This National Memorial is the site of the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi Valley. It was founded for the French by Henry de Tonti in August, 1686; ceded to Spain in November, 1762; the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish on April 17, 1783; returned to French control in 1800; and taken over by the United States in 1804 following the Louisiana Purchase. It served as the capital of Arkansas Territory, was the place of publication of the Arkansas Gazette from 1819 to 1821, and was the site of a Civil War battle at Fort Hindman on January 10-11, 1863.
Arkansas Post National Memorial
1741 Old Post Road
Gillett, AR 72055
ph.: (870) 548-2207
Web site: www.nps.gov/arpo/
Although little-known today, Arkansas Post was the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley. As its location shifted up and down the Arkansas River and its ownership passed back and forth between France, Spain, and the United States, Arkansas Post witnessed much of the early history of the North American frontier. Floods, wars, and soil erosion took their toll, however, and the Post slipped from prominence. Today it is home only to the Arkansas Post National Memorial.
Arkansas Post was founded in August, 1686, by Henry de Tonti, the lieutenant of prominent explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Tonti, La Salle, and thirty French explorers had first come upon this spot four years earlier, on March 13, 1682, during their trip down the Mississippi River. Tonti was impressed with the area, located about thirty-five miles from the mouth of the Arkansas River, and was particularly taken with the hospitality of the Quapaw Indians. He wrote in his journal, “we were well treated and given a cabin for our stay. . . . It can be said these savages were the best of all we had ever seen. . . . They had fish in abundance, roosters and chickens, and several kinds of unknown fruits.” On their return up the river, La Salle granted Tonti several thousand acres in the area.
When La Salle returned to France to plan his next expedition, he left Tonti at Fort St. Louis, founded a year earlier near the site of present-day Peoria, Illinois. Tonti would never see La Salle again. Sailing back from France, La Salle’s ship landed by mistake on the Texas coast. He was killed by his own men before he could find his way to the Mississippi. In the meantime, Tonti traveled south with his men to search for their missing commander. In August, 1686, he stopped once again near the mouth of the Arkansas River. Before moving on, Tonti settled six of his men there, near the Quapaw village of Osotouy. This was the first Poste de Arkansea, located approximately five miles from the site where the memorial stands today.
While Tonti resumed his search for La Salle, the six men set to work building the Post. In the late spring of 1687, they received unexpected visitors: the bedraggled survivors of La Salle’s expedition. Henri Joutel, leader of the expedition, described their discovery of the Post after traveling all the way from the Texas coast: “Looking over to the further side [of the Arkansas] we discovered a great cross, and at a small distance from it a house built after the French fashion. It is easy to imagine what inward joy we conceived at the sight of that emblem of our salvation.” When Tonti returned he began developing the Post as a fur trading center.
Colonial Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert had long opposed the fur trade in the area then known as Louisiana, however. To solidify the trade in Montreal and force the cultivation of Louisiana, he revoked the traders’ licenses in 1694 and ordered all western forts to be abandoned, with the exception of Fort St. Louis. Tonti’s protests bought a little time, but Arkansas Post was ultimately deserted by the French in 1699, possibly due to increased competition from English traders.
The French returned to Arkansas Post after Scottish financier John Law acquired rights to the Louisiana concession in 1717. As part of the astoundingly ill conceived financial scheme known as the “Mississippi Bubble,” Law proposed to settle six thousand colonists and three thousand African slaves in Louisiana. Countless shares in Law’s Compagnie d’Occident were issued, and their price soon skyrocketed. In an effort to meet the demand, Law, who conveniently controlled the Banque Royale as well, simply printed more currency.
Using his newfound wealth, Law initiated plans to settle Louisiana, with the area around Arkansas Post to be his personal duchy. He sent eighty French workmen to begin construction at the abandoned site and gathered eight hundred Alsatian colonists and five hundred African slaves. By this time, however, the value of Law’s stock had ballooned by 4,000 percent and the French currency was hopelessly unstable. The crash inevitably came, and both Law and the Compagnie d’Occident were discredited. The Alsatian colonists never reached the Post; they settled instead in New Orleans.
