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Arkansas / Arkansaw: A State and It’s Reputation

This episode of the Old State House Museum Collection podcast deals with our most current exhibit, Arkansas / Arkansaw : A State and Its Reputation. We feature an interview with the curator of the exhibit, Dr. Brooks Blevins, a professor of Ozark Studies at Missouri State University. Through his research and book commissioned by the Old State House, Dr. Blevins explores the origins of the states image as a backwards hillbilly state. Bill Clinton, Orval Faubus, Territorial Arkansas, Dogpatch, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Big Bear of Arkansas, and much more are discussed!

Timeline of 1500’s – 1600’s:

  • (1541) Spanish conqueror Hernando De Soto led first European expedition into Arkansas
  • (1673) Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, trader Louis Jolliet reached Quapaw villages of “Akansae” and “Kappa”
  • (1682) Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed Mississippi valley for King Louis XIV of France; La Salle’s party built Fort Prud’homme
  • (1686) Arkansas Post founded as first settlement on Mississippi River


  • (1700) French Catholic missionaries arrived to convert local Natives
  • (1721) Colonists abandoned Arkansas Post
  • (1738) French began two year war against Chickasaw Indians
  • (1762) France ceded Louisiana Territory to Spain


  • (1803) U.S. purchased Louisiana Territory
  • (1806) Louisiana Territory split, District of Arkansaw formed
  • (1811) New Madrid earthquake struck, many left homeless
  • (1812) Missouri Territory, including Arkansas, created by Congress
  • (1817) First post office established at Davidsonville; Cherokee given land in northwest Arkansas; Fort Smith established
  • (1818) Quapaw Indians ceded land between Red and Arkansas Rivers
  • (1819) Territory of Arkansas created
  • (1821) Territory capital moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock
  • (1822) First steamboat on Arkansas River reached Little Rock
  • (1824) Quapaw Indians forced to cede lands south of Arkansas River
  • (1826) Smallpox epidemic reached Arkansas
  • (1836) Arkansas became twenty-fifth state
  • (1859) Legislation signed freeing all slaves
  • (1861) Arkansas seceded from Union; admitted to Confederate States of America
  • (1862) Battles of Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove; Union victorious
  • (1864) Teenaged Confederate soldier executed for spying; unionist convention abolished slavery, adopted new constitution
  • (1866) Ex-Confederates gained control of legislature; laws passed denying blacks right to sit on juries, serve in militia or attend white public schools
  • (1867) Congress passed Reconstruction Act, voided government of Arkansas and nine other southern states
  • (1868) Arkansas re-admitted to Union; Ku Klux Klan violence led to martial law in most of state
  • (1877) Hot Springs Reservation established
  • (1887) Bauxite discovered southwest of Little Rock
  • (1891) First “Jim Crow” law passed segregating blacks and whites on trains and trams

 was the 25th state admitted to the United States.  Early French explorers of the territory gave it its name, a corruption of Akansea, which is a phonetic spelling of the Illinois word for the People of the South Wind, now called the Quapaw, who were descendents of the Illinois people who had migrated down the Mississippi River.

Colonial Arkansas – The expeditions of Hernando de Soto, Marquette and Joliet

Artist depiction of the burial of de Soto, 1876

The first European to reach Arkansas was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541. Soto wandered among settlements, inquiring about gold and other valuable natural resources. He encountered the Casqui in northeast Arkansas, who sent him north around Devil’s Elbow to the Pacaha, the enemy of the Casqui. Upon arrival in the Pacaha village, the Casqui who had followed behind de Soto attacked and raided the village.   Soto ultimately engaged the two tribe’s chiefs in a peace treaty before continuing on to travel much of Arkansas. The explorer died in May 1542 and was thrown into the Mississippi River near McArthur, Arkansas to prevent local tribes from knowing he was mortal.   In 1673, French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet reached the Arkansas Riveras part of an expedition to find the mouth of the Mississippi River. After a calumet with friendly Quapaw, the group suspected the Spanish to be nearby and returned north.

Robert La Salle and Henri De Tonti

Map of Arkansas that includes de Soto route, 1795

Robert La Salle entered Arkansas in 1681 as part of his quest to find the mouth of the Mississippi River, and thus claim the entire river for New France. La Salle and his partner, Henri de Tonti, succeeded in this venture, claiming the river in April 1682. La Salle would return to France while dispatching de Tonti to wait for him and hold Fort St. Louis. On the king’s orders, La Salle returned to colonize the Gulf of Mexico for the French, but ran aground in Matagorda Bay. La Salle led three expeditions on foot searching for the Mississippi River, but his third party mutinied near Navasota, Texas in 1687. de Tonti learned of La Salle’s Texas expeditions and traveled south in an effort to locate him along the Mississippi River. Along this journey south, de Tonti founded Arkansas Post as a waypoint for his searches. La Salle’s party, now led by his brother, stumbled upon the Post and were greeted kindly by Quapaw with fond memories of La Salle. The troupe thought it best to lie and say La Salle remained at his new coastal colony.

