saracen wearing war paint and brandishing a war club, looking very much like a character from a James Fenimore Cooper novel.
Judge Morris S. Arnold, our leading authority on colonial Arkansas, has depicted Saracen as a more complicated character, but still a larger-than-life figure. He was probably the son of a Quapaw woman and a French soldier at Arkansas Post, Francois Sarazin, who later became the Post interpreter. Common-law marriages between French frontier colonials and Indian women were common, and their children numerous.
The Quapaws and the French had a long and peaceful association, with the Quapaws being major actors in various colonial adventures. Not only did the French trade with the Quapaws, but they also used their warriors as proxy soldiers in their frequent confrontations with unfriendly Indians and the threatening English across the Mississippi River.
By the time the American Revolution erupted, Louisiana was under the control of the Spanish. The Spanish provided aid and shelter to the American rebels, which irritated the British. In 1779 the Spanish joined in the war against Britain, and colonial Arkansas was drawn into international intrigue and war.
Arkansas Post was not well prepared for warfare. The Post, which was established in 1686, never hosted a sizable garrison, and sometimes as few as six soldiers staffed the fort. The British were in no position to send regular troops to attack the Post, but Tories from east of the Mississippi, along with their Chickasaw allies, harassed Spanish military and trade vessels on the river. Finally, before daylight on April 17, 1783, the British attacked the Post.
The attacking forces numbered no more than 120, including 12 or so Chickasaws. They were led by James Colbert, a Tory who had lived among the Chickasaws for many years. Colbert successfully eluded Spanish guards and reached the walls of the fort before being turned back. A few Spanish troops were killed, and Colbert kidnapped a number of residents, including women and children as well as three black slaves. A Spanish-Quapaw counter-attack quickly sent Colbert's band fleeing, with most of his hostages escaping in the melee.
Soon a large contingent of Quapaws and about 20 Spanish soldiers were in pursuit. They overtook Colbert before he could reach the safety of the Mississippi, and this is where Saracen enters the picture.
Saracen is not named in the official written reports of the battle, but the Spanish commandant wrote of a Quapaw who confronted the Colbert band and threw a tomahawk into their midst. Intimidated, Colbert surrendered his captives and was allowed to leave. Though the official records are silent as to the name of this courageous Quapaw, within a few years of the battle the post commandant referred to Saracen as "famous" for freeing the captives.
Saracen's fame spread after the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803. Eventually, the Americans came to consider Saracen as a Quapaw chief, though he had no hereditary rights to that position. Still later, after Saracen died in Pine Bluff about 1840 when around 90 years of age, he became the stuff of local legend.
Being idealized by the white settlers did nothing to protect Saracen from the poverty and shame that came to almost all Indians living in Arkansas. Historian of colonial Arkansas Morris S. "Buzz" Arnold noted that Saracen's reputation "did not fare nearly so well among many of the Quapaws" as it did among his white neighbors.
He wrote, "During the 1820s and 1830s, when the American government was treating the Quapaw tribe with a cavalier inhumanity, the Quapaws, now evidently numbering fewer than 500 souls, became split into two groups, the one under the leadership of the traditional chief Heckaton, the other under Saracen, whom Governor James Miller of the Arkansas Territory had elevated to the position of chief.
"Saracen's popularity among the Americans did nothing to spare him from the privations facing all the Quapaw survivors. In 1827, after some of his family had actually starved to death, Saracen found it necessary to abase himself by assuring Governor Izard 'that he himself was half a white man by Birth and entirely white in Affection & Inclination.'"
This sort of groveling and tribal denial has tarnished Saracen's reputation. But one must recall that he was starving during the times he was pleading with white authorities. And he had watched in horror as his mother's tribe was reduced to tattered survivors. Saracen was one of the chiefs who signed an agreement in 1824 removing the Quapaws to Caddo lands in what is now northwestern Louisiana.
Like most of his fellow tribesmen, Saracen was unhappy among the Caddos, but unlike his fellows, the legendary "chief" was allowed to return to the Pine Bluff area. Upon his death in 1832, Saracen was buried in the Old Town Cemetery, but his body was not included when most of the graves were later relocated to the new Bellwood Cemetery in 1860.
According to the late James W. Leslie, a noted Pine Bluff historian, Saracen's body was discovered in 1883 when Altheimer Brothers were excavating for a new building on Main Street. The body was moved to Bellwood and in 1905 to St. Joseph's Catholic Church cemetery.
In the almost two centuries since his death, many stories have been published about Saracen--not a few of them being sheer fabrications. The Arkansas Democrat of Aug. 4, 1899, published a story and poem about Saracen in which he "alone and unaided" overtook a band of Chickasaw Indians who had kidnapped two children "a few miles below Pine Bluff."
According to this tall tale Saracen, "with Indian war hoop and uplifted tomahawk" sprang into the midst of the Chickasaws and "took the children."
A large tombstone marks his grave. At one time St. Joseph's had a window commemorating Saracen as "Friend to the Missionaries, Rescuer of Captive Children."
Saracen has once again come to public attention in Arkansas as a casino now under construction in Pine Bluff will be named for him. I hope at least a few gamblers who frequent the Saracen Casino will take a moment to reflect on the tragic but heroic man behind the name.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org. An earlier version of this column was published Sept. 22, 2002.
Editorial on 10/20/2019