Ethnic Groups

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Entry Category: Ethnic Groups

African Americans

African Americans constitute 15.4 percent of Arkansas’s population, according to the 2010 census, and they have been present in the state since the earliest days of European settlement. Originally brought to Arkansas in large numbers as slaves, people of African ancestry drove the state’s plantation economy until long after the Civil War. African Americans have exerted a profound influence upon all aspects of the state’s history and culture. European Exploration and Settlement through Early Statehood In August 1721, a party of Frenchmen employed by John Law’s Compagnie d’Occident established a new colony near the banks of the Arkansas River, a few leagues upstream from where it empties into the Mississippi River. Shortly thereafter, French colonial officials conducted a census for …

Caddo Nation

Caddo Indians enter written history in chronicles of the Hernando de Soto expedition, which describe encounters during the Spanish passage through southwest Arkansas. When the Spaniards crossed the threshold to Caddo country on June 20, 1542, they entered a nation uniquely distinguished by language, social structure, tradition, and way of life. Caddo people were sedentary farmers, salt makers, hunters, traders, craftsmen, and creators of exquisite pottery who buried their dead in mounds and cemeteries with solemn ritual and a belief that the dead traveled to a world beyond this. Caddo language was unlike any spoken by other groups the Spaniards met as they explored northeast Arkansas and the Southern states east of the Mississippi River. Caddo communities—called villages or towns …

Cherokee

The Europeans named the Cherokee as one of the Five Civilized Tribes. (The other four were the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.) At the time of European contact, the Cherokee inhabited a region consisting of what is now western North Carolina and parts of Virginia, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Over the next two centuries, the tribe expanded through the southern Appalachians, reaching further into Georgia as well as into South Carolina, northeastern Alabama, and across the Cumberland River into Kentucky and West Virginia; some of this expansion occurred following the displacement of other tribes. By the 1780s, Cherokee migration into Arkansas had begun, largely in response to pressure to move away from Euro-American settlements in the East following the Revolutionary …

Chickasaw

Heading east, the ancestral Chickasaw crossed Arkansas looking for a new homeland at some point in prehistory. Heading west beginning in 1836, the Chickasaw crossed Arkansas again as the tribe was removed to its new home in Indian Territory. Between these two events, the Chickasaw interacted periodically with tribes living in Arkansas, most notably the Quapaw, whom they warred against during much of the eighteenth century. In all versions of the Chickasaw migration story, the people came from the west, usually from central Mexico. They were led by twin brothers Chatah and Chikasa, who followed a divinely inspired fabusa, or leaning pole. In these versions, the people necessarily must have passed through the land that became Arkansas to get to …

Chinese

The introduction of the Chinese to Arkansas can be traced back to their roots as a sojourners’ society—men who left the Chinese “motherland” ready to amass wealth in the United States before returning to their families in China. However, Arkansas did not offer vast riches like that of the fabled gam sahn, or “Golden Mountain,” among the gold mines of northern California. What Arkansas did offer was work in the cotton fields of the Delta. Following a regional conference on Chinese immigration organized by planters from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas and held in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 13, 1869, local planters met in their own smaller conventions to begin the importation of Chinese labor. There was extensive debate on the …

Choctaw

The Choctaw are of the Western Muskogean language stock, which is also the same stock as the Chickasaw. When first encountered by Europeans, the Choctaw were located in three geographic divisions in the area that is now Mississippi and western Alabama. The three divisions each had some distinguishing cultural practices, which may indicate they had separate origins and that the Choctaw came together as a single people only in more recent times. There are two widespread traditions within the Choctaw about their origins. One is that they came from the far west and were led eastward by a sacred pole that was placed in the ground each night; one morning, the pole did not lean but stayed straight upright near …

Delaware

Members of many tribes displaced from homelands east of the Mississippi River temporarily resided in Arkansas up until the early nineteenth century. Among these were the Delaware, who had settlements in Arkansas until around the late 1820s. The Delaware (known also as the Lenape) speak Eastern Algonquian and live today in southern Ontario, western New York, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century European explorers met their ancestors living in and around the Delaware River valley in contiguous parts of the modern states of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. In their Northeastern homelands, the Delaware maintained an agricultural economy supplemented by hunting, fishing, and seasonally collecting nuts and other edible plant foods. They lived in multifamily …

Free Blacks

aka: Free Negroes
The terms “Free blacks” or “Free Negroes” refer to people of African descent in the United States who were neither enslaved nor subject to the ownership of another person prior to the Civil War, after which slavery was abolished. Blacks were first documented as coming to Arkansas in the eighteenth century when the French brought slaves with them, and white American settlers in the following decade continued the practice of slavery. Other blacks passed through the region with Native Americans during the period of Indian Removal, both as free blacks and as slaves. Free blacks seem to have first appeared in Arkansas in 1803, when officials at Arkansas Post recorded 107 slaves and two free blacks in the state. By …

Germans

German immigrants played a significant role in the development of Arkansas’s economy and in the founding of many social, religious, and cultural institutions, even though the number of German immigrants never represented more than one percent of the state’s population. Long after German immigration to the state reached its peak in 1882, evidence of the immigrants’ presence remains. Colonial and Territorial Years through Early Statehood As the eastern United States became more crowded, people of all backgrounds followed the transportation routes, primarily the rivers, looking for less crowded living conditions and greater opportunity; a few reached Arkansas. The censuses taken during the 1790s at Arkansas Post included fewer than ten German families, settlers who probably came from the Vincennes area …