The French colonization of the Mississippi Valley would end with the later destruction of Fort St. Louis without de Tonti establishing the small trading stop, Arkansas Post. The party originally lead by La Salle would depart the Post and continue north to Montreal, where interest was spurred in explorers who had the knowledge that the French had a holding in the region.

Arkansas Post – Main article: Arkansas Post

The first settlement in Arkansas was Arkansas Post, established in 1686 by Henri de Tonti.  The post disbanded for unknown reasons in 1699 but was reestablished in 1721 in the same location. Located slightly upriver from the confluence of the Arkansas River and Mississippi River, the remote post was a center of trade and home base for fur trappers in the region to trade their wares.  The French settlers mingled and in some cases even intermarried with Quapaw natives, sharing a dislike of English and Chickasaw who were allies at the time. A moratorium on furs imposed by Canada severely affected the post’s economy, and many settlers began to move out of the Mississippi River Valley. Scottish banker John Law saw the struggling post and attempted to entice settlers to emigrate from Germany to start an agriculture settlement at Arkansas Post, but his efforts failed when Law-created Mississippi Bubble burst in 1720.   The French maintained the post throughout this time mostly due to its strategic significance along the Mississippi River. The post was moved back further from the Mississippi River in 1749 after the English with their Chickasaw allies attacked, it was moved downriver in 1756 to be closer to a Quapaw defensive line that had been established and to serve as an entrepôt during the Seven Years’ War and prevent attacks from the Spanish along the Mississippi.   After the war ended, the post was again moved upriver out of the floodplain in 1779.

The secret Treaty of Fontainebleau gave Spain the Louisiana Territory in exchange for Florida (although credit is often given to the public Treaty of Paris), including present-day Arkansas. The Spanish show little interest in Arkansas Post except for the land grants meant to inspire settlement around the post which would later cause problems with land titles given by the American government.   The post’s position 4 miles (6.4 km) up the Arkansas River made it a hub for trappers to start their journeys, although it also served as a diplomatic center for relations between the Spanish and Quapaw. Many who stopped at Arkansas Post were simply passing through on their way up or down river and needed supplies or rest. Inhabitants of the post included approximately 10 elite merchants, some domestic slaves, and the wives and children of trappers who were out in the wilderness.   Only the elites actually lived inside the defensive walls of the post, with the remaining people surrounding the fortification. In April 1783, Arkansas saw it’s only battle of the American Revolutionary War, a brief siege of the post by British Captain James Colbert, with the assistance of Choctaw and Chicksaw Indians.

Louisiana Purchase and territorial status – See also: Louisiana Purchase

Although the United States of America had gained separation from the British as a result of the Revolutionary War, Arkansas remained in Spanish hands after the conflict. Americans began moving west to Kentucky and Tennessee, and the United States wanted to guarantee these people that the Spanish possession of the Mississippi River would not disrupt commerce. Napoleon Bonaparte‘s conquest of Spain shortly after the American Revolution forced the Spanish to cede Louisiana, including Arkansas, to the French via the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. England declared war on France in 1803, and Napoleon sold his land in the new world to the United States, today known as the Louisiana Purchase. The size of the country doubled with the purchase, and an influx of new White settlers led to a changed dynamic between Native Americans and Arkansans.  Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the relationship between the two groups was a “middle ground” of give and take. These relationships would deteriorate all across the frontier, including in Arkansas.

The modern United States, with Louisiana Purchase overlay (in green)
1812 Map of the United States
1820 Map of the United States

Maps of the United States, first showing Arkansas as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, then the Missouri Territory in 1812, and later as the Arkansaw Territory in 1820.

Thomas Jefferson initiated the Lewis and Clark Expedition to find the nation’s new northern boundary, and the Dunbar Hunter Expedition, led by William Dunbar, was sent to establish the new southern boundary. The group was intended to explore the Red River, but due to Spanish hostility settled on a tour up the Ouachita River to explore the hot springs in central Arkansas. Leaving in October 1804 and parting company at Fort Miro on January 16, 1805, their reports included detailed accounts of give and take between Native Americans and trappers, detailed flora and fauna descriptions, and a chemical analysis of the “healing waters” of the hot springs.   Also included was useful information for settlers to navigate the area and descriptions of the people inhabiting south Arkansas. The settler-Native American relationship deteriorated further following the 1812 New Madrid earthquake, viewed by some as punishment for accepting and assimilating into White culture. Many Cherokee left their farms and moved shortly after a speech admonishing the tribe for departing from tradition following a speech in June 1812 by a tribal chief.

