Arkansas's Regional Identity
Arkansas’s regional identity is a complex affair, given that the state overlaps the cultural and geographical zones of the American South and Southwest and that the northern and western parts of the state are commonly characterized as “hill country” similar in culture to Appalachia. The state’s history has often been emblematic of the difficulties in navigating these competing regional affiliations. The state defies easy identity stereotypes, even as it is popularly lumped into such cultural regions as the “Bible belt” (for the supposed religiosity of its residents) or “sun belt” (for the state’s latitude and climate).
Arkansas as South
Arkansas is most often identified as part of the American South due to a shared history of slavery and secession from the Union; foodways, religion, and other shared cultural motifs; and a historical lack of industrial development.
Arkansas was a slave state from the beginning, like other states in the traditional South, with most of the slaves being concentrated in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (Delta) region. Therefore, the state shared the culture of white supremacy with other Southern states, from similar legal codes to the proliferation of religious denominations that supported slavery. A plantation culture emerged in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. Lakeport Plantation outside of Lake Village (Chicot County) is the best remaining example of an antebellum plantation home, and, in 1860, its owner oversaw cotton production carried out on 4,400 acres by 155 slaves. Cotton was grown throughout the Delta region and even in some of the state’s highlands. As they did everywhere else, African-American slaves in Arkansas brought foodways and religious traditions that soon informed much of what is today labeled Southern cuisine, which is usually marked by the prevalence of fried foods, a preference for pork over other meats, the common use of corn meal, and so on.
Despite Arkansas’s status as a slave state, it was not among the seven Deep South states that passed ordinances of secession from December 20, 1860, to February 1, 1861, and formed the Confederate States of America. A convention held in March 1861 voted down secession, ending with only a decision to hold a statewide referendum in August, indicative of some ambivalence among the state’s leaders. However, that ambivalence ended after the April 1861 firing upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The following month, Arkansas joined the Confederacy, and many of its citizens took up arms against the Union. Though its placement at the fringe of the Confederacy meant that Arkansas did not receive as much military attention from either Confederate and Union leaders, a number of notable engagements occurred in the state, such as the battles of Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove, and Helena, the last of which was a part of the Vicksburg Campaign. After the war, Arkansans saw federal military occupation, Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the eventual return of the Democratic Party to power, and the institution under the Democratic Party of various Jim Crow segregation measures—just like in other former Confederate states. As with other Southern states, Arkansas’s emphasis on agriculture and unwillingness to invest in its own infrastructure long delayed the emergence of any real industrial economy until well into the twentieth century.
Arkansas shares with states in the Deep South a religious heritage dominated by evangelical Protestantism, especially of the Southern Baptist and Methodist varieties, though the former denomination, which emerged in the antebellum years in support of slavery, has emerged as the largest in the state. These denominations began advocating for the local and national prohibition of alcohol in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thus leaving a legacy today—long after national Prohibition has been rescinded—of “dry counties” (counties in which the sale of alcohol is illegal) dotting the South, including Arkansas. This religious heritage has also manifested itself in an attitude of suspicion or hostility toward modernism, especially in the field of education. In 1928, three years after Tennessee passed a bill outlawing the teaching of evolution in public schools (which led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial), Arkansas voters approved an initiated act that did much the same; it was declared unconstitutional forty years later. In 1981, Governor Frank White signed into law Act 590, mandating the teaching of creationism in classrooms where evolutionary theory was taught. Though this was ruled unconstitutional in the court case McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, the attempt to mix religion and science education proved popular throughout the South, as evidenced by the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard, which struck down a Louisiana law similar to Act 590.
