Who was Saracen?
Note: There are many spellings of the name “Saracen”, including Sarazin, Sarasen and Sarasin. The spelling of “Saracen” will be used to describe him here unless it is spelled differently in a quote.
Saracen was a leader of the Quapaw Nation who is most well known for being a “savior of children”, although he also helped lead the tribe during the removal period. Many have heard some variation of a legend surrounding him with fanciful descriptions of the events that took place. For example, this early yet inaccurate account of the legend of Saracen was published in 1895 by Judge William F. Pope:
“On one occasion a band of Chickasaw Indians stole two children from a trapper’s family living a few miles below Pine Bluff. The white settlers were greatly alarmed. The news was brought to Saracen. Going to the weeping mother, he said, “When the sun is so high (pointing with his hand) Saracen will bring your children. If Saracen no find them, you will see Saracen no more.” Alone and unaided, he overtook the marauding party near Arkansas Post. With Indian war whoop and tomahawk uplifted, he sprang in upon them and took the children”.
This account was widely accepted and was the basis for later retellings and publications of the tale. There is however a much older and more detailed version of the event in question. It is the most accurate account we have available today and was collected while Saracen was still living. The information is from a letter between George Izard and William Keating of the American Philosophical Society from January 10, 1827. In the letters Izard describes him as “a half-breed… who is the most distinguished of their warriors. This hero, poet and musician ranks as a Chief in some respects; he is permitted to wear medals and assist at their Councils, but his honours are altogether personal and will not descend to his eldest son, as is the case with the other Chiefs whose blood is purely Indian”. Izard also includes the following note regarding Saracen:
“The following account of an early exploit of Sarrasin was given by himself in the presence of the assembled Chiefs. When he was a youth (correct dates are out of the question with these people) the Port of Arkansa was surprised by the Chickasaws. The Spanish Commandant, Villar or Villers, and his two infant daughters were carried off by the assailants. Sarrasin casually visited the Port a few hours after this event; he found Madame Villar in the deepest distress at the loss of her husband and children. Moved by her tears, he determined to attempt the rescue of the prisoners and immediately followed the trace of the Chickasaws. After a pursuit of several miles he overtook two of the latter, who were reprising under a tree, and to his joy & surprise beheld the two babes lying on the ground near them. He sprang forward without uttering a word, seized and threw the two latter over his shoulders and retraced his steps to the Port, unmolested by the Chickasaw who were either too much fatigued or astonished to intercept him. As he approached the little Spanish Fort, the mother flew to meet him; but when within a few steps shrieked with agony at seeing one of her infants, as she thought, dead on it’s Rescuer’s shoulder. The child had fallen asleep and it’s little head nodded with every step of the warrior. She was soon relieved from her fears, thanks to her benefactor.
Villar, the Father, was yet to be restored to the Family. Sarrasin undertook to bring him back or perish. “If I am killed” said he, “There will be but one Dog less on the Earth; but if I succeed, a whole family will be made happy”.
A brother of the Commandant gave him a sack of dollars as ransom for his relation; with this he set out, and made way towards the Chickasaws, who were encamped at some distance above the mouth of White River on the Mississippi, he called on an Uncle of his. The latter, when he had learned his destination, declared that the project was impracticable unless the demand for the captive were supported by a force from their Tribe. All of the latter who were in this neighborhood were immediately assembled; they approached the Chickasaw Camp and, after some negotiation, Villar was returned to liberty & his family”.
For a more complete answer to the question of who Saracen was, a deeper look into the history of the Quapaw Nation and records of the time are needed.
In the mid-1700s a French man named François Sarazin is recorded at having lived at the Arkansas Post. François was the child of Nicholas Sarazin and Anne Rolland who were French settlers and based on the available records it is believed François was born about 1724. François was the fort’s interpreter and is believed to be Saracen’s father. Records from this period are not always complete, and this is especially true for people of color. Therefore, it is not surprising that despite extensive research by many historians, we don’t know Saracen’s mother’s name. She was a member of the Quapaw Nation though, and although he received his father’s name, Saracen was raised as a Quapaw.
