Born in Baden, Germany, on Nov. 8, 1829, and educated at Mannheim College in that same country, Dell emigrated to the United States in 1846. After serving five years in the army, then working in New Orleans and St. Louis as a clerk, Dell won some supply contracts at Fort Arbuckle in the Indian Territory.
By 1859, he had finally settled in Fort Smith where he opened a small co-educational school. During the war, he struggled to keep the school afloat. Census records indicate that he lived with the Hunt family in Fort Smith. Probably in exchange for board, he took as one of his students one Adelia Hunt, who later became his wife.
After the Union Army retook the fort in September 1863, Dell was able to start a newspaper with the assistance of the federal military. Called the New Era, this weekly journal was published by Dell until his death in 1884.
Not only was the New Era a unionist newspaper during the war, it espoused the views of the Republican party's Radical faction during the Reconstruction period and into the 1880s. Dell was a reformer of the purest strain. (He had been an active abolitionist in Kansas). Repelled by the corruption of the scandal-plagued Grant administration and Powell Clayton's carpetbagger regime, Dell opposed both while remaining a Republican. Active within the party organization, Dell served as a delegate to the state conventions of 1864, 1866 and 1868. From 1866-67, he was chairman of the state Republican Central Committee.
Dell did not just advocate reform though. He also acted to see that reforms were carried out in Arkansas. In 1868, the counties of Crawford, Sebastian and Franklin elected Dell to serve as state senator for the district. During the five years in office, he especially was known for championing the cause of free public education.
1868 was a benchmark year for Dell in that the city elected him to serve as school director and president of the school board. It was under Valentine Dell that Fort Smith established its first free public school system.
From late 1880 to early 1882, Dell held the office of U.S. marshal in Parker's court. While there he enacted numerous reforms. He selected C.C. Ayers to work under him as U.S. jailer. He and Ayers saw that the men were better fed than before and that they got new, more adequate bedding. Dell wrote that the cost of feeding prisoners was reduced while the quality of food given them was improved. (If Dell is to be believed, this seems to indicate mismanagement or graft on the part of his predecessors in the office.)
In 1883 and 1884, Dell's health began to fail. He attempted to find a buyer for the New Era to help pay expenses for the maintenance of his large family, but found no takers. The official cause of Dell's death in October 1885 was listed as a hemorhage. The Dell family had lost their patriarch. The Arkansas Radicals, what was left of them, had lost their chief advocate. Fort Smith had lost one of its most colorful characters and firebrands. Despite this loss, through the record of the New Era, Dell continues to amuse his readers and illuminate a fascinating and important era in the city's history. He was as much a part of that new era and he was its chronicler.
Sources: Encyclopedia of the New West; Fort Smith New Era editions.