The culturally backward stereotype attached to the South as a whole also has encompassed Arkansas. Mark Twain, in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), depicts the fictional Bricksville, a town in southern Arkansas, as having streets of mud and populated with lazy hicks and drunks. Thomas W. Jackson’s 1903 joke book, On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw, the bestselling joke book in American history, similarly presented the state’s denizens as backward, as slow as the trains described therein. Journalist H. L. Mencken made a frequent point of attacking the South, which he described as culturally equivalent to the Sahara Desert, “a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.” He made a particular point of excoriating Arkansas, labeling it the most backward and least hospitable of all the Southern states. In response, on February 3, 1931, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a motion to pray for Mencken’s soul. However, the state continues to be described in terms of the same generalizations of the South as a whole, stereotypes that reappeared most notably in satire and comedy the whole nation over when Governor Bill Clinton ran for the U.S. presidency.
Arkansas deviates from this Southern affiliation in a number of important ways. First, it is geographically isolated from the “traditional South” by the Mississippi River. Unlike the Southern states to the east, Arkansas was not controlled by the British prior to the Revolutionary War and so did not become part of American territory at war’s end; rather, it was at that time claimed by the Spanish and was later a French possession by the time of the Louisiana Purchase. American settlement was thus delayed for a number of years. Mississippi to the east joined the Union in 1817, two years before Arkansas even became a territory and nineteen years before it became a state. Therefore, when Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861, it was substantively less developed than many other states in the Confederacy. Though Arkansas had a number of slaves—111,115 out of a total population of 435,450 by 1860—the plantation economy that typifies the South in the popular mind did not arrive in Arkansas in full force until after the Civil War, when larger swaths of the Delta land began to be cleared, and then it was ostensibly free sharecroppers and tenant farmers working on those plantations rather than slaves. The uplands of the Ozark Mountains and the Ouachita Mountains were not amenable to large-scale farming, and thus slavery was not as important there to the economy. Arkansas is therefore less racially diverse than neighboring Mississippi, with fifteen percent of its population being listed as black in the 2010 Census, as opposed to thirty-seven percent listed as black in Mississippi.
Arkansas also evaded, for a time, a real identification with what is politically called the “Solid South.” After the national Democratic Party, which had long dominated the South, adopted civil rights as one of its platforms, the Republican Party, beginning under the administration of President Richard Nixon, pursued a strategy to attract disaffected white Democrats who still adhered to the doctrine of white supremacy. The result was the transformation of the American South from a solidly Democratic region to a solidly Republican one. Arkansas has not been immune to this transformation, though it has not reflected it totally. The first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction was Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966, a racial moderate supported by a large cross-section of the population tired of the antics of Orval Faubus, the state’s emblem of massive resistance. Following him was a string of fairly progressive Democrats, though Republican Frank White interrupted the governorship of Bill Clinton for one term in the early 1980s. Republican Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, served as governor from 1996 to 2007, but Democrat Mike Beebe handily won the election replacing him. As of 2009, Democrats held a majority in both houses of the state legislature, though Republicans dominated in northwestern Arkansas. However, the political landscape began changing the following year with Republican success in congressional and constitutional offices. By 2012, the Republican Party held a majority in the state legislature, and two years later, they also held all congressional and statewide offices.
Arkansas as Southwest
Though the term “Southwest” today is usually employed to describe the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, at one time it encompassed Arkansas, which was one of the farthest west states when it joined the Union in 1836, sharing borders with Texas—which was controlled by the Spanish and then the Mexican governments until 1845—and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Like any border state, Arkansas was not only a site of settlement but also a corridor for immigration into non-American territory to the west. Much of the Southwest Trail—a network of routes connecting the St. Louis, Missouri, area with the Red River valley in northeastern Texas—crossed through Arkansas. Later, the Trail of Tears, the various routes upon which Native Americans were forced to travel from their homelands to the east, also cut through the state. Fort Smith (Sebastian County) served as an important disembarkation point for people heading west to participate in the California Gold Rush. Three notable figures of Texas history—Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, both killed at the Battle of the Alamo, and Stephen F. Austin, widely described as the founder of the Texan republic—spent time in Arkansas.