In March, 1722, Bertrand Dufresne, the new director for the Arkansas concession, arrived at the Post. A member of his party reported finding only forty-seven settlers (most likely the remaining workmen sent by Law), “twenty huts poorly arranged and three acres of cleared ground.” There is no reason to accept later accounts that hundreds of Alsatian immigrants had settled near the Post and erected “pavilions” and “great storehouses.” In 1723, a traveler to the settlement found only “three miserable shacks, fourteen Frenchmen, and six Negroes.” The French had also established a small military outpost a few miles upriver, but they abandoned it in 1725. By the time Paul du Poisson, a Jesuit missionary, arrived at Arkansas Post in 1727, there were but thirty settlers. “Only the excellence of the soil and the climate have kept them, for in other respects they have received no assistance,” he wrote.
In 1732, the French reestablished a military post on the shores of Lake Dumond, near several Quapaw villages. Within a few years they had constructed a barracks, a prison, a main house, a powder magazine, and possibly a stockade. These defenses would soon be put to the test. The Chickasaws, longtime enemies of the Quapaws, had begun raiding French shipping in the region. On May 10, 1749, one hundred fifty Chickasaws, Abekas, and possibly several Choctaws loyal to the English attacked Arkansas Post at dawn. The raiders easily outnumbered the twenty-odd settlers and the twelve soldiers under Ensign Louis-Xavier-Martin Delinó de Chalmette. To make matters worse, the Quapaws had moved upriver following the 1748 floods. The raiders took the French totally by surprise; fourteen settlers were captured outside the fort. The fort itself would have been overrun had the Chickasaw chief not been wounded and called a retreat. The male prisoners were killed, but the women and children were all eventually ransomed or released.
In response to the attack, the Post was moved upriver, near the new Quapaw villages at Écores Rouges (Red Bluffs). Today, this is the site of the National Memorial. After several false starts, the French deployed a full military company of fifty men to the Post and began work on large-scale fortifications, probably in the fall of 1751. The new fort was composed of seventeen buildings, was surrounded by a three-foot moat and an eleven-foot stockade, and was equipped with three cannon batteries and three sentry boxes. It was completed in 1755.
Despite the construction of these elaborate fortifications, Arkansas Post was moved again only a year later. The French wished the Post to be closer to the mouth of the Arkansas River, thereby offering greater protection and a more convenient trading center for their convoys on the Mississippi. The need to protect these convoys from the English and their allied Indian tribes was particularly urgent due to the start of the French and Indian War. The fort they constructed there greatly resembled the one completed the year before. Between 1756 and 1757, it was garrisoned by more than a hundred soldiers.
As a result of the war, France ceded its Louisiana holdings to Spain in November, 1762. About fifty French soldiers and forty settlers stayed on under Spanish rule. Like the French, the Spanish saw the area as a potential center of trade with the Indians. They also saw Louisiana in purely strategic terms, as a buffer zone between the English and Spain’s more profitable colonies of Mexico. For both goals they needed the cooperation of the local Indian tribes. Because their colonial ambitions centered on Mexico, however, the Spanish wished to expend as few resources as possible in Louisiana. They therefore had great difficulty retaining the loyalty of the Quapaws. A series of Osage attacks, possibly instigated by the British, brought a tepid response from the Spanish governor. After several Quapaws engineered their own retaliatory raid, Fernando de Leyba, commandant of Arkansas Post, had to reward the Indians himself.
The British also used trade to weaken the Quapaws’ alliance with the Spanish. In 1770, an Englishman settled on the Spanish side of the river, in the immediate vicinity of the Post. He soon opened a trading store and married the daughter of the Quapaws’ great chief. When Leyba could not persuade the Quapaws to evict the Englishman, he invited tribal members to the fort and demonstrated its firepower. Whether Leyba meant to intimidate the Quapaws or prove his ability to protect them, it worked–they expelled the Englishman and closed his store.
