Arkansas State History

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General State History
Historic Figures

General Arkansas State History

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 Arkansas 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 millions. Advancements in farming, lumbering, manufacturing, tourism and government have gained Arkansas a viable place in the international market.

Arkansas Historic Figures

Maya Angelou
1928-Present: African-American poet, actress, and singer who was raised in Stamps. She was a National Book Award nominee for her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), a Pulitzer Prize nominee for Just Give Me a Drink of Water Fore I Diiie (1972) and a Tony Award winner for her performance in "Look Away." She was the second poet in the country to be selected to present an inauguration poem at President Clinton's inauguration in 1993.

Paul "Bear" Bryant
1913-83: Born in Moro Bottom and raised in Fordyce, Bryant picked up his nickname when, as a youth, he wrestled a bear at the Fordyce Theater. He was the head coach of the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide from 1958-1983 and became the winningest college football coach with 323 victories and six national championships. Five weeks after retiring as head coach, he died of a heart attack.

William Jefferson Clinton
1946-Present: 42nd President of the United States, Clinton was born in Hope and had his boyhood home in Hot Springs. He served as the state's attorney general (1976-78) and governor, (1978-80, 1982-93). He emphasized education reform and economic development during his tenure as Arkansas's Governor.

General Douglas MacArthur
1880 -1964: He was born in the Tower Building of the Little Rock Arsenal while his father was its commandant. He rose to become a Five-star U.S. Army general and Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II. He accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945. His accomplishments include: first in class at West Point; Superintendent of West Point; Army Chief of Staff; U.S. Far East Commander; Congressional Medal of Honor recipient; Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers; and first UN Commander. The building where the general was born, the Officer's Quarters, still stands and is now used to house the Arkansas Museum of Science and History. The surrounding park in named MacArthur Park.

E. Fay Jones
1921-Present: Pine Bluff and raised in El Dorado, this University of Arkansas architecture professor designed artisan-built houses that incorporated organic design and native materials. He was designated by the American Institute of Architects in 1989 as one of the world's greatest contemporary architects. His Arkansas projects include Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs, The Faubus House in Huntsville, and the Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista. He was awarded the Rome Prize Fellowship in Architecture for 1980-81 and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal by President Bush in 1991.