Arkansas long remained a transportation corridor to the western territories. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company ran from 1858 to 1861, carrying the mail and passengers from the Mississippi River to California and passing through several important Arkansas towns. Steamboats carried goods and passengers west along the Arkansas River to Fort Smith and beyond. After the Civil War, railroads through the state served to connect the eastern United States with the new states and territories of the West. The Cairo and Fulton Railway met the Texas and Pacific Railway in Miller County in 1873, where the railroad companies created the town of Texarkana, which stretches across the Texas-Arkansas state line. Texarkana itself remains an important gateway to the West, with several railroads crossing through the area, as well as Interstate 30, which runs from Little Rock (Pulaski County) to its terminus west of Fort Worth, Texas. Due to its dual identification with Texas, the city continues to evoke a more Southwestern image than do other Arkansas cities.
Arkansas’s sparse population and status as the nation’s frontier evoked in the nineteenth century many of the same images now associated with the “Wild West.” The bowie knife, the primary purpose of which was combat, was so closely identified with the state that it was nicknamed the “Arkansas Toothpick,” while Arkansas was likewise nicknamed the “Toothpick State.” This close connection between Arkansas, the knife, and violence only increased following the December 4, 1837, murder of state Representative Joseph J. Anthony by House Speaker John Wilson with a bowie knife on the floor of the Arkansas State House of Representatives; Wilson was later acquitted. This event was an oddity, as the state’s elite usually preferred dueling as a more gentlemanly means of killing each other, which proved popular long after it was officially outlawed. Such notables as Robert Crittenden, Albert Pike, and Solon Borland engaged in the practice, which entailed the participants firing shots at each other from a respectable distance, though usually early in the morning rather than at high noon. The last recorded duel in Arkansas took place in 1878. However, Arkansas’s wild reputation found outlet in a later nickname attached to the state, that of the “Bear State,” which remained in popular usage until the 1920s, when state officials made a conscious effort to change the image so as to attract new business and industry.
Arkansas’s frontier status did not mean that the state’s leaders were the only ones committing acts of violence, for the state was host to its fair share of outlaws and criminal gangs, especially along the western border with Indian Territory, which often provided a safe haven for various miscreants. “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr lived in and operated out of Indian Territory, as did Arkansas native Bill Doolin, who rode with the infamous Dalton gang. Following the Civil War, U.S. marshals were headquartered in Fort Smith to enforce the law in both western Arkansas and neighboring Indian Territory, and “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker of the Western Arkansas Federal District Court became an exemplar of frontier justice, handing out sentences of death to 160 people (seventy-nine of whom were actually executed) during his tenure in the court (1875–1896), including some of the roughest outlaws in the western United States. Fort Smith was the setting of Charles Portis’s bestselling Western novel True Grit (1968), which was made into a movie starring John Wayne. The filmmakers, however, chose to film in the Rocky Mountains rather than the less ostentatious hills of western Arkansas, suggesting that the state’s ability to evoke an image of frontier had long passed. The admission of Oklahoma to the Union in 1907 left Arkansas without its “wild” border, and statehood for both New Mexico and Arizona in 1912 resulted in forty-eight contiguous states stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, thus shifting the region of the American Southwest and leaving Arkansas more in the middle of the country. Arkansas does share with its Southwestern neighbors of Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma its status as an oil-producing state; the oil industry took hold in the early twentieth century, just as Arkansas’s frontier reputation was receding.
Arkansas as Hill Country
Arkansas’s own geography has created an internal cultural divide manifest throughout the state’s history. While the Delta along the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas, as well as the southern part of the state, proved amenable to plantation agriculture, the rather isolated Ozark Mountains of the north and Ouachita Mountains of the west did not allow for such large-scale farming. Therefore, though slaves were found in all of the state’s counties prior to the Civil War, the hill country of Arkansas was by no means economically dependent upon the institution, and the attitudes of residents toward secession often diverged from the plantation elite of the Delta. Hill country thus proved a hotbed of Union support, as best exemplified by the Arkansas Peace Society, an anti-Confederate organization formed in the Ozarks. Following the war and Reconstruction, however, many white residents in these counties drove out their few African-American neighbors, creating an entire region dotted with “sundown towns”—places where black people were actively prevented from living. Sundown towns are somewhat rare in the traditional South, where whites were more concerned with keeping their cheap black labor subservient than racially cleansing their towns and counties.
