John Drennen was a prominent businessman who is called the father of Van Buren (Crawford County). The home he built in Van Buren, now known as the Drennen-Scott House, serves as a museum interpreting local history and Drennen’s legacy.
John Drennen was born to Thomas Drennen and Isabelle Moore Drennen on February 5, 1801, in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. At a young age, he and his family moved to Potosi, Missouri. On March 21, 1826, in Potosi, he married Emily Rosanna Deaderick Stuart, widow of James Stuart; John and Emily Drennen had three daughters, one of whom died in childhood. Later in 1826, he moved to Tennessee and went into business with his brother-in-law David Thompson (the husband of Emily Drennen’s sister, Lauretta Deaderick). In about 1829, the partners began to look toward expanding their interests and established a wood lot near the future site of Van Buren.
About 1830, the Drennen and Thompson families moved from Tennessee to Little Rock (Pulaski County) and opened mercantile businesses—one in Little Rock and one in Washington (Hempstead County). At the Little Rock establishment, they advertised a new warehouse where they would carry on a storage and commission business. The Choctaw were being removed from Mississippi to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) at this time, and the partners sold halter chains and some other items used in the removal. Sometime around 1832, they were in partnership with Edward Cunningham at Columbus (Crawford County). Cunningham’s business interests included a mercantile store with a forwarding and commission component and a ferry. They moved to Columbus in the early 1830s. On March 17, 1835, Drennen supplied rations to 478 Muscogee (Creek) who were being removed.
While at Columbus, Drennen and his partners also speculated in land, with Thompson the leader in the venture. He collected lists of veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 who had not collected their bounty land and bought their land warrants to resell at a profit. He traveled between Nashville, Tennessee, and other cities in the east to purchase bounty land warrants and also to obtain eastern capital for their venture. Thousands of acres of land in Arkansas, as well as in Missouri and Mississippi, were obtained by the partners and later resold.
Drennen also had a passion for horse racing. He was a vice president of the Fort Smith (Sebastian County) racing club at its third racing meet, and the Crawford County Jockey Club met at Columbus in 1836. The partners bought well-bred horses from sources in Virginia and elsewhere. They developed a stable and training facility for their horses near Cane Hill (Washington County) and hired an eastern trainer to come to Arkansas. They were also instrumental in establishing a racing track at Van Buren.
Late in 1835, Drennen was elected as a delegate from Crawford County to attend Arkansas’s first constitutional convention, which began on January 4, 1836, in Little Rock. Following statehood, Drennen was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives and was reelected in 1838. He was a trustee for the Arkansas Real Estate Bank.
In 1836, he and Thompson paid $11,000 for the land that would become the town site for Van Buren. The land had been owned by Thomas Phillips, and a post office named Van Buren was established there, with Phillips serving as postmaster, in 1831. Drennen became post master in 1836 at Van Buren and kept that job until September 30, 1843. In 1836, Drennen chose land on a hill overlooking the town site and the river, where he started building his home. He laid out the town site and developed a farm downhill from where he was building his home.
Also in 1836, Drennen began to purchase land in Chicot County, where he developed Dearfield Plantation, later called Drennen Dale, covering 1,909 acres. Drennen used the plantation as a second home and had an overseer handling much of his Chicot County business.
Columbus was subject to flooding. After being flooded out twice, Drennen and Thompson moved their business to Van Buren in 1837. In 1838, Drennen was named to obtain subscriptions for the Dwight and Van Buren Turnpike. He sold stock in, and kept the books for, the Arkansas Mining and Manufacturing Company, which mined coal along the Arkansas River, especially in the Spadra (Johnson County) area, and had the state legislature pass an act to incorporate the Arkansas and Chihuahua Trading Company. On March 15, 1839, Drennen and Thompson donated Block 14, containing sixteen lots, to Crawford County with the understanding that the county commissioners “will place the court house and jail of said county of Crawford on said block of land.”
On January 24, 1837, Lauretta Deaderick Thompson died, and David Thompson died on September 12, 1839, leaving Drennen as guardian of their children. Drennen’s wife, Emily, died on August 20, 1844. On March 28, 1848, Drennen married Kate Humphreys in Chicot County; they had three sons.
Drennen was a Whig in politics, and at the January 16, 1844, state Whig conference, he was elected one of the two vice presidents. In 1846, he was elected captain of the Arkansas Frontier Guards, and he served with them in the Mexican War. From this time on, he was referred to as Colonel Drennen. In 1849, he was appointed Choctaw agent for Indian Territory and, soon after, became acting superintendent of Indian Affairs for the southwestern territory. He maintained an office at his home in Van Buren, and tribal members were frequently there. He handled about $7 million for the Indian tribes in the territory. His clerk, William Wilson, was listed as living in his home in 1850. Drennen’s salary was $1,500 per year. In 1851, he was responsible for preparing a census, called the Drennen Rolls, of Cherokee people who had arrived in Indian Territory as a result of the Treaty of 1835.
Drennen was a significant slave owner. Some records indicate that he had sixty to seventy slaves, but the 1850 federal slave schedule lists him with twenty-five slaves in Chicot County and eight slaves in Crawford County. One fourteen-year-old slave girl owned by him escaped while the Drennens were traveling through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1850.
Drennen continued to be active in business in the 1850s. A steamboat was named Col. Drennen after him. In 1855, he took his family to Virginia for the summer and returned to his plantation in Chicot County. In September, he began traveling to Virginia to escort his family home to Van Buren. He was stricken with yellow fever on the way and died on September 27, 1855, at Indianapolis, Indiana. His body was returned to Van Buren and interred in Fairview Cemetery.
The home he had started building in 1836 remained in his family until 2004, when it became the property of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. After restoration work, the Drennen-Scott House opened to the public in 2011.
For additional information:
David Thompson Papers, 1810–1854. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Death of Col. Drennen.” Arkansas Gazette, November 2, 1855, p. 2.
Dunn, Katie. “Wealth, Slaves, and John Drennen: A Look at an Antebellum Arkansas Businessman.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 39 (April 2015): 11–19.
Eno, Clara B. History of Crawford County, Arkansas. Van Buren, AR: Press-Argus, 1955.
Kent, Carolyn Yancey. Van Buren, Arkansas, on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, Resources on Indian Removal No. 14. Little Rock: Sequoyah National Research Center, 2007.
Wing, Jerry. “Good Whig Hunting: John Drennen and the Department of Indian Affairs.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 39 (April 2015): 24–30.
Carolyn Yancey Kent