Editor’s Note: With the groundbreaking for the Saracen Casino Resort taking place last week, there have been numerous questions sent to the Pine Bluff Commercial asking for historical context on Chief Saracen, after whom the casino resort is named. Saracen was the chief and leader of Quapaw Nation. According to Quapaw Nation, 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. Historical records from Quapaw Nation were used to assist with this article.
Chief Saracen came to fame as a leader after a band of Chickasaw Indians kidnapped two children from a local trapper family near Pine Bluff. As the settlers were alarmed, news reached Saracen, who then went to help the family.
Legend tells that Saracen told the family that when the sun is high, he would return with the children. If he did not return with the children, he would never be seen again.
Saracen came across the Chickasaws in the area of Arkansas Post, where he raised his tomahawk above his head, let out a war cry, then ran in to rescue the children.
According to accounts from the American Philosophical Society, when Saracen approached the mother with her rescued children, she shrieked with agony at seeing one of her infants, as she thought, dead on Saracen’s shoulder. However, the child had fallen asleep, and its little head nodded with every step of the warrior.
They were soon relieved from her fears, thanks to her benefactor.
Saracen’s exact birth date is unknown. He was born at Arkansas Post. His father married a French woman named Marie Lepine in 1752. At the time of marriage, François, Saracen's father, 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. It seems likely that Saracen was probably born sometime before their marriage in 1752.
Quapaw Nation offers more information on Saracen beginning in the year 1818:
By 1818, after waves of disease and years of war, the Quapaw Nation was down to about 1,000 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.
It amounted to 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 were kept, forming the first Quapaw Reservation, and some hunting rights were also retained.
Despite this secession, the demand for Quapaw land continued, and in 1824 the Quapaw were again pressured into signing a second treaty with the United States. This time the Quapaw ceded their remaining land in Arkansas in exchange for a tract of land near the Red River in Louisiana. The tribe also agreed to live among the Caddo Nation in exchange for goods and an annuity payment of $1,000 for 11 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 trek to the Red River did not begin until January 1826. The removal was completed in multiple groups and was overseen by Antione Barraque, who kept notes.
By late February 1826, all of the Quapaws had reached the Red River, but they did not cross until March 1. The Quapaws were not well received by the Caddos; however, they eventually settled on the south side of the Red River near Bayou Treache, on the Caddo Prairie, around 30 miles northwest of present day Shreveport.
In the spring of 1827, the Red River flooded on multiple occasions, destroying the fields the Quapaw had planted. Coupled with disease, many in the tribe perished; 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.
By 1830, the majority of the tribe had joined them, and Saracen, along with other tribal leaders, petitioned the government 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, and settlers continued to move into the area and push out tribal members. Tribal members struggled to obtain income or food. Arkansas 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. There are no reliable sources available, and Saracen's tombstone, which is located at the St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Pine Bluff, reads that he passed away at the age of 97 in 1832.
However, this date is certainly not accurate. Saracen clearly lived to at least 1833, as he is a signatory on the treaty that was signed that year. What is not clear is exactly when he passed after 1833, with some historians leaning toward an earlier date and some believing that he passed away as late as 1839.
While there are several inconsistencies regarding the life of Saracen, there is no doubt that he is an important figure in both the history of Quapaw Nation, the history of Pine Bluff, and the history of Arkansas.
Quapaw Nation has vowed to do their part to assist in the revitalization of the Pine Bluff area. They have already stepped up to assist in several areas. The Quapaws have assisted with tornado and flood recovery, they have revitalized area basketball courts, paid to have parking lots resurfaced, and they have been very open about the progress of the coming casino with their monthly meetings at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
The Quapaws have also put an emphasis on hiring local citizens to help with both the construction portion of the casino plan, in addition to hiring locals then sending them to Downstream Casino in Oklahoma for training.
The casino is estimated to create about 1,000 construction jobs and approximately 1,100 permanent jobs once it opens in the spring of 2020. The development will span 570,000 square feet on 110 acres of developed land. More than 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games will be dispersed throughout 80,000 square feet of the gaming floor. An additional 300 machines will be located at the Saracen Annex Q-Store.
The hotel portion will feature 300 rooms, a conference center, entertainment venue, spa, restaurants and lounges, as well as a museum and cultural center. The grounds will also feature amenities such as a health clinic, safety and fire services, and a child learning center and daycare.
“This reminds me of how excited and proud we were 12 years ago breaking ground for Downstream, and what that meant for Joplin and the surrounding region,” said John L. Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation and of the Downstream Development Authority and Saracen Casino Development, in a statement.
“Saracen Casino will be a lot like Downstream in terms of style, design and luxury, and in what we think it will do for Pine Bluff. But also, building Saracen Casino is a homecoming for the Quapaw people. That’s where we lived. It is where the great Chief Saracen is buried. So this is a very special for us.”