Arkansaw Territory – See also: Arkansaw Territory and Missouri Compromise

A small segment of the Territory of Missouri applied for statehood on March 2, 1819. The application included a provision that would bring Missouri into the Union as a slave state, which would upset the delicate balance of slave and free states. This application also defined all land in the Missouri Territory south of the parallel 36°30′ north, except the Missouri Bootheelbetween the Mississippi River and the Saint Francis River north of the 36th parallel north, as the new Territory of Arkansaw. When the Missouri Enabling Act was taken up in the United States House of RepresentativesJames Tallmadge denounced slavery and succeeded in passing two acts: that no new slaves were allowed to enter Missouri and gradual emancipation of the slaves already living there. These acts were the first attempt to curb the rapid expansion of slavery along the country’s expanding western frontier and caught many southern Democrats by surprise. The following day, John Taylor proposed identical restrictions on slavery before authorizing the Arkansaw Enabling Act. The banning of new slaves amendment was soundly defeated, but the gradual emancipation measure was tied until Speaker of the House Henry Clay cast the deciding no vote killing the Amendment and allowing Arkansaw to organize as a slave territory. The Missouri Compromise was later struck allowing Maine to enter as a free state, thus allowing Missouri to enter as a slave state to keeping the balance of free/slave states at 12 each.

The new Arkansaw Territory held its territorial government at the territorial capital, Arkansas Post, and included all of present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma except the Oklahoma panhandle. These lands became Indian Territory by 1828, leaving the modern day outline of Arkansas. The uncertainty surrounding Missouri’s status as a slave state caused a rapid outmigration of slaveholders into Arkansas. Slavery also became a divisive issue within Arkansas. The wealthy planters of southeast Arkansas strongly supported slavery since manual labor was the only method of harvesting cotton at the time. The northwest parts of the state did not have cotton plantations, and as little as 2% of the black population in northwest Arkansas was enslaved during the territorial era. However, northwest Arkansas backed slavery in support of the southeastern Arkansas planters.

Native American removal from Arkansas

In an effort to prevent white settlers from encroaching on their home territory, the Quapaw sign an 1818 treaty relinquishing all their hunting lands in exchange for keeping 32,000,000 acres (13,000,000 ha) of land along the Arkansas River in south Arkansas in their possessio   This treaty was later reneged upon the following year, with whites taking all but 1,000,000 acres (400,000 ha) back for settlement. At this time, Cherokee from GeorgiaSouth Carolina, and North Carolina were being forced into Arkansas onto Caddo hunting lands west of Little Rock. The Caddo did not welcome the invasion of the Cherokee, who had though they were moving to uninhabited land. The Caddo viewed the Cherokee as “domesticated” by the white man for signing treaties with the United States government and the tribes went to war. Cephas Washburn established Dwight Mission near Russellville as a school for Cherokee youth at the tribe’s request in 1821.   This school was later moved to Sallisaw, Oklahoma. The Osage signed a treaty to leave Arkansas in 1825 and moved to Kansas briefly before buying their own reservation in Osage County, Oklahoma. The United States established Fort Smith, Arkansas and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma to keep the peace with the disgruntled Native Americans.

During the Industrial Revolution, cotton prices boomed and white settlers clamored for the fertile lands around the Arkansas River inhabited by the Quapaw. Eventually the government gave in and forced the Quapaw to a reservation in Louisiana with the Caddo. Antoine Baroque led the Quapaw south in the winter of 1825-26. They found the Caddo inhospitable because the Quapaw were viewed as invaders and when the Quapaw’s crop washed away twice due to flooding of the Red River, conditions got even worse.   Combined with the overcrowding and lack of annuities promised to both tribes, the Quapaw were unhappy and followed chief Saracen back to their homeland along the Arkansas River. By 1830, the entire tribe had returned to Arkansas, and despite governor John Pope and Indian agent Richard Hannon, the Quapaw were removed to a separate reservation in northeast Oklahoma in 1833.   Secretary Robert Crittenden was instrumental in acquiring the final removal. ℗ is your source to learn about the broad and beautiful spectrum of our shared History.