Yell, Archibald (ca. 1797–1847)

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 1, 1995

Archibald Yell, soldier, congressman, and governor of Arkansas, was born in Jefferson County, Tennessee, on August 9, 1797 (according to most sources), the son of Moses and Jane (Curry) Yell. He served with Andrew Jackson against the Cherokees in 1813–14 and against the British at New Orleans in 1814–15. In Tennessee he read law and was admitted to the bar, but he returned in 1818 to Jackson's army for service against the Seminoles in Florida, where his courage won the admiration of "Old Hickory." Yell served a term representing Bedford County in the Tennessee legislature and then received a succession of federal appointments from Jackson, beginning in December 21, 1831, with the directorship of the federal land office in Little Rock, Arkansas. Within a few months he resigned to resume the practice of law, but in January 1835 he accepted an appointment as territorial judge. Yell is reputed to have been as fearless on the bench as on the field of battle. According to one story, when no one dared serve on a posse to arrest a desperado known to be in a local saloon, Judge Yell entered, grabbed the criminal by the throat, and ordered him into court. Yell was elected to the House of Representatives when Arkansas was admitted to statehood in 1836 and served until 1839. In Washington he supported the annexation of Texas, Polk's Oregon policy, and a stronger army. As governor of Arkansas, a post to which he was elected in 1840, he demanded stronger control of banks but also recommended a board of internal improvements and supported public education. In 1844 Yell resigned as governor to run again for Congress. In this campaign he demonstrated that he could be all things to all people. During one morning of the campaign, he won a shooting match, donated the beef to the poorest widow in the community, and ordered a jug of whiskey for the crowd. That same day he led the singing at a camp meeting a few miles up the road. He won the election easily.

On March 10, 1845, Yell's close personal friend and political mentor, President James K. Polk, sent the congressman-elect to Texas with instructions to the American chargé d'affaires, Andrew Jackson Donelson, confirming John Tyler's choice of the House of Representatives' plan to bring about annexation. Yell accompanied Donelson from New Orleans to Texas to accept the republic's offer of annexation. He was active in stimulating public meetings, and he was unstinting in his promises of benefits to accrue to Texas and Texans should the measure be consummated.

Yell took his seat in Congress in the fall of 1846, but with the outbreak of the Mexican War he raised and took command of the First Arkansas Volunteer Cavalry. The regiment compiled a record of insubordination and near mutiny in camp and ineffectiveness in battle. In the words of Justin Smith, whose 1919 history of the war with Mexico remains the standard, "What the Arkansas men lacked was not courage, but discipline (and the resulting skill and confidence)" with which to meet the enemy. Smith's verdict was that "Yell was a gallant but negligent officer" who "did not know how to manoeuvre his men," and that the Arkansas regiment "disgraced themselves at Buena Vista in consequence of lacking discipline." Yell, however, may be said to have redeemed himself in true romantic fashion by falling before a Mexican lancer on February 23, 1847, at the defense of Rancho Buena Vista after several of his companies had scattered. Yell was five feet ten inches tall, had auburn hair, and was considered handsome. He was married three times and had five children. His first wife died in Tennessee; the second, Nancy, died on October 3, 1835; and the third, Marie, on October 14, 1838. Yell was a Mason and founded the first lodge in Arkansas at Fayetteville. Yell County, Arkansas, is named in his honor. Archibald Yell was first buried on the field at Buena Vista, but within a few months his body was disinterred and returned to Arkansas for burial at the Waxhaws Cemetery in Fayetteville. With the establishment of the Evergreen Cemetery, Yell's body was removed to its Masonic section.

John Hallum, Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas (Albany: Weed, Parsons, 1887; rpt. 1922). William W. Hughes, Archibald Yell (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988). Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., New York: Macmillan, 1919).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Yell, Archibald,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995