When the first Fort Smith was established in 1817, its location was chosen for its strategic importance. At the confluence of two rivers, on a high bluff, soldiers could have a commanding view of river traffic and the surrounding countryside. But this was still a wilderness and during the long, hot, humid Arkansas summers and what could be frigid winters, the small military force was subject to sickness and disease. Dysentery, pneumonia, and fevers were common, and sometimes men paid the ultimate price for their service in the U.S. Army. One of the soldiers stationed at the first Fort Smith was a man named Balthazar Kramer. The son of German immigrants, Kramer was born in Maryland about 1779 (1777). By 1797, his family had moved to New Geneva, Pennsylvania to establish a glass factory. Kramer married Elizabeth Ingles (Engels) on March 2, 1800, and the couple went on to have at least 8 children together.
Kramer joined the U.S. Rifle Regiment when it was organized in 1815. He served under the command of Major William Bradford, eventually rose to the rank of Sergeant and was part of the company that established the first Fort Smith in December of 1817. Unfortunately, while ascending the Arkansas River that autumn, Kramer contracted some kind of illness. The records from the first Fort Smith indicate that he was hospitalized almost immediately, and although the term for which Kramer had enlisted expired in 1819, he could not return home. The army discharged him on April 12 of that year, but because he was ill and completely disabled, he was allowed to remain at the post.
Major Bradford wrote a letter to his superiors in the War Department explaining the situation. He said that he refused to let Kramer leave the post to suffer and starve. He also stated that the infirmity did not derive from "old age or from intemperance, but [that Kramer] was unable to earn [a] living from unavoidable exposure and fatigue while in the line of … duty as [a soldier] in the army of the United States." Bradford's opinion was that Kramer was "as much entitled to the bounty of the government as if [he] had lost leg or an arm in battle."
Bradford's support did little to improve Kramer's situation. On October 12, 1822, he wrote to his wife that he was not getting any better. His one wish was to see her and the children again, but misfortune had made that impossible. The bank was broke and he had no hopes of getting any money. He explained that he had sent money enough to hire a man to take him to the mouth of the Arkansas but the water was too low for boats to travel on the river.
Sergeant Kramer died at the post on December 5, 1823 without ever being able to return home. The recorded cause of his death was arthritis. As late as 1854 his widow Elizabeth was still trying to obtain a pension from the U.S. government.
Juliet Galonska, February 1995
References: Balthazar Kramer file, Fort Smith National Historic Site.
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