Before his premature death at age 50 in 1847 during the Mexican War, Archibald Yell was one of the pre-eminent leaders of early Arkansas.
Probably as much as anyone, Yell caused Arkansas to be solidly Democratic from the virtual birth of the state. The dashing blue-eyed Yell perfected the art of campaigning amongst the rustic frontiersmen who made up a majority of the Arkansas electorate, and also perhaps serving as a model for future Gov. Jeff Davis and much later Gov. Orval Faubus — and maybe even U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson of more modern infamy.
Like many sons of the frontier, Yell’s exact birth date is unknown, but it was probably in 1797, and probably in Tennessee. He grew up with little education but showed a great deal of physical bravery. During the War of 1812, Yell reached the rank of sergeant and participated in the Battle of New Orleans, where he came to the attention of the commander, Gen. Andrew Jackson. Later, he served as a lieutenant in the wars against the Seminole Indians.
Upon his discharge from military service, Yell settled in Shelbyville, Tenn., where his parents lived, and began reading law. No sooner did Yell hang his own shingle than he married 16-year-old Mary Scott, the daughter of a prominent settler.
Mary died two years later while delivering twins, one of whom survived and was raised by grandparents. Yell’s second wife, Ann Jordan Moore, bore him three daughters and a son named Dewitt Clinton in honor of the New York Jacksonian political leader. Following Ann’s death, Yell married a widow, Mary Ficklin. All this before he was 50.
In 1827, Yell gained a seat in the Tennessee legislature, but did not seek a second term. His brief tenure there whetted his appetite for partisan politics. He fell naturally into the political orbit of his old military commander and now president, Andrew Jackson, and became especially close to Jackson’s close ally, U.S. representative and future president James K. Polk.
Yell hankered for higher office, and preferably in a new location–perhaps in Arkansas Territory. President Jackson came to his aid with an appointment as U. S. Receiver of Public Monies in Little Rock. Yell arrived in Little Rock shortly before Christmas in 183l, and within weeks he was sick with malaria.
As soon as Yell got well enough, he fled back to Tennessee, where he recuperated then opened a law practice. Later Jackson sent Yell back to Arkansas, but this time as one of the Territory’s four circuit judges.
Yell settled in Fayetteville, where he built Waxhaws, a magnificent home in the Greek Revival style. When time allowed, Yell practiced law with well-known Whig jurist David Walker. They were involved in the development of the town of Ozark in Franklin County.
When Arkansas was admitted as a state in 1836, Yell was the leader of the Democratic party in northwest Arkansas. However, he came into conflict with the wealthy plantation owners of eastern Arkansas, many of whom were Whigs. When the planters inserted a residency requirement in the Constitution that prevented Yell from seeking the governor’s office, he ran for Congress and easily triumphed.
Leaving Congress after one term, Yell successfully ran for governor in 1840. His tenure was mixed, supporting public schools on one hand but vetoing a married woman’s property- rights bill on the other.
Yell is not known to history as a great intellect, much less as a political innovator. He seemed to be more interested in running for office than actually serving. Still, he had to deal with the fallout from the spectacular and corrupt demise of the state’s first banking system.
Like his political idol Andrew Jackson, Yell had his own little anti-bank crusade when he tried to exert state oversight of the bankruptcy trustees for the failed Real Estate Bank. When he lost in the state Supreme Court, Yell unsuccessfully tried to purge the court of prominent members Townsend Dickinson and Thomas Lacy.
In 1844, Yell resigned as governor and announced his candidacy for his old seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His Whig opponent was none other than his law partner David Walker.
No political campaign in Arkansas history was so mismatched as this contest between glad-handing Yell and upright and reserved Walker. Yell entered every shooting match he came across, often winning a side of beef, which he would then donate to a local “widder” woman.
Walker’s religious beliefs did not allow him to compete in shooting matches nor partake of the liberal distribution of whiskey that was a part of every Yell political gathering. Especially galling to Walker was going to church while on the campaign trail, only to find Yell seated in the amen corner and “singing on a key above all others that old hymn ‘How Happy Are They Who Their Savior Obey.'” Yell was sent back to Washington by a wide majority.
Yell was in Congress only a short time before war broke out with Mexico in 1845. He returned to Arkansas and enrolled as a private in Captain Solon Borland’s company of Arkansas volunteers while trying to hang on to his seat in Congress. Enemies in the Legislature forced his resignation, and he set off for Mexico.
The Arkansas soldiers elected Yell to serve as regimental colonel. This was not a blessing, for Yell knew little about commanding troops. Albert Pike, who led a Little Rock company, was the only commander who seemed to understand the importance of training and drilling.
Yell’s lack of military leadership and the inexperience of his troops probably contributed to his death at the Battle of Buena Vista. When attacked by a large unit of mounted Mexican lancers, some of Yell’s troops fled. Accounts differ as to whether Yell gallantly charged the attackers, or perhaps lost control of his horse.
Bill Quesenbury, a volunteer and Fayetteville journalist, described the ferocious nature of the uneven battle: “If balls and lances, sabers, smoke and dust, shouting, groaning, and dying compose glory, we were in the midst of it.” Yell received a lance blow to the head and died instantly.
Most of the 267 soldiers who died in the battle were buried in trench graves, but the bodies of Yell and a few others received special treatment. Josiah Gregg, who would later become a trader, explorer, and author of Commerce on the Prairies, recalled: “We had a tin coffin prepared, which was placed in a strong wooden one … I set a cross at his head with his name cut upon it, so that his friends may know his grave.”
When the Arkansas Mounted Volunteers left Mexico after the war, the coffins of Yell and two others were transported back to Arkansas. The Masonic lodge in Fayetteville buried Yell in a family cemetery near his home; in 1874 the lodge exhumed the bodies of Yell and others in his private plot and moved them to Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville.
The Mexican War was a disastrous experience for Arkansas and its reputation. Described as “mounted devils” by no less than the expedition commander, the undisciplined Arkansas volunteers were accused of murdering innocent Mexican civilians. Personal grudges simmered for years after the war, and two major participants fought a duel. And, it ended the meteoric career of natural-born frontier politician Archibald Yell.
Correction: In last week’s column on the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s I mistakenly wrote that yellow fever and malaria were caused by viruses. While that is true of yellow fever, malaria is caused by a parasite.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]
NAN Profiles on 02/23/2020