Arkansas’s upland regions, especially the Ozark Mountains, have historically been painted with the same cultural stereotypes as Appalachia in the eastern United States: that is, the people there are poor, ignorant, lazy, prone to violence but simultaneously harmless and good natured, often indulging in the making and drinking of moonshine. Before the modern civil rights movement, the image of poverty in America was often that of the poor mountain white rather than the urban African American. The majority of American settlers in the Ozarks did come from the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, thus bringing the mountain culture of Appalachia with them; as noted above, slavery was not widespread in the hill country of Arkansas in antebellum times, and the widespread expulsion of black people later aided in creating a fairly homogenous hill culture. Too, a similarity of geography and geology with Appalachia resulted in an economy at one time largely dominated by the timber industry as well as mining for lead, zinc, manganese, and coal. The relatively sparse deposits of minerals in Arkansas’s hill country, however, meant that mining was never carried out to the extent it was in Appalachia; as a consequence, the labor movement never attracted as many followers as it did in the mountain states to the east, though a few important strikes occurred, such as the Wheelbarrow Strike of 1915 in Johnson County.
Arkansas’s hill country, especially the Ozarks, has been the site of both intensive folklore fieldwork, of the sort carried out by Vance Randolph and Otto Ernest Rayburn, as well as folklore revival movements, especially revivals of “mountain” music and culture centered around the town of Mountain View (Stone County). In this, the Ozarks share great similarities with Appalachia. Folklorists once recorded in both the Ozarks and Appalachia narrative folksongs that originated from the British Isles (called “Child ballads” after collector Francis James Child). That people from Scotland and England settled Appalachia, and that some of their descendants later migrated to the Ozarks from the upland regions of Kentucky and Tennessee, for example, explains the shared folkloric repertoire, which is not found in the lowland Delta region of the state. Appalachia and the Ozarks also share a similar material culture, with, for example, basket making being a traditional pursuit in both regions. And just as Appalachia has sought to capitalize upon the popular revival of the folk music and crafts of regional hill culture, most notably with the renewed popularity of bluegrass music, so too have organizations in the Ozarks, especially the Ozark Folk Center State Park, the Rackensack Folklore Society, and the Ozark Heritage Arts Center and Museum. Mountain View hosts the Arkansas Folk Festival, which features musical exhibitions and displays of local heritage, and the non-profit Ozark Folkways promotes the handmade crafts of the region.
The popular figure of the “hillbilly” grew out of the genre of writing known as Old Southwestern humor, which arose in the Appalachians and generally featured fiercely independent characters of low social class and poor education, tall tales, trickster figures, and regional dialect; it was named after the “Old Southwest” of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. Among the genre’s most notable practitioners in Arkansas were “Fent” Noland and Opie Read, the latter of whom wrote a regular journal titled “The Arkansaw Traveler” beginning in 1882, which featured fictional hillbillies discussing the issues of the day in a humorous and often ignorant manner, thus reinforcing Arkansas’s hillbilly image. Carrying on the tradition was the radio show Lum and Abner, which ran from 1931 to 1954 and centered upon a pair of well-meaning but clueless old men in the Ouachita Mountains town of Pine Ridge (Montgomery County). Eventually spinning off into movies, Lum and Abner was nationally famous and influenced other popular presentations of hillbilly culture, most notably the television show The Beverly Hillbillies. Van Buren (Crawford County) native Bob Burns also played upon common Arkansas hillbilly stereotypes in various radio shows and movies throughout the 1930s and 1940s, even going by the nickname “The Arkansas Traveler.”