Saracen’s date of birth is also not known. His father married a French woman named Marie Lepine in 1752. At the time of marriage François would have been about 28, and Marie would have been about 17. They remained married until François’ death in 1763, although they did not have children. Saracen could have been born sometime before their marriage in 1752; although this is not certain. François was the Quapaw interpreter by 1752 and was killed by Chickasaw in 1763. It is possible that Saracen was born while François was serving as a Quapaw interpreter. This means that Saracen may have been born in the 1740s or the 1750s.
Although the names of Saracen’s spouse or children and family are not recorded in historical documents, Quapaw oral history indicates that Saracen is believed to be a relative of Chief Pa-hi (also spelled Pa-he) through his mother. Some Quapaw families still claim relation to him today. Territorial Governor Izard was communicating to the Secretary of War and described that when the Quapaws were on the Red River “many died of actual starvation; of these several were of Sarrasin’s own family”.
In addition to being remembered as a savior of children and his family history, details about his life are known due to his involvement in important events in Quapaw history. By 1818, after waves of disease and years of war the Quapaw Nation was down to about 1000 members. Vastly outnumbered by white settlers, there was a large push for Quapaw lands. Under pressure the Quapaw agreed to the Treaty of 1818, which ceded Quapaw claim to most of modern day Arkansas, and part of Oklahoma, northern Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, roughly 30,000,000 acres in exchange for “goods and merchandise to the value of four thousand dollars” upon execution of the treaty and “goods and merchandise to the value of one thousand dollars” yearly. About one and a half million acres was retained, forming the first Quapaw Reservation, and some hunting rights were also retained.
Despite this surrender, the demand for Quapaw land continued and in 1824 the Quapaw were again pressured into signing a second treaty with the United States. This treaty ceded the remaining land in Arkansas in exchange for a tract of land near the Red River in Louisiana. The Quapaw were made to agree to live among the Caddo Nation in exchange for goods and an annuity payment of $1,000 for eleven years. Saracen was one of the signatories for the Quapaw Nation for this treaty, as well as Chief Heckaton.
Though the treaty was signed in 1824, the removal to the Red River did not began until January of 1826. The removal was completed in multiple groups and was overseen by Antione Barraque, who kept notes. By late February of 1826 all of the Quapaw’s had reached the Red River, but they did not cross the river until March 1st. The Quapaw’s were not well received by the Caddo’s, however they eventually settled on the south side of the Red River near Bayou Treache, on the Caddo Prairie, around thirty miles northwest of present-day Shreveport.
In the spring of 1827, the Red River flooded on multiple occasions destroying the fields which the Quapaw had planted. Coupled with disease, many in the tribe perished including members of Saracen’s family. That same year in an act of desperation and defiance Saracen led roughly one-third of the remaining members of the tribe back to the Arkansas River.
For the Quapaw that did not follow Saracen, things did not improve. In 1828, flooding on the Red River again destroyed the crops and by 1830 the majority of the tribe returned to Arkansas. Saracen along with other tribal leaders petitioned the government more than once to allow them to use their annuity payment to purchase land and be able to again live on their own homeland by letting them become citizens of the United States.
The government did not however listen to the pleas of the tribe, and by 1833 the situation had grown desperate. Annuity payments continued to be delayed, settlers continued to move into the area and push out tribal members. Tribal members struggled to obtain income or food. Territorial governor John Pope supported the Quapaw effort to buy land, however the federal government instead decided to negotiate another removal. Without any options, the Quapaw again signed a new treaty with the United States. The Treaty of 1833 relinquished Quapaw claim to their land on the Red River in exchange for 150 sections of land “west of the state line of Missouri”, in Indian Territory, which would become modern day Oklahoma and Kansas.
Following the Treaty of 1833 there is some ambiguity regarding exactly what happened with Saracen, which is compounded by confusion over the date of his death. Saracen’s tombstone reads that he passed away at the age of 97 in 1832, however this date is not accurate. Saracen died between 1833 and 1839.
