Arkansas History


Historic Facts & Overview of Arkansas History

Take a peek at Arkansas history. Discover an overview of Arkansas' rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Arkansas, which joined the Union in 1836, was the 25th state. The early French explorers of the state gave it its name, which is probably a phonetic spelling for the French word for "downriver" people, a reference to the Quapaw Indians and the river along which they settled. Arkansas is the only state in which diamonds have been mined, although today the mine operates only as a tourist attraction. The state flower is the apple blossom. The current state nickname is the Natural State but in the past it was also known as the Land of Opportuntity and the Wonder State.

Overview of Arkansas History and Heritage

Geographically located north of Louisiana and flanked on the east by the Mississippi River's west bank, the development of the state of Arkansas spanned three centuries. Long before frontiersmen from the newly formed United States crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and attempted settlement along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Spanish and French explorers came upon the native peoples living in what is now Arkansas. From evidence left in mounds and bluffs, including pottery and stone implements, we know that people have been living in the region that is now Arkansas for thousands of years. The ancestors of the Indians were first to inhabit the region. The abundant wildlife and fertile soil made the area a wonderful home for these people, who gradually developed from primitive hunter-gatherers living in caves to much more sophisticated farmers living in large permanent villages. As the eastern lands were settled, more Indians moved to sparsely inhabited Arkansas. The Indians who lived here included the Folsom people, Bluff Dwellers, Mound Builders, Caddos, Quapaws, Osage, Choctaw and Cherokee.

In 1541, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto was the first European to set foot in Arkansas. He led an unsuccessful, yearlong expedition for gold. One hundred and thirty-one years later, two Frenchmen named Marquette and Joliet visited Arkansas briefly. In 1682, at the mouth of the Mississippi, LaSalle claimed the Mississippi Valley for France, but was later assassinated by two of his companions. In 1686, Henri De Tonti set out from Fort St. Louis on the Illinois River to meet LaSalle at the mouth of the Mississippi. After he failed to locate LaSalle, De Tonti, the "Father of Arkansas", established the first European settlement in Arkansas, called Arkansas Post, with six residents.

Over the next hundred years, development of the region was sluggish as the number of settlers slowly increased. In 1762, the entire Louisiana Territory was ceded to Spain, and Spanish governors offered free land and no taxes to encourage settlers to inhabit the area. In 1799, there were approximately 386 white people living in Arkansas. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was acquired by the United States, and, in 1819, Arkansas was organized as a territory. Its northern, eastern and southern borders were the same as they are now, but to the west, some of what is now Oklahoma was included. In the same year the "Arkansas Gazette", once considered the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi, was founded by William E. Woodruff. Two years later, in 1821, the territorial capital was moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock.

By 1836, the Arkansas Territory had the 60,000 residents required to become a state, and after writing an acceptable constitution, was declared the 25th state in the United States. The new state enjoyed a thirty year period of prosperity, and by 1860 had a population of 435,000, 25 percent of whom were slaves. The majority of the residents were planters who lived in the rich bottomlands of the east and southeastern portion of the state and farmers who lived in the central and northern hills. A much smaller number of residents were lawyers, doctors, merchants, missionaries and teachers.

Arkansas was drawn into the Civil War in May, 1861, by its decision to secede from the Union. Troops were mustered and civilians devoted their energy and resources to providing food, clothing, weapons, and horses for the soldiers. Two major battles, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, were fought in Arkansas. In 1863, the Confederate government moved to Washington in the southwestern corner of our state; and, in 1864, the Union government was established in Little Rock. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the era called Reconstruction began, during which dramatic changes were made in the South. The Democrats returned to power in 1874, the same year our present constitution was adopted.

The next 25 years were a time of growth and recovery. New inventions, such as the telephone, electricity, residential running water, and city sewer systems made life easier and more comfortable for Arkansans, affording them more leisure time for social and literary pursuits. Lumber mills, farms, factories and cities around the state were linked by 5,000 miles of railroad. Many public schools were developed, and numerous colleges, including the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Hendrix, Arkansas College, Henderson-Brown, Philander Smith, Shorter and Ouachita were founded. Even as early as 1875, Arkansas was billed as the "Land of Opportunity" when an active campaign was launched outside the state to attract new residents to Arkansas. By 1900, the population had more than doubled to 1.3 million.

The 20th century has seen even more change in Arkansas. Airplanes, radios, talking movies, and eventually television has enhanced our life-style. Automobiles grew in popularity, and in 1921, the first auto, gas, and oil taxes were levied to finance construction of paved roads and highways. The discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in the state provided cheap and plentiful energy for years. The growing use of farm and machinery led to the consolidation of many family-run farms into larger farming corporations. Arkansans learned in 1904 that rice could successfully be grown here, and it is now one of our most profitable crops. The livestock and dairy industries have also gained prominence in the last 90 years. A post World War II drive to industrialize the state was successful in effecting a more favorable balance of industrial and agricultural production. Firms in Arkansas now manufacture a wide range of items, including aluminum products, aircraft components, communications equipment, cosmetics, clothing, and pulp and paper products.

In 500 years, Arkansas has grown from vast wilderness to a thriving state with a population of 2.5 million. Advancements in farming, lumbering, manufacturing, tourism and government have gained Arkansas a viable place in the international market.

Source : Arkansas Secretary of State. Also, see Arkansas Department of Heritage for more information.

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