Arkansas Family History Research
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This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D., FUGA for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Arkansas
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. In 1541 Hernando de Soto’s Spanish expedition crossed the Mississippi River to Arkansas, spending several months in the area.
During the seventeenth century, French explorers made their way through today’s Arkansas. A small French expedition of two canoes from Canada voyaged down the Mississippi River to Arkansas in 1673, led by Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest, and Louis Joliet, a fur trader. LaSalle’s expedition followed nearly ten years later, claiming the land for France. In 1686, Henri de Tonti founded Arkansas Post, the first settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley. It served as a trading post, a way station for Mississippi River travel, and the home of a Jesuit mission for a few years. The French later established several settlements south of the Arkansas Post in 1699, including Natchez and Orleans.
Prior to France’s decisive defeat by Britain in the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War), in 1762 France ceded to Spain both New Orleans and land west of the Mississippi River, which eventually became the Louisiana Purchase. The Spanish began governing the area in 1766, but their authority was not firmly established for several years. Arkansas Post remained the center of administration for the District of Arkansas, a huge, undefined region, including all of present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma. The area was supervised by a lieutenant governor at St. Louis. Settlers from the British colonies, preoccupied with severing their ties from the Crown, had not yet broken through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east. Once independence was won, however, the land formerly held by Native Americans became “fair game” for grants to those who had served their new country well in battle. Because of this, settlers—the majority from Kentucky and Tennessee—began to increase in number, making their homes along the rivers of eastern and southern Arkansas. By 1792, early settlements had cropped up at Big Prairie, near the mouth of the St. Francis River, and present-day Helena, though inhabitants were few.
Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Arkansas settlements officially came under United States jurisdiction as part of Louisiana Territory. In June 1812, Arkansas became part of Missouri Territory as a result of Louisiana’s admittance to the union.
The northern quarter of Arkansas was established as part of the New Madrid District in Louisiana Territory. Directly to the south and running to the Arkansas River, an area shaped like a mirror image of Virginia formed the District of Arkansas. Both districts became counties when Missouri Territory was created. The remaining half of Arkansas, located on the southern side of the Arkansas River, was claimed by Native Americans.
The Osage and Quapaw had resided in the area from a much earlier time, while the Cherokee and Choctaw received land grants from the federal government for land in Arkansas, having been forced out of their homelands in the east. Delaware, Shawnee, Caddo, and other native tribes made Arkansas their home. The Quapaw claimed the land south of the Arkansas River for approximately 100 miles and indefinitely to the west. The Osage had claimed a large region north of the Arkansas River, and in 1808 ceded land that became part of the District of Arkansas, then still part of Louisiana Territory. Treaties with the Osage chiefs were made again in 1816, 1818, and 1825, resulting in the loss of their Arkansas land and their removal to today’s Oklahoma.
Two million acres, situated between the Arkansas and St. Francis rivers, were offered as bounty land for military service in the War of 1812. Each veteran was given a warrant for 160 acres, allocated by a lottery process.
An 1818 conference between the Osage and Cherokee met with Major William Lovely, Cherokee agent in Missouri Territory, resulting in the Osage ceding lands they had held in the northeastern section of present-day Oklahoma and a northwestern portion of today’s Arkansas, at the time still part of Missouri Territory.
Arkansas Territory was organized from Missouri Territory in 1819 with a little over 14,000 inhabitants, exclusive of native peoples. All of present-day Oklahoma except the panhandle was included. Arkansas Post was designated as the capital. Lands formerly belonging to the Cherokee nation were organized as Crawford County. Little Rock became the capital in 1821. As the territory continued to develop between 1819 and 1836, more cession agreements between native tribes in Arkansas and the United States government opened the land to further settlement and eventual statehood.
Arkansas became the twenty-fifth state in 1836. Following the Panic of 1837, many people moved into Arkansas from both southern and eastern states. Men from Arkansas served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, some receiving bounty lands prior to 1855. The Gold Rush in California attracted people from Arkansas; most began the trek from Fort Smith.
During the Civil War, Arkansas men served in both the Union and Confederate armies, although the greater majority served for the Confederate cause. In May 1861, after Arkansas seceded from the United States, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America divided Arkansas into eastern and western districts, with governmental seats at Little Rock and Van Buren, respectively. Federal forces occupied Van Buren in late 1862 and took control of Little Rock on 10 September 1863, forcing the state government to relocate to Washington in Hempstead County during the occupation. By late 1863, Confederates were forced into southwestern Arkansas, leaving most of Arkansas under Union control with subsequent raiding and plundering by Union troops.
One of the many campaigns and skirmishes fought on Arkansas soil was at Pea Ridge in Benton County in 1862. Among later ones were those at Fort Smith, Little Rock, Prairie Grove, and Pine Bluff.
During the strife, some families moved and others sent their sons to Texas to avoid the difficulties. Some families from northwestern Arkansas migrated north into Missouri and Illinois to escape the conflict. Others moved west to Kansas and as far north as Minnesota. After the close of the war, Arkansas tried to attract European immigrants. Some settled on the rich land located between the Arkansas and White rivers. The development of railroads in the last quarter of the nineteenth century encouraged more foreign-born immigration. Immigration continued into the twentieth century, but the population remained predominantly rural, with an economy reliant on cotton, until after World War II. African Americans, many with ancestors who have been part of Arkansas history from the territorial period, make up about one-fifth of the population.