1837: Edward Rice to Stillman Allen Clemens

Three decades later, Jeff Davis is depicted with an “Arkansas Toothpick” under his garments as he flees capture at war’s end.

This letter was written by 22 year-old Edward Rice (1814-1850), the son of Levi Rice (1775-1853) and Annie Hayes (1777-1845) of Granby, Hartford county, Connecticut. He wrote the letter some weeks (possibly months) after his arrival in Helena, Phillips county, Arkansas—some six months after it had become the 25th state to join the Union. According to the 1850 Mortality Schedules, Edward Rice died in Helena from “congestion of the lungs” in May 1850. I have not been able to ascertain whether Edward remained in the dry goods business at Helena for the entire thirteen years period he remained in Helena until his death.

Edward wrote the letter to his boyhood friend, Stillman Allen Clemens (1816-1875), the son of Allen Clemons (1793-1868) and Catherine Helen Stillman (1796-1856) of North Granby, Hartford county, Connecticut. At the time this letter was written, Stillman was attending Yale University. After graduation, he was employed as a teacher.

Not only is the letter a good “travel” letter but Edward shares his impressions of Helena, Arkansas, and its inhabitants—an early statehood glimpse of the Mississippi river port town.

I note that the Clemens name is sometimes spelled Clemons and it appears to have been written that way by Edward.


Addressed to Stillman Clemons, Esq., New Haven, Connecticut

Helena, Arkansas
January 31, 1837

Friend Stillman,

It was a day or two since that after a visit to the P. O. as usual unsuccessful, I sat thinking of my friends in Connecticut, blaming them one moment for neglect and the next denouncing the whole Post Office Department from the backwoodsman who officiated as postmaster at Crowtown up to old Amos [Kendall] himself, that I called to mind the old adage, “reformation should begin at home” and amongst the balance of broken promises recollected one of writing to you. And having an opportunity to send to the North in a few days by Mr. Cossitt, I conclude—although at the eleventh hour—to redeem my pledge and send you a short epistle hoping that you will receive it sooner than we get letters from Connecticut, which is commonly something less than six months from the time of their being mailed.

I had as pleasant a journey to this place from home as I could have expected in my feeble state of health. The route from New York to Philadelphia and thence by railroad and canal to Pittsburgh, crossing the Allegheny Mountains, was very pleasant affording a fine view of scenery, beautiful and sublime.

I spent one day in Philadelphia very pleasantly, being detained by business, and in company with an acquaintance about the city and its environs until I was heartily tired and yet was not satisfied with seeing. It is a splendid city. I have never seen its equal. We spent a morning in the Navy Yard where the far famed ship Pennsylvania is being built. She is a splendid specimen of naval architecture and well-calculated to make an American feel proud of his country.

The USS Pennsylvania warship (large ship left center) was launched in the summer of 1837

The voyage from Pittsburgh to Louisville and then to this place was very lengthy owing to the low state of the river. I was nearly two weeks from Pittsburgh to Helena. It was nevertheless a pleasant trip—very much so—and I enjoyed it much. The Ohio is a beautiful river and runs through strikingly beautiful and fertile country.

A person meets with a great variety of character on board the steamers in the Western waters. Gambling in abundance, backwoodsmen & hunters, the rich planter of the South, and the Yankee of wooden nutmeg and horn gunflint notoriety, with various others too numerous to mention.

I have been in tolerable health since leaving home and have been able to attend to business without loss of time. I obtained a situation as clerk in a dry goods store immediately on my arrival.

Helena is improving very fast at this time. There are now ten stores in the place and several more will be started in the spring. Society here is not like that of New England, you may suppose. It is yet a new country and I was surprised to find the morals of the place so low. Almost every man here carries his Bowie knife, pistols, Arkansas Toothpick, one and all. 1 And there are men daily walking the streets—men of respectability too—who have buried the knife more than once in the heart of a fellow being. Gambling & drunkenness &c. are so common that they are almost unnoticed and will you believe it, I have not been in church since I left home—because there is none here!

But a change is taking place in Arkansas for the better and good and wholesome laws will soon be adopted and these frontier scenes will soon pass away before the march of civilization and improvement. I have scribbled over most of my paper and must close though I have not written half as much as I wish, but enough to try your patience I suspect.

I have not heard a word from home since I left and my patience is almost exhausted. I wish you to write immediately on getting this and give me a sketch of college life in the City of Gardens.

Your sincere friend, — Edward Rice

[to] S. Clemons.

1 There is some debate over whether or not an Arkansas toothpick is technically a Bowie knife. The Arkansas toothpick is a type of large dagger with a straight blade that is used for thrusting. It is named after the American frontier state of Arkansas where it was supposedly created. Bowie knives, on the other hand, are typically larger knives with a curved blade that is good for both slicing and thrusting. Some people argue that the Arkansas toothpick is simply a smaller version of a Bowie knife and thus can be classified as such. Others maintain that the two knife types are distinct enough to warrant their own separate classification. Since Edward mentions both types of knives in this letter, they must have had a different meaning at the time. As near as I can tell, the term “Arkansas Toothpick” came into popular usage about 1835.

One thought on “1837: Edward Rice to Stillman Allen Clemens”

  1. Regardless of the debate, both knives are part of the Arkansas story. This is a great letter, thanks for making it available. It will be included in my Arkansas History course next semester.


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