Greeks

Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state. From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic, and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks by the state has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state. Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late nineteenth century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for …

Hmong

The Hmong are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia, and their presence in Arkansas stems from the evacuation of allied groups by the U.S. government at the end of the Vietnam War. As of the 2010 federal census, there are 2,143 Hmong residents of the state, concentrated in northwestern Arkansas. Prior to the Vietnam War, little was known in the West about the thousands of tribes of hill people throughout Southeast Asia, mostly peasants with ancestry going back to China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. During the Vietnam War, one of these groups, the Hmong, was sympathetic to the American forces, but circumstances did not allow the Hmong to obtain legal status in Thailand at war’s end. Even before the fall …

Immigration

The peopling of Arkansas has taken place since prehistoric times, beginning with the migration of early Native Americans thousands of years ago. Europeans began to settle the area shortly after the arrival of the early explorers, such as Hernando de Soto, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Settlement took place largely as a result of gradual migrations into the state. Each new group helped define the cultural characteristics of Arkansas. White Immigration, 1820 to 1880Immigration into Arkansas between 1820 and 1880 was part of the general westward movement, a larger migratory process taking place in America. Some of the main reasons white people migrated to Arkansas were to seek adventure, to join family and …

Irish

Irish migration to Arkansas took place throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in three distinct settlements. Over the years, Irish residents of Arkansas have made their mark on the state, exemplified in organizations such as the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas. About fifteen percent of Arkansans claim Irish or Scotch-Irish ancestry. The first wave of Irish immigration concerned the Scotch-Irish (sometimes called Scots-Irish), who were descendants of eighteenth-century Ulster Protestant immigrants. The term Scotch-Irish acknowledges the seventeenth-century mass Scottish migration to Ireland’s northernmost province, Ulster—a migration that left indelible marks on the culture, including stark differences in religion and nationalistic attitudes that distinguished the Protestant, pro-British “Scotch-Irish” from their Catholic, Gaelic, and generally anti-British neighbors. Scotch-Irish immigrants to the United …

Italians

Few people associate Arkansas with Italian immigration to America, assuming immigrants settled only in the urban Northeast. Yet many communities throughout the United States have a significant proportion of Italian Americans. Lured by work and regional ties, immigrants gravitated to places they could find work, whether in garment factories, coal mines, farms, fisheries, the canning industry, or lumber mills. They sought out established settlements of their village compatriots, or paesani. Certainly in the peak immigration years (1880–1910), the American South—including Arkansas—attracted its share of Italian immigrants. According to the National Italian American Foundation, the 2000 Census reports that just 1.3 percent (36,674 people) of the state’s population was of Italian-American descent; while the Arkansas numbers are not overwhelming, Italian Americans …

Jews

Jews have always been a tiny minority of Arkansas’s population, yet their history in the state is long and deeply rooted. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants from Europe established communities and congregations throughout Arkansas. Despite their small numbers, Arkansas Jews have been committed to preserving their religious traditions even as they assimilated into the culture of their town and state. In the process, Jews became an active part of the state’s civic and economic life. As in many other Southern states and rural regions, the Jewish population has experienced significant decline over the past several decades, especially in small towns, though Jewish life and culture continues to flourish in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and the growing community of Bentonville …

Koroa

The Koroa are one of many “small tribes” of the southeastern United States that are mentioned briefly in historic accounts and then fade from the records during the colonial period. There is evidence that some Koroa may have resided in present-day Arkansas in the late seventeenth century, but the ancestral homeland, cultural roots, and historic fate of the Koroa remain issues of disagreement among today’s scholars. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, numerous missionaries, explorers, and colonists traveling through the Lower Mississippi River Valley made reference to Koroa (or people whose names sounded similar, like Coloa, Kourea, Currous, Akoroa) residing in a number of locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. There is not enough information to locate these …

Latinos

aka: Hispanics
The Latino population in Arkansas, which began its rapid growth in the 1980s, has created significant political, economic, and social modifications within the state. Latino food and music, as well as bilingualism, have become common in several regions of the state. Numerous industries and economic ventures have prospered since the mid-1990s due in large part to the contributions of the immigrant workforce. The Latino influence has changed many towns and cities dramatically. In cities such as Rogers (Benton County) and Springdale (Washington County), Latinos make up more than thirty percent of the total population, creating a cultural impact in the area. Latino restaurants and businesses with Spanish signage are now seen in many Arkansas towns and cities. According to the …

Marshallese

aka: Marshall Islanders
Marshallese have been migrating from their remote and beautiful North Pacific archipelago to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas since the 1980s to earn money, educate their children, and seek medical care. The second-largest U.S. continental population of Marshallese is concentrated in Springdale (Washington and Benton Counties). Historical Background on the Marshall Islands The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) comprises twenty-nine shallow atolls—rings of coral reef—and five islands arrayed over the eastern Ratak (Sunrise) and western Ralik (Sunset) chains. The nation encompasses 750,000 square miles of ocean just north of the equator. According to the RMI government, the national population is estimated at 55,000 as of 2013. The nation is burdened by deep poverty, disease, and the enduring effects of …

Multiculturalism

The term “multiculturalism” is usually employed to describe the promotion of multiple cultural traditions, and the acceptance of such