The student who is interested in personal sidelights on Oklahoma history of the period before the Civil War will miss much if he fails to gain access to the writings of William J. Weaver, of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Practically all of his writings are to be found in the files of the Fort Smith papers. The commercial, political and social relationships which Fort Smith sustained to the Five Civilized Tribes, during most of the seventy years which covered Mr. Weaver’s residence in that community, were such as to afford a fairly accurate and intimate personal knowledge of much of their history throughout that period. It was from such a knowledge that he wrote so effectively during the later years of his life.
William J. Weaver was born in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 2, 1818. He sprang from Quaker stock, some of his ancestors having come to America with William Penn, in 1682. His paternal grandfather, Joshua Weaver, who was a citizen of Chester County, Pennsylvania, was a Revolutionary soldier, serving under General Lafayette at the Battle of the Brandywine and in other engagements in Pennsylvania and New Jersey at that stage of the War for American Independence. At the conclusion of that conflict, he was expelled from the church or "deprived of his birthright in the Society of Friends," as expulsion was then termed. His maternal grandfather, William Boswell, who was also a Quaker, was a Tory and, on the night of the day that independence had been declared, his home was attacked by a mob of patriotic partizans who broke the windows and made a bonfire of his furniture because of his refusal to illuminate the house in honor of the occasion. A grand-uncle, for whom he was named, was a member of a drum corps which was attached to Washington’s army while it was stationed at Valley Forge.
When William J. Weaver was fifteen years old, he removed with his father’s family to Ohio, settling on a farm near Salem, in Columbiana County. There he spent several years in felling trees, clearing land, splitting rails and other work incident to the development of a farm in a country which was still comparatively new. Finally tiring of farm life, he went to Wheeling, Virginia, where he worked in a planing mill and acquired considerable knowledge of the milling industry. While located at Wheeling, he made several trips to New Orleans on flat-boats which were loaded with flour and other lines of merchandise that were in demand at that place.
In 1838, while returning from one of these voyages to New Orleans, he made a side-trip to Fort Smith, ascending the Arkansas River on the steamboat "Trident." He remained at Fort Smith but a short time, returning thence to Wheeling. In the latter part of 1840 and the early part of 1841, he made another journey to Fort
Smith, voyaging thither from the upper Ohio River on the steamboat "President." Among the other passengers on the same craft were General Zachary Taylor and some of the members of his family. The General had recently been appointed to the command of the Southwestern Division of the Army, with headquarters at Fort Smith. Mr. Weaver served as "mud clerk" of the boat (i. e., took soundings for the pilot) during this trip.
When he arrived at Fort Smith, work on the construction of the new post, which was designed to replace the earlier log-walled post, was under way. All buildings as well as the pentagonal defensive walls were to be of heavy masonry construction. He secured employment, first as a hod carrier and later as a quarryman, receiving as compensation the sum of thirty dollars per month and a soldier’s rations. Tiring of this, after a couple of months, he went over into the Cherokee Nation, where he secured employment at old Dwight Mission. There he spent a year, clearing ground, helping to build log cabins, splitting rails and doing general farm work. His next employment was conducting a ferry across the Arkansas River, at Fort Smith, for Mrs. McDaniels, a Cherokee woman who lived on the Cherokee side of the stream. He then entered the service of George S. Birnie, one of the pioneer merchants of Fort Smith.
While he was living at Dwight Mission and later, while operating the river ferry, he made the personal acquaintance of many of the leaders and prominent members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw tribes and was quite conversant with the current tribal history of that period. Among these was Sequoyah, the Cherokee Cadmus. It was during the early years of his residence at Fort Smith that he made the visit to Warren’s Trading Post, on the upper Red River, his description of which was quoted in Mr. W. H. Clift’s paper on that theme in the last issue of CHRONICLES OF OKLAHOMA.
In 1851, Mr. Weaver embarked in business on his own account, his line being dry goods. This he continued until 1858, when he closed out his business on account of failing health. Two years later, he moved to Northern Illinois, where he engaged in farming until 1871, when he returned to Fort Smith, where he again engaged in mercantile pursuits. Eventually, he became connected with the newspaper business, as manager and assistant editor of the Western Independent, published at Fort Smith. Previous to that, it does not seem that he had done much in the way of writing, but he seemed to take to it with unusual facility when the opportunity was thus afforded.
During his later years, Mr. Weaver attained considerable celebrity as a writer of local history, his themes generally taking the form of accounts of the early history of Fort Smith and the surrounding regions, including much of what is now eastern Oklahoma. He was possessed of a remarkable memory and his historical writings, published from time to time in the local press, attracted wide attention. It
was fortunate that he felt minded to undertake such a line of writing, since no one else had deemed it worth while. Indeed, his reminiscent writings served to present a more complete and faithful picture of old Fort Smith than anything else now available.
In 1848, Mr. Weaver was married to Miss Katherine Minnier, a native of Germany, whose parents were numbered among the pioneer settlers of Fort Smith. To this union three sons were born. (Of these, the eldest, Hon. J. Frank Weaver, followed in his father’s footsteps as a newspaper man and writer and had long been regarded as a worthy successor of his father as an authority on local historical lore. He has represented Sebastian County in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature and he is an honorary life member of the Oklahoma Historical Society.)
William J. Weaver died, July 21, 1907, in his ninetieth year. His passing severed the last living link that had bound the old frontier military post, Indian trading center and inland river port with the modern commercial and industrial center which still bears the name of Fort Smith.