David Aiken Thompson (1796–1839)
David Aiken Thompson came to Arkansas as the Arkansas Territory was beginning to show rapid growth, attracting settlers from eastern states and offering opportunities for business and land speculation. Thompson became one of the largest land speculators in Arkansas. At the height of his operations, he reportedly either owned outright or had an interest in 150,000 acres of land in sixteen Arkansas counties.
David Thompson was born on April 4, 1796, at New Castle, Delaware, to Dr. David Thompson and his second wife, Frances Aiken Thompson. His father died two months before he was born. His mother soon moved to Jonesboro, Tennessee. There, she met John McAlister, and they married on December 25, 1800. Thompson grew up in Jonesboro and learned merchandising from his stepfather.
On March 17, 1818, Thompson married Lauretta Deaderick. In 1826, he and his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. At about the same time, his brother-in-law, newly married John Drennen, moved to Nashville; Drennen had married Lauretta’s sister, Emily Deaderick. Thompson and Drennen filed partnership papers with the U.S. Attorney General in 1827. They worked in merchandising while in Nashville and met many influential people, including Andrew Jackson.
The partners decided they wanted to explore business opportunities in the land west of the Mississippi River. They first settled in Little Rock (Pulaski County) around 1830 and, by 1831, had merchandise establishments at Little Rock and Washington (Hempstead County). They eventually decided to establish their business in Columbus (Crawford County), located a mile downstream from Phillips Landing (Crawford County), and close their Little Rock and Washington locations.
Thompson was mostly involved in land speculation. He traveled between Nashville, where he maintained his family residence, and Columbus. He purchased land for resale and also became the land agent for several eastern land speculators, including the American Land Company. He traveled widely in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere.
Thompson obtained the names of all the soldiers of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War who had never claimed their bounty land and bought many of the land warrants at discounted prices. He also bought choice land at Arkansas Territory tax sales, sometimes paying only the amount of taxes owed.
In about 1834, his wife and three children joined him in Columbus, and he put the Nashville residence up for sale. His youngest daughter was born in 1835 in Columbus. By that time, land speculation was slowing and Thompson began to be more selective.
Thomason began to purchase coal banks all along the Arkansas River bank from Spadra (Johnson County) west to Massard Creek near Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Some eastern capitalists were interested in the venture, especially the property at Spadra. As the coal was along the river bank, it could be loaded directly onto barges, saving costs.
In 1838, the Arkansas General Assembly passed an act to establish the Arkansas Mining and Manufacturing Company, with Thompson and several of his eastern friends as the board. Drennen was to be treasurer and collect subscriptions at Van Buren (Crawford County), and Captain Richard D. C. Collins, superintendent of removal and subsistence of the Indian tribes being removed across Arkansas, was to collect subscriptions in the Little Rock area. Before this venture ceased, the company purchased enough land in the area of Spadra Creek to plan to plat the land into lots and to get Johnson County to establish the permanent county seat on that land.
At the time Thompson moved to Columbus, what became Van Buren consisted of Phillips Landing, where a ferry was established, and a post office. Thompson and Drennen purchased the land at Phillips Landing in 1836 for $11,000 and laid out a town site. They offered a block in the new town to Crawford County if the county would make the town the county seat and build a courthouse on the donated land. The partners deeded the land to Crawford County in 1839, thus helping to assure the growth of the town and establishing themselves as founders of Van Buren.
Thompson had a great interest in horse racing. In his trips to the East Coast, he began to search out choice eastern stock to buy. He established a boarding stable and training track at Hillsborough, located near Cane Hill (Washington County). He hired an eastern trainer, purchased a few choice race horses, and began breeding horses. Many of the prominent men of the area kept their horses at his stables.
By 1837, the partners were planning to move their business and families to Van Buren from Columbus. Thompson’s wife Loretta died on January 24, 1837. His oldest daughter, sixteen-year-old Frances, married James A. Scott that same year and moved to Van Buren. Eight-year-old David, four-year-old Calvin, and two-year-old Julie were sent to his half sister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for care and schooling.
Between 1837 and 1839, Thompson worked to establish a coal-mining venture. The mining company board hired an eastern mining expert to come and make suggestions about the best way to mine the coal on the surface. He also had interests in two other town sites, at Lewisburg (Conway County) and North Dardanelle (Pope County), which he worked to sell. In 1836, the legislature of Arkansas passed an act to establish the Real Estate Bank. By 1838, a branch of the Real Estate Bank was established at Van Buren and Thompson was named land appraiser for the bank.
In September 1839, Thompson began a business trip to the east. He traveled a few miles on the Arkansas River and stopped to visit a friend. He died suddenly on September 12, 1839, at the home of his friend and was buried in the friend’s family cemetery. Drennen was named guardian to the three younger children, and they had returned to Van Buren by 1850.
For additional information:
David Thompson Papers, 1810–1854. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Eno, Clara B. History of Crawford County, Arkansas. Van Buren, AR: Press-Argus, 1955.
Huddleston, Duane. “Early Horse Racing in Little Rock.” Pulaski County Historical Review 20 (June 1972): 13–19.
Kent, Carolyn Yancey. Van Buren, Arkansas, on the Trail of Tears, National Historic Trail. Resources on Indian Removal No 14. Little Rock: Sequoyah National Resource Center, 2007.
Sherwood, Diana, “Horse Racing in Arkansas.” Arkansas Gazette, Magazine Section, February 13, 1938, pp. 1, 3, 15.
Williams, Leonard, ed. Cavorting on the Devil’s Fork: The Pete Whetstone Letters of C. F. M. Noland. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
Carolyn Yancey Kent
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