Madison County

Region: Northwest
County seat: Huntsville
Established: September 30, 1836
Parent counties: Carroll, Newton, and Washington
Population: 16,521 (2020 Census)
Area: 834.23 square miles (2020 Census)
Historical population as per the U.S. Census:











































Population Characteristics as per the 2020 U.S. Census:



African American



American Indian






Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander



Some Other Race



Two or More Races



Hispanic Origin (may be of any race)



Population Density

19.8 people per square mile

Median Household Income (2019)


Per Capita Income (2015–2019)


Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2019)


Madison County is a beautiful and still largely unspoiled part of the Ozarks. Forests mostly of hardwood trees cover about two-thirds of the county. Rolling hills overlook clear rivers, and open fields and valleys make up the rest of the terrain. Madison County was home to two Arkansas governors: Isaac Murphy and Orval E. Faubus.

Pre-European Exploration
Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in Madison County spanning the last 10,000 years. Mark R. Harrington, who did research in the area in the 1920s, wrote of “Ozark Bluff Dwellers,” but more recent research has reshaped scholars’ views of these cultures. Early inhabitants lived along river and creek bottoms, in upland sites overlooking hollows, and in temporary shelters. Some of the earliest signs of agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn, are found in the Ozarks, as well as shell tempering in pottery and significant relations between humans and animals. By the time of European exploration, Madison County was part of the Osage hunting grounds, although they lived farther north.

Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
The earliest white settlers arrived in the area around 1827 and began to establish farms and towns. Settlers who migrated to the area from Huntsville in Madison County, Alabama, named both Huntsville and Madison County. However, the great majority of settlers came from Tennessee, traveling by flatboat and wagon. The name “Madison” honors the fourth president, James Madison. Huntsville, in the geographical center, has always been the county seat. The current courthouse was constructed in 1939.

The state legislature established Madison County at its first session, on September 30, 1836. It was formed from parts of Washington, Carroll, and Newton counties, its northern boundary originally extending to Missouri. The boundaries were changed many times before being finalized in 1885. The odd rectangle that resulted is thirty-eight miles from north to south and twenty-two miles from east to west. The Ozark Mountains, part of the Boston Mountain Range, extend east to west across the southern part of the county.

Future governor Isaac Murphy settled in Huntsville in 1854, was appointed governor in 1864, and served until 1868. He returned to Huntsville at the end of his term and lived there until his death in 1882. He is buried in the Huntsville Cemetery.

Civil War through Reconstruction
At the 1861 Secession Convention, Isaac Murphy and Henry Bollinger represented the county. Neither man owned slaves, and Murphy was the only representative to vote consistently against secession. The 1860 federal census placed the white population at 7,444 and 296 enslaved people.

During the Civil War, county residents formed both Union and Confederate companies, and the war divided families and friends. The area was hit hard by the bushwhackers who rode throughout the countryside, stealing and pillaging. They burned homes, stole food and possessions, and left most families with little to live on.

Skirmishes were fought at Kingston and Rodger’s Crossing. The Buffalo River Expedition also passed through the county. Nine men were shot as part of the Huntsville Massacre, with eight dying in the attack. While the reasons behind the massacre are not clear, the incident was clearly tied to the conflict.

As the county rebuilt after the war, churches and schools were the centers of community life. Early churches included Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. Initially, schools were taught by circuit-riding preachers, and then by traveling teachers, the first district being formed in 1868. There were at one time 125 schools in the county, each having from nine to fifty pupils. School was generally conducted for two or three months of the year.

The small farming community life familiar to the early pioneers continued to be the norm for Madison County well into the twentieth century.

Gilded Age though Early Twentieth Century
With the coming of the railroads, the timber industry flourished in Madison County. In the southern part of the county, millions of feet of virgin hardwood trees were harvested to be sawed into lumber, railroad ties, and barrel staves and shipped to other states. On September 4, 1886, the state granted a charter to the Fayetteville and Little Rock Railroad, and within a couple of years, tracks were laid from Fayetteville (Washington County) to Pettigrew so that the timber could be shipped easily.

The railroads also allowed the development of cash crops, including tomatoes and watermelons. There were small commercial canneries in several of the towns.

Many small towns sprang up along the rails, St. Paul being the largest. In 1900, its population was more than 1,000, making it larger than the county seat. The timber harvests lessened, the Great Depression set in, and the railroad ceased operation on July 31, 1937. Most of the boom towns along the railroad tracks quickly declined and became ghost towns.

Madison County was particularly hard hit by the Depression. The methods of the timber industry led to the erosion of topsoil, limiting the productivity of the county’s small farms. Malaria and other diseases plagued the area, and malnutrition was a serious problem.

World War II through the Faubus Era
World War II led to continued hardship in Madison County, but the county participated in the good times following the war, with electricity coming to most of the area at that time. In 1946, the Lower Whorton Creek School in rural Madison County quietly enrolled a black pupil, Laverne Cook, despite state laws mandating segregation, due in part to the fact that she was the only school-age African-American child in the county, and arranging a segregated learning space would have been costly.

In the 1950s, livestock became a popular income source in the county, especially dairy cattle. Later, beef cattle production increased, and it remains one of the top income sources. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, northwest Arkansas became a major poultry-producing area. Chicken and turkey production became a significant source of income for many residents.

Governor Orval Faubus was born and raised in Madison County and served as governor for six terms, from 1955 to 1967. He died in 1994 and is buried in the Combs Cemetery.

Modern Era
The county was the site of several intentional communities in the early 1980s, including Yellowhammer and the Ozark Land Holding Association.

Madison County continues to be largely agricultural in character, with family farms and poultry processing providing the main occupations for residents of the county. New roads and industry have brought new residents and made travel through the county easier. While the ethnic makeup of Madison County has remained mostly white, by the 2020 census, about five percent of the population were Hispanic, with the Asian, Native American, and African American populations constituting less than one percent.

Madison County also now serves as a “bedroom community” for the more populous neighboring Washington County.

Madison County’s attractions include the Ozark Natural Science Center and the 786-acre Withrow Springs State Park. Withrow Springs was the original site of an overshot water wheel that operated a gristmill owned by a settler, James Withrow. The park features scenic mountains, bluffs, hiking trails through unspoiled wilderness, and its namesake, Withrow Spring, which comes out of a bluff and travels several miles before dumping into the War Eagle River.

One of the county’s unique features is that four waterways—White, War Eagle, Mulberry, and Kings—originate in the southern part of the county, within a few miles of each other near Boston.

Famous residents include musicians Ronnie Hawkins, Dale Hawkins, and Richard “Curly” Miller. Hall of Fame baseball player Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughan was born in the county.

For additional information:
Hatfield, Kevin Louis. “The History of Education in Madison County, Arkansas, 1827–1948.” Ed.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 1991.

Madison County Musings. Huntsville, AR: Madison County Historical and Genealogical Society (1982–).

Sisk, Gloria J. Madison County: Remembrances of the Past. N.p.: 1986.

Whittemore, Carol. Fading Memories: A History of the Lives and Times of Madison County. 3 vols. Huntsville, AR: Madison County Record, 1989, 1992, 1999.

Rebecca Haden
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Joy Russell
Madison County
Genealogical and Historical Society

Revised 2022, David Sesser, Southeastern Louisiana University


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