Interviewer: Lauana Creel
Person Interviewed: George W. Arnold
Location: Evansville, Indiana
Place of Birth: Bedford County, Tennessee
Date of Birth: April 7, 1861
Occupation: porter in a wholesale feed store
This is written from an interview with each of the following: George W. Arnold, Professor W.S. Best of the Lincoln High School and Samuel Bell, all of Evansville, Indiana.
George W. Arnold was born April 7, 1861, in Bedford County, Tennessee. He was the property of Oliver P. Arnold, who owned a large farm or plantation in Bedford county. His mother was a native of Rome, Georgia, where she remained until twelve years of age, when she was sold at auction.
Oliver Arnold bought her, and he also purchased her three brothers and one uncle. The four negroes were taken along with other slaves from Georgia to Tennessee where they were put to work on the Arnold plantation.
On this plantation George W. Arnold was born and the child was allowed to live in a cabin with his relatives and declares that he never heard one of them speak an unkind word about Master Oliver Arnold or any member of his family. “Happiness and contentment and a reasonable amount of food and clothes seemed to be all we needed,” said the now white-haired man.
Only a limited memory of Civil War days is retained by the old man but the few events recalled are vividly described by him. “Mother, my young brother, my sister and I were walking along one day. I don’t remember where we had started but we passed under the fort at Wartrace. A battle was in progress and a large cannon was fired above us and we watched the huge ball sail through the air and saw the smoke of the cannon pass over our heads. We poor children were almost scared to death but our mother held us close to her and tried to comfort us. The next morning, after, we were safely at home… we were proud we had seen that much of the great battle and our mother told us the war was to give us freedom.”
“Did your family rejoice when they were set free?” was the natural question to ask Uncle George.
“I cannot say that they were happy, as it broke up a lot of real friendships and scattered many families. Mother had a great many pretty quilts and a lot of bedding. After the negroes were set free, Mars. Arnold told us we could all go and make ourselves homes, so we started out, each of the grown persons loaded with great bundles of bedding, clothing and personal belongings. We walked all the way to Wartrace to try to find a home and some way to make a living.”
George W. Arnold remembers seeing many soldiers going to the pike road on their way to Murfreesboro. “Long lines of tired men passed through Guy’s Gap on their way to Murfreesboro,” said he. “Older people said that they were sent out to pick up the dead from the battle fields after the bloody battle of Stone’s river that had lately been fought at Murfreesboro. They took their comrades to bury them at the Union Cemetery near the town of Murfreesboro.”
“Wartrace was a very nice place to make our home. It was located on the Nashville and Chattanooga and St. Louis railroad, just fifty-one miles from Nashville not many miles from our old home. Mother found work and we got along very well but as soon as we children were old enough to work, she went back to her old home in Georgia where a few years later she died. I believe she lived to be seventy-five or seventy six years of age, but I never saw her after she went back to Georgia.”
“My first work was done on a farm (there are many fine farms in Tennessee) and although farm labor was not very profitable we were always fed wherever we worked and got some wages. Then I got a job on the railroad. Our car was side tracked at a place called Silver Springs,” said Uncle George, “and right at that place came trouble that took the happiness out of my life forever.” Here the story teller paused to collect his thoughts and conquer the nervous twitching of his lips. “It was like this: Three of us boys worked together. We were like three brothers, always sharing our fortunes with each other. We should never have done it, but we had made a habit of sending to Nashville after each payday and having a keg of Holland rum sent in by freight. This liquor was handed out among our friends and sometimes we drank too much and were unfit for work for a day or two. Our boss was a big strong Irishman, red haired and friendly. He always got drunk with us and all would become sober enough to soon return to our tasks.”
“The time I’m telling you about, we had all been invited to a candy pulling in town and could hardly wait till time to go, as all the young people of the valley would be there to pull candy, talk, play games and eat the goodies served to us. The accursed keg of Holland rum had been brought in that morning and my chum John Sims had been drinking too much. About that time our Boss came up and said, ‘John, it is time for you to get the supper ready!’ John was our cook and our meals were served on the caboose where we lived wherever we were side tracked.”
“All the time Johny was preparing the food he was drinking the rum. When we went in he had many drinks inside of him and a quart bottle filled to take to the candy pull. ‘Hurry up boys and let’s finish up and go’ he said impatiently. ‘Don’t take him’ said the other boy, ‘Dont you see he is drunk?’ So I put my arms about his shoulders and tried to tell him he had better sleep a while before we started. The poor boy was a breed. His mother was almost white and his father was a thoroughbred Indian and the son had a most aggravating temper. He made me no answer but running his hand into his pocket, he drew out his knife and with one thrust, cut a deep gash in my neck. A terrible fight followed. I remember being knocked over and my head stricking something. I reached out my hand and discovered it was the ax. With this awful weapon I struck my friend, my more than brother. The thud of the ax brought me to my senses as our blood mingled. We were both almost mortally wounded. The boss came in and tried to do something for our relief but John said, ‘Oh, George? what an awful thing we have done? We have never said a cross word to each other and now, look at us both.’”