The Arkansas Democrat published an article in 1905 describing that Saracen was reburied under the direction of Rt. Rev. J. M. Lucey in the St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery, in Pine Bluff. AR. Later, in 1907, the Fort Smith Times reported that an effort was being made in Pine Bluff to “erect a monument over the grave of Saracen”. This confirms Saracen’s current marker is from 1907, and this is probably the reason the date on his tombstone is not accurate.
Saracen clearly lived past 1832 as he is a signatory on the treaty which was signed in 1833. In Velma Nieberding’s work she noted a legend she was told which described that Saracen along with a group of other tribal head men came to Indian Territory to inspect the land they were going to be moved to prior to the tribe’s removal, and upon his return to Arkansas prior he passed away before the removal of the whole tribe to Oklahoma (“to sleep in the land of his fathers”). If this story is accurate Saracen’s death may have been about 1834.
Conversely, some historians believe that he moved to Indian Territory and later returned to land that was granted to him in Arkansas where he lived when he passed. There is documentation that suggests this may be true. A month after signing a treaty in May of 1833 agreeing to remove to Indian Territory, approximately 300 Quapaws traveled back to the Red River in June of 1833. They had heard from the small group of Quapaws who stayed at the Red River that an annuity payment was finally going to be distributed. Saracen is believed to have traveled with them. In 1834, around 179 Quapaws had been removed to the reservation in Indian Territory. Saracen and the 300 Quapaw who traveled to the Red River were not with this group. In 1835, fifty of the Quapaw who followed Saracen to the Red River joined the rest of the tribe in Indian Territory. Saracen may have been with them, although we are not certain due to poor documentation.
It should be noted that the previously mentioned Arkansas Democrat article from 1905 recorded that Saracen died about 1839. Many of the Quapaws who had moved to Indian Territory were forced to move once again in 1838 due to a survey error which caused them to be located on another tribe’s land. After this Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock recorded some of the Quapaws going to different locations, including some returning to Arkansas. A group of Quapaw who were loyal to Saracen returned to the Pine Bluff area, where they stayed and tried to live in the land of their fathers. Just under fifty years later these Quapaws returned to Indian Territory at the request of the rest of the tribe. Given this information, it is possible that Saracen may have been alive with this group and after moving back to Arkansas passed away shortly after. If this is accurate he would have passed away in 1839, potentially validating the death date of 1839 reported by the Arkansas Democrat.
Despite the uncertainty regarding parts of Saracen’s life, what is clear is that Saracen was an important figure in the history of the Quapaw Nation and the state of Arkansas.
This information was compiled by tribal member Everett Bandy.
- Arnold, Morris S. “The Rumble of a Distant Drum: the Quapaws and the Old World Newcomers, 1673-1804”. Univ of Arkansas Press, 2007.
- Baird, W. David. “The Quapaw Indians: a History of the Downstream People”. University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
- Dubuisson, Ann. “François Sarazin: Interpreter at Arkansas Post during the Chickasaw Wars”. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 71, No. 3, Autumn 2012.
- Izard, George. “Brief Notes Respecting the Territory of Arkansas”. Received by William H. Keating of the American Philosophical Society, 10 Jan. 1827.
- Key, P. Joseph. ““Outcasts upon the World”: The Louisiana Purchase and the Quapaws”. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 62, No. 3, Autumn 2003.
- Laura Hinderks Thompson, “Historical Translation of Antoine Barraque Manuscript”. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 40, Autumn 1981.
- Lyon, Owen. “The Trail of the Quapaw”. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 9, No. 3, Autumn 1950.
- Nieberding, Velma. “The Quapaws: those who went downstream”. Gregath Pub. for the Dobson Museum, 1999.
- “The Dust of Chief Saracen Laid to Rest in Catholic Cemetery at Pine Bluff Saturday” Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock AR, January 24th, 1905.
- “Arkansas Notes” Fort Smith Times, Fort Smith AR, October 30th, 1907
- “Muster Rolls of Quapaws from Arkansas”, Miscellaneous Indian Removal Muster Rolls, 1832-1846, Washington DC: National Archives and Records Administration.