Though the hillbilly image persists, Arkansas’s hill country, since the 1950s, has been home to some of the state’s—and nation’s—largest companies. Walmart Inc., established in northwest Arkansas in 1962, has grown into the world’s largest retailer, transforming the once-rural Benton County into the third most populous county in the state, right behind neighboring Washington County. Tyson Foods in Springdale (Washington County), one of the largest meat-processing companies in the world, and J. B. Hunt Transport Services in Lowell (Benton County), one of the largest providers of transportation logistics in North America, are also located in what is now a major business corridor in northwest Arkansas, as is the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), the state’s oldest and largest institution of higher education. Fayetteville and Eureka Springs (Carroll County) defy easy stereotypes of reactionary conservatism; the latter in particular is known throughout the nation as a haven of tolerance, especially with regard to gays and lesbians. In addition, Arkansas’s hill country attracts a large number of vacationers and retirees from the North, especially following the creation of Beaver Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, Norfork Lake, and Greers Ferry Lake. Though the failed Dogpatch USA theme park played upon hillbilly images, other places such as Hot Springs (Garland County), located in the Ouachita Mountains, gained a nationwide reputation as resort spas. Since the 1960s, towns such as Mountain Home (Baxter County) witnessed the arrival of a number of Northern retirees, while other towns—planned development communities—were created to capitalize upon a growing “retirement home” or “vacation home” industry, most notably Cherokee Village (Sharp County), Bella Vista (Benton County), Hot Springs Village (Saline County), and Fairfield Bay (Van Buren County). Increasing Latino immigration, often connected to the poultry industry, has also worked to render the old image of a monolithic hill culture obsolete.
Arkansas’s multifaceted regional identity has often resulted in the state’s exclusion from academic treatments on the nation’s various regions. Though The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture series published by the University of North Carolina Press adheres to a broad definition of the South that includes Arkansas, the Religion by Region series of AltaMira Press excludes Arkansas from the South proper but instead categorizes it with Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri—a state usually linked to the Midwest—in a region dubbed the “Southern Crossroads.” This tension within the academic community only mirrors a similar tension in the nation at large, where cut-and-dried regional definitions often falter in the face of conflicting identities and histories. Long before increasing migration across the country started calling into question the continuing validity of regional identities, Arkansas was defying overly simplified stereotypes.
For additional information:
Blair, Diane D., and Jay Barth. Arkansas Politics and Government: Do the People Rule? 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Blevins, Brooks. Hill Folks: A History of Ozarkers & Their Image. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Bolton, Charles S. Arkansas, 1800–1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
———. Territorial Ambition: Land and Society in Arkansas: 1800–1840. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Christ, Mark, ed. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Dougan, Michael B. “Bumpkins and Bigots: The Arkansas Image in Fiction.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 1 (Summer 1975): 5–15.
———. Confederate Arkansas: The People and Politics of a Frontier State in Wartime. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Johnson, Ben. Arkansas in Modern America since 1930. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019.
Lancaster, Guy. “‘This Evolution Bit is Straight from Satan’: McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and the Democratization of Southern Christianity.” Religion & Education 33 (Fall 2006): 69–89.
Loewen, James. Sundown Towns. New York: The New Press, 2005.
McNeil, W. K., and William M. Clements, eds. An Arkansas Folklore Sourcebook. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
McNeilly, Donald P. The Old South Frontier: Cotton Plantations and the Formation of Arkansas Society, 1819–1861. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Moneyhon, Carl. Arkansas and the New South, 1874–1929. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
———. The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas: Persistence in the Midst of Ruin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Rayburn, Otto Ernest. Ozark Country. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1941.
Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850. 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Tucker, David. Arkansas: A People and Their Reputation. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1985.
Whayne, Jeannie, and Willard B. Gatewood, eds. Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
White, Lonnie J. Politics on the Southwestern Frontier: Arkansas Territory, 1819–1836. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1964.
Worthen, William B. “Arkansas and the Toothpick State Image.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53 (Summer 1994): 161–190.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 07/14/2020