Arkansas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The history of Arkansas was greatly influenced by the natural division of the area into northwestern highlands and southeastern lowlands. Running through these two regions as it flows in a southeasterly direction to meet the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River has also been of major importance in the area’s history.

History of Arkansas

The history of Arkansas was greatly influenced by the natural division of the area into northwestern highlands and southeastern lowlands. Running through these two regions as it flows in a southeasterly direction to meet the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River has also been of major importance in the area’s history. As long as ten thousand years ago, hunters and gatherers wandered the land surrounding the Arkansas River, attracted by the abundant wildlife. About one thousand years ago, bluff dwellers and mound builders grew crops in the area’s fertile soil. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, the primary groups of Native Americans inhabiting the area were the Osage, in Missouri and northwestern Arkansas; the Caddo, in Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas; and the Quapaw, along the Arkansas River. All three groups had been forced into Oklahoma by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Exploration and Settlement

The first Europeans to reach the area were led northwest from Florida by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541. A French expedition led by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet reached the area in 1673 by traveling south from Michigan. In 1682, a similar expedition was led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle claimed the entire valley of the Mississippi River, including all of Arkansas, for France. This enormous area was named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV of France.

Despite La Salle’s claim to the area, European settlement of the area began modestly. In 1686, French explorer Henry de Tonti established Arkansas Post, the first permanent European settlement in the area, near the point where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi River. Starting with a population of six residents, Arkansas Post grew to become the largest city in Arkansas until the nineteenth century. In 1722, French explorer Bernard de la Harpe led an expedition along the Arkansas River and named a natural rock formation Little Rock. Nearly a century later, a city of the same name was founded there.

The Road to Statehood

Settlement of the area continued slowly throughout the eighteenth century. In 1762, France ceded Louisiana to Spain. In order to encourage settlers, Spain offered free land and freedom from taxes to all who chose to live there. In 1783, British forces attacked Arkansas Post but were defeated by the Spanish and Quapaw. By 1799, Arkansas had nearly four hundred European settlers.

In 1800, Louisiana was returned to France. Three years later, the United States purchased this vast area, doubling the size of the young nation, for a payment of more than twenty-seven million dollars. At first a part of the huge Louisiana Territory, in 1812 Arkansas became part of the newly created Missouri Territory, then became a separate territory in 1819. In 1824, the western section of the area became part of the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), giving Arkansas its modern boundaries. By 1836, Arkansas had the sixty thousand residents necessary for statehood, primarily settlers from eastern states, and it was admitted as the twenty-fifth state.

The Civil War

Along with those who arrived from the eastern United States, the 1840’s and 1850’s brought large numbers of Irish and German immigrants to the area. The mountains and plateaus of the northwest supported small farms, while the lowlands of the southeast developed large cotton plantations dependent on slaves. By 1860, the population of Arkansas reached 435,000. About one-quarter of the inhabitants were slaves.

Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6, 1861, nearly a month after the Civil War broke out. The delay in joining the Confederacy may have been due to strong Union sympathies in the northwest part of the state. About six thousand residents of the state fought for the Union, while about fifty-eight thousand fought for the Confederacy. Several important Civil War battles were fought in northern Arkansas, near the border with Missouri. The Battle of Pea Ridge (March 7-8, 1862) led to heavy losses on both sides, as Union forces drove back an attack by the Confederates, ending the threat of a Confederate invasion of Missouri. In September of 1863, Union forces took control of Little Rock.

From the end of the war until the middle of the 1870’s, a period known as Reconstruction, Arkansas and the other former Confederate states were occupied by federal troops and ruled by state governments dominated by the Republican Party. Arkansas was readmitted to the Union under Republican control in 1868. The Republican government, which attempted to win civil rights for freed slaves, was seen as an artificial structure imposed by the northern states. It was opposed, often violently, by many white Arkansans, leading to increased repression of African Americans after Reconstruction. After federal troops were withdrawn, the Democratic Party returned to power in 1874, completely dominating state politics for nearly a century.

After the War

Economic recovery after the devastation of the Civil War was difficult for Arkansans. The plantation system of the southeastern region of the state, which relied on slavery, was replaced with sharecropping. Under this system, tenants lived on and farmed a landowner’s property, paying rent in the form of crops, usually cotton. The social and economic gap between the farmer and the landlord was often a large one.

An economic depression in the southern states in the late nineteenth century led to widespread poverty. The situation became even worse in 1885, when the state government defaulted on huge debts, including fourteen million dollars of interest payments. Race relations were a severe problem as well, with the state government completely controlled by the Democratic Party, which excluded African American citizens.

The Twentieth Century

Along with the rest of the country, Arkansas experienced a large increase in the number of European immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. Although the pace of economic growth remained slow, the state began to develop new resources in the early years of the twentieth century. Rice, which would later become a major crop, was first planted in 1904. With the rise of the automobile and the increasing industrialization of the United States, the discovery of oil and natural gas deposits in 1921 was an important boost to the economy. The many rivers in Arkansas became an important resource, and modern dams were built beginning in the 1920’s.

Arkansas, along with the rest of the United States, suffered a severe economic setback with the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Adding to the problem, years of drought forced many farmers to abandon their lands. The Southern Farm Tenants Union, created by Arkansas sharecroppers at this time, had an important influence on national farm policies. It was not until the United States entered World War II in 1941 that the economy began to recover. The enormous defense industry created by the war effort, as well as the technological and economic growth that followed the war, led to major changes in Arkansas society.

The number of Arkansans living in rural areas decreased, and many small family farms were replaced by large agricultural enterprises. Little Rock and other major cities experienced a rapid increase in population. Women entered the workplace in greater numbers. The most important social change in the middle of the twentieth century was the struggle to win civil rights for African Americans.

The attention of the world was focused on race relations in Arkansas in September of 1957. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had declared public school segregation unconstitutional. To comply with the Court’s decision, the school board of Little Rock created a plan to desegregate the city’s schools. When nine African American students attempted to attend the city’s Central High School, Governor Orval E. Faubus ordered the state militia to prevent them from entering. In response, President Dwight David Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the desegregation process.

Economic Growth

Economic development continued steadily throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1960’s, rice, soybeans, and poultry replaced cotton as the most important agricultural products. The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, an ambitious project of building dams and locks, was completed after twenty-five years of work, in January of 1971. The project, the largest ever undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, made Little Rock an important river port and contributed greatly to the state’s economy.

By the end of the twentieth century, important sources of income included fish farming, hydroelectric and nuclear power production, food processing, retail merchandising, computer software development, and financial services. The manufacturing sector of the economy produced clothing, furniture, machinery, electrical equipment, metal products, and electronic devices. With improvements in transportation, tourism became a particularly important source of revenue, with thousands of visitors traveling to attractions such as Hot Springs National Park and the Ozark Mountains each year. Despite this growth, Arkansas continued to have one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the United States.

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