“I watched poor John walk away, darkness was falling but early in the morning my boss and I followed a trail of blood down by the side of the tracks. From there he had turned into the woods. We could follow him no further. We went to all the nearby towns and villages but we found no person who had ever seen him. We supposed he had died in the woods and watched for the buzzards, thinking thay would lead us to his body but he was never seen again.”
“For two years I never sat down to look inside a book nor to eat my food that John Sims was not beside me. He haunted my pillow and went beside me night and day. His blood was on my hands, his presence haunted me beyond endurance. What could I do? How could I escape this awful presence? An old friend told me to put water between myself and the place where the awful scene occurred. So, I quit working on the railroad and started working on the river. People believed at that time that the ghost of a person you had wronged would not cross water to haunt you.”
Life on the river was diverting. Things were constantly happening and George Arnold put aside some of his unhappiness by engaging in river activities.
“My first job on the river was as a roust-about on the Bolliver H Cook a stern wheel packet which carried freight and passengers from Nashville, Tennessee to Evansville, Indiana. I worked a round trip on her and then went from Nashville to Cairo, Illinois on the B.S. Rhea. I soon decided to go to Cairo and take a place on the Eldarado, a St. Louis and Cincinnati packet which crused from Cairo to Cincinnati. On that boat I worked as a roust-about for nearly three years.”
“What did the roust-about have to do?” asked a neighbor lad who had come into the room. “The roust-about is no better than the mate that rules him. If the mate is kindly disposed the roust-about has an easy enough life. The negroes had only a few years of freedom and resented cruelty. If the mate became too mean, a regular fight would follow and perhaps several roust-abouts would be hurt before it was finished.”
Uncle George said that food was always plentiful on the boats. Passengers and freight were crowded together on the decks. At night there would be singing and dancing and fiddle music. “We roust-abouts would get together and shoot craps, dance or play cards until the call came to shuffle freight, then we would all get busy and the mate’s voice giving orders could be heard for a long distance.”
“In spite of these few pleasures, the life of a roust-about is the life of a dog. I do not recall any unkindnesses of slavery days. I was too young to realize what it was all about, but it could never have equalled the cruelty shown the laborer on the river boats by cruel mates and overseers.”
Another superstition advanced itself in the story of a boat, told by Uncle George Arnold. The story follows: “When I was a roust-about on the Gold Dust we were sailing out from New Orleans and as soon as we got well out on the broad stream the rats commenced jumping over board. ‘See these rats’ said an old river man, ‘This boat will never make a return trip!’”
“At every port some of our crew left the boat but the mate and the captain said they were all fools and begged us to stay. So a few of us stayed to do the necessary work but the rats kept leaving as fast as they could.”
“When the boat was nearing Hickman, Kentucky, we smelled fire, and by the time we were in the harbor passengers were being held to keep them from jumping overboard. Then the Captain told us boys to jump into the water and save ourselves. Two of us launched a bale of cotton overboard and jumped onto it. As we paddled away we had to often go under to put out the fires as our clothing would blaze up under the flying brands that fell upon our bodies.”
“The burning boat was docked at Hickman. The passengers were put ashore but none of the freight was saved, and from a nearby willow thicket my matey and I watched the Gold Dust burn to the water’s edge.”
“Always heed the warnings of nature,” said Uncle George, “If you see rats leaving a ship or a house prepare for a fire.”
George W. Arnold said that Evansville was quite a nice place and a steamboat port even in the early days of his boating experiences and he decided to make his home here. He located in the town in 1880. “The Court House was located at Third and Main streets. Street cars were mule drawn and people thought it great fun to ride them.” He recalls the first shovel full of dirt being lifted when the new Courthouse was being erected, and when it was finished two white men finishing the slate roof, fell to their death in the Court House yard.
George W. Arnold procured a job as porter in a wholesale feed store on May 10, 1880. John Hubbard and Company did business at the place, at this place he worked thirty seven years. F.W. Griese, former mayor of Evansville has often befriended the negro man and is ready to speak a kindly word in his praise. But the face of John Sims still presents itself when George Arnold is alone. “Never do anything to hurt any other person,” says he, “The hurt always comes back to you.”
George Arnold was married to an Evansville Woman, but two years ago he became a widower when death claimed his mate. He is now lonely, but were it not for a keg of Holland gin his old age would be spent in peace and happiness. “Beware of strong drink,” said Uncle George, “It causes trouble.”