British captain Philip Pittman described the Post in 1770 as a bustling military and trade center:
The fort stands about 200 yards from the waterside and is garrisoned by a captain, a lieutenant, and 30 French soldiers, including sergeants and corporals. There are eight houses without the fort, occupied by as many families. . . . These people subsist mostly by hunting, and every season send to New Orleans great quantities of bear’s oil, tallow, salted buffalo meat and a few skins.
In 1779, Commandant Balthazar de Villiers moved Arkansas Post back to Écores Rouges, probably because of the constant flooding at the mouth of the Arkansas River. The Post would remain at that location for the rest of its existence. According to de Villiers’s 1779 map, there was no fort there, only thirty private dwellings: seventeen belonged to Frenchmen and thirteen to Americans who had fled the Revolution.
The American Revolution brought renewed strategic importance to Arkansas Post. The Spanish saw the Revolution as a means of recapturing their lost territory in west Florida and regaining ground with the local Indians. American forces in the area frequently rested and resupplied at the Post, even prior to Spain’s declaration of war on Britain. The settlers at the Post grew increasingly wary of attacks by British-allied Chickasaws, but the Spanish had still not built a new fort. Finally, the settlers erected one themselves in 1781. De Villiers named the structure Fort Carlos III.
The attack the settlers had feared finally came on April 17, 1783, when James Colbert, a wealthy Scottish trader who had married into the Chickasaw tribe, led a party of eighty-one Chickasaws, African slaves, and European loyalists against the Post. While word of the recent peace treaty had not reached the frontier, all British troops in the area had surrendered in 1781. It is unlikely, therefore, that Colbert was acting under a British commission, as he later claimed.
Spanish authorities heard several months in advance that an attack was planned, and they increased the military presence at Fort Carlos III to two officers and sixty-seven soldiers. Although the Spanish were forewarned, Colbert’s 2:30
The end of the Revolution began Arkansas Post’s heyday as a trading center. In 1793 a visiting ship’s captain reported that the town contained “about thirty houses with galleries around, covered with shingles, which form two streets.” Just downriver the captain found an additional “dozen quite pretty houses.” In 1796, a chapel was built in the town and a parish established there. By 1799, the European and African population had tripled to almost four hundred.
At the same time, the end of the war saw a decreased military presence at Fort Carlos III. The makeshift fort itself slid into the river in 1788 and needed to be rebuilt. Once again, the residents were forced to construct the fortification themselves. Raids by Osages and other tribes soon increased, however, as more American settlers began pushing into the frontier. In response, the Spanish built a new fort, called San Esteban, in the late 1790’s.
Spain ceded Louisiana back to France in 1800, and the United States acquired it with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The U.S. Army took control of Fort San Esteban in 1804. Arkansas Post continued to grow as a trading center and frontier town. A post office was established in 1817, and the town was named the capital of the new Arkansas territory in 1819. On November 20 of that year, Post resident William Woodruff began printing the Arkansas Gazette, today the oldest surviving newspaper west of the Mississippi. The territory’s first governor, war hero James Miller, arrived in December.
Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist who traveled down the Arkansas River in 1819, described the Post as follows:
The town, or rather settlement of the Post of Arkansas, was somewhat dispersed over a prairie . . . and contain[ed] in all between 30 and 40 houses. The merchants, then transacting nearly all business of the Arkansas and White River . . . kept well-assorted stores of merchandize, supplied chiefly from New Orleans, with the exception of some heavy articles of domestic manufacture obtained from Pittsburgh. . . . I could not but now for awhile consider myself as once more introduced into the circle of civilization.
The Post’s location, along with its floods, swampy ground, and swarms of mosquitoes, proved to be its undoing, however. Arkansas’s first territorial legislature resolved that “the remoteness of this situation . . . together with its unhealthiness, forms a serious objection to the present location.” Little Rock was chosen as the new capital, and the move was completed in 1821. The Gazette followed, an Arkansas Post began a period of decline from which it never recovered. William W. Pope, nephew and secretary to the territorial governor, surveyed the post in 1832 and found it had taken on “a very forlorn and desolate appearance . . . tall chimneys had fallen down and trees . . . were growing out through the roofs.”
Arkansas Post came to prominence for one final episode during the Civil War. In 1862, Confederate leaders saw that Little Rock was vulnerable to an advance up the Arkansas River. Arkansas Post, located on commanding bluffs, seemed an ideal spot to build defenses. Fortifications there could also harass Federal shipping on the Arkansas, White, and Mississippi Rivers. The Confederates therefore built Fort Hindman by the shores of the town. The fort was constructed as an eight-sided star, with each wall measuring three hundred feet. It was armed with three twelve-pound cannons and eight six-pounders on wheels. Approximately five thousand men garrisoned the fort, but only three thousand of these were armed and ready for battle. In December, 1862, the fort was completed and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill took command. The men would not wait long to see action.
Since November, Federal forces had struggled to take Vicksburg, the last uncaptured city on the Mississippi. If they could take it, they would divide the South in two. The five thousand men at Fort Hindman posed a threat to the rear of any expedition travelling down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg. By capturing the fort, the Federals would not only eliminate this threat but would also boost troop morale, which was flagging since their early failures.
On January 4, 1863, Union general John A. McClernand issued orders to mount an assault on Fort Hindman. In addition to McClernand’s force of thirty thousand men, the expedition was supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s river fleet of nine gunboats. Churchill’s pickets discovered the advance on the morning of January 9; he moved his three thousand effectives down to entrenchments and held the fort with his remaining men. Meanwhile, the Federals moved into position along the shore.
When Churchill’s superior, General Theophilus H. Holmes, learned of the attack, he apparently did not grasp the Federals’ ten-to-one superiority. Rather than order a retreat, he sent a telegram on the night of January 10 instructing Churchill “to hold out till help arrived or until all dead.” The latter seemed much more likely, especially since the main body of troops sent to reinforce Churchill was waylaid in the snow en route from Little Rock.
At 1:00 the following afternoon, January 11, 1863, Porter’s gunboats and McClernand’s artillery resumed fire. Half an hour later, the ground assault began. By 4:00
A tiny farming community existed here until the land was purchased by the state of Arkansas in 1929. A state park was created the following year, and in 1964 the federal government acquired the land and established the Arkansas Post National Memorial. Due to erosion from the Arkansas River, much of the original shoreline is now under water. Little remains, but visitors can follow paths marking the site where such buildings once stood. Two miles away from the memorial is the Arkansas Post County Museum, which displays artifacts from the Post’s rich and varied history.
Arnold, Morris S. Colonial Arkansas, 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993. The fullest and most accurate exploration of the Post’s early history. Ashmore, Harry S. Arkansas: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. A good general history of the state and discusses most of the different phases of Arkansas Post. Ferguson, John L., ed. Arkansas and the Civil War. Little Rock: Arkansas Historical Commission, 1962. For those interested in reading the actual reports submitted by the Union and Confederate commanders at the battle. Paulson, Alan C. Roadside History of Arkansas. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 1998. A guidebook of historic sites and tours illustrated with photographs and maps. Includes a bibliography and an index. Thomas, David Y. Arkansas in War and Reconstruction, 1861-1874. Little Rock, Ark.: United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1926. Presents a detailed, if pro-Confederate description of the Battle of Fort Hindman. Work Projects Administration Writers’ Program. The WPA Guide to 1930’s Arkansas. Reprint. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987. Originally published in 1941 as Arkansas: A Guide to the State; this edition offers a new introduction by Elliott West. Contains many interesting quotations from primary sources.