While most of Arkansas’s boundary with Missouri runs along the line of latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes north, in the extreme northeast corner, the border between states extends downward along the St. Francis River to thirty-six degrees north, where it then runs east to the Mississippi River. A straight line boundary, as was originally envisioned, would have added some 980 square miles, or 627,000 acres, to the state of Arkansas. Instead, Missouri gained a “bootheel.” Culturally and economically, the region has much more in common with Arkansas than with the rest of Missouri. “Arkansas in denial” is how area residents explain their anomalous condition. Carl Bailey (1894–1948), the thirty-first governor of Arkansas and a native of Bernie, Missouri, was one of many bootheel residents who moved to Arkansas.
Various explanations exist as to how the bootheel area ended up in Missouri, but John Hardeman Walker, a prominent Little Prairie, Missouri, cattleman, certainly was behind local efforts to keep his vast landholdings and his political power in the new state of Missouri rather than the emerging Arkansas Territory. The current dimensions of the bootheel were only one of several proposed boundaries, but its inclusion in the 1818 federal legislation creating Arkansas Territory settled the technical definition even if the matter of authorship remains unresolved.
Geographically, the bootheel is the northernmost extension of the Mississippi Embayment; hence, in common understanding, it includes more than just the three Missouri counties—Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot—that a straight-line boundary would have placed in Arkansas. The State of Missouri, for economic planning purposes, identifies the bootheel as in the southeast region of the state, placing thirteen counties, several with no Delta characteristics at all, into the mix. The Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission consists of six counties, adding Stoddard, Scott, and Mississippi to the previous three. In the broader economic picture, however, the towns of Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff have always played major roles in the region’s development.
The bootheel contains the head of the old valley of the Mississippi River that once ran west from Cape Girardeau through what is now the valley of the Black River as well as the later channel that lies east of Crowley’s Ridge. The southern boundary of the bootheel coincides roughly with Pemiscot Bayou, a high-water drainage access from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers into the St. Francis River basin. The topography of the bootheel extends and exemplifies the geographic and cultural characteristics found southward in Arkansas. Crowley’s Ridge begins near the state line, and then runs south before terminating at Helena-West Helena (Phillips County). As in Arkansas, the ridge attracted settlers not only for agriculture and herding but also for orchards and truck farming (large-scale cultivation of crops for transport elsewhere). The prehistoric remains are exceedingly rich, with Beckwith’s Fort (now Towosahgy State Historic Site) being one example.
The great New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811–1812 are named for a prominent Mississippi River bootheel town, although the epicenter was actually located near what became Marked Tree (Poinsett County). During the Civil War, the swampy conditions favored guerrilla warfare, and Meriwether Jeff Thompson, the “Missouri Swamp Fox,” was also active in eastern Arkansas. The battles of Belmont and Island No. 10 took place along the Mississippi River.
The post–Civil War period saw rapid railroad development. The Cairo and Fulton, which eventually became part of Jay Gould’s St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad in 1883, ran initially from Birds Point, Missouri (opposite Cairo, Illinois), across the upper bootheel before paralleling the Ozark escarpment on its way to Texas. In 1883, the Texas and St. Louis Railroad (best known as the Cotton Belt) paralleled the earlier line to east, running through Paragould (Greene County) and Jonesboro (Craighead County) on its way to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and then Texas. Meanwhile, speculative railroad builder Louis Houck constructed a maze of short-line timber-oriented railroads that often reached into eastern Arkansas.
The bootheel preceded northeast Arkansas in developing a settlement pattern based on first timber-cutting and then land clearing. Central to agricultural settlement was the building of levees to prevent floods and drainage to remove the excess water. Local levees existed before the Civil War, but coordinated work began with the creation of the Mississippi River Commission in 1879. Systematic drainage arrived in the 1890s, its main exponent being Otto Kochtitzky, who also designed and built ditches in Arkansas.
A great land boom resulted from the railroad construction, and the seemingly adequate levees and drainage. Many of the settlers came from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois and spilled over into northeast Arkansas. Carrying with them their typical Northern racial schema, they created “sundown towns,” places where African Americans were forbidden from living. The bootheel became and remained a hotbed for racists and other separatists. The 1942 lynching of Cleo Wright had national implications, forcing a federal investigation. Locals in Kennett, Missouri, also tried to burn out Jehovah’s Witnesses after World War II.
The agricultural expansion also brought with it class conflicts. Stockmen opposed the end of open range, and bootleggers, long part of the “swamp-east” traditional way of life, felt threatened. In the mid-1920s, Southern plantation owners bought up large sections of land to grow cotton, hopeful they would be free from boll weevil infestation. In Mississippi and New Madrid counties, the tenancy rate stood at ninety percent.
The Flood of 1927 hit the states south of Missouri much harder than Missouri, but the subsequent national debate over the correct system of flood control resulted in the adoption of a plan in which Cairo, Illinois, would be protected by blowing the front-line levees and thus flooding Missouri. On January 25, 1937, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the fuse plug across from Cairo at Birds Point, but only after the first expedition had been met by gunfire from the Missouri side. The rapid and unorganized flight of residents living between the frontline levee and the setback levee resulted in much property loss, and flooding the area failed to achieve a significant drop in the water level at Cairo. Area residents started a still-active campaign to alter the flood control plans.
During the 1930s, the South’s agricultural crisis received notable attention in the bootheel. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, although organized in Arkansas, staged one protest in Missouri because, in the words of one organizer, “we had less fear of bloody violence in Missouri.” However, local and state officials did all in their power to suppress the nationally covered Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration of 1939, organized by Owen Whitfield. The post–World War II period saw cotton reach its greatest extent, but soybeans surged in the 1950s. Rice had been grown experimentally as early as 1910 but expanded greatly after 1970. Louis Dreyfus opened the state’s only rice mill at New Madrid in 1988; in 2002, Riceland acquired the facility. Butler and Stoddard were the two leading counties in rice production.
The late twentieth century was notable for the closing of almost all railroad lines in the bootheel. First came the abandonment of railroad ferries at Belmont and Birds Point. Then, as roads were paved, passenger and freight service declined, and lines were abandoned. Population declined as agriculture became mechanized. Some developments did materialize. New Madrid’s large coal-fired electricity plant built by Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc., and the Lady Luck casino at Caruthersville were two notable examples in the 1970s.
Many in Missouri have suggested that the state give the bootheel to Arkansas. There is little doubt that the area has always been a state step-child. The only person from the area to serve as governor of Missouri (1965–1973) was Warren G. Hearnes of Charleston. However, the economic and cultural history of the region has never completely paralleled that of its adjacent Arkansas counties. Still, at Arkansas State University (ASU), Missouri students make up 4.5 percent of the student body, a large majority of them coming from the bootheel counties.
Evidence of the connectivity between the bootheel and northeastern Arkansas appeared in startling form in 2010 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decertified part of the Missouri and Arkansas levee systems, having been forced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to raise the standards so that the burden of even 100-year floods would be transferred from the government to the property owner, who would be required to purchase hitherto unnecessary flood insurance. This action placed most of eastern Arkansas within the floodplain, including Jonesboro’s industrial park and all of Mississippi County.
For additional information:
Daniel, Larry J., and Lynn N. Bock. Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Kochtitzky, Otto. The Story of a Busy Life. Cape Girardeau, MO: Ramfre Press, 1957.
Mueller, Doris Land. M. Jeff Thompson: Missouri’s Swamp Fox of the Confederacy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
Ogilvie, Leon Parker. “Governmental Efforts at Reclamation in the Southeastern Missouri Lowlands.” Missouri Historical Review 64 (1970): 150–176.
“The Polstons Come to Shell Island. Muddy Roots 1.2 (June 1983): 20–22.
Snow, Thad. From Missouri. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1954.
Michael B. Dougan
Last Updated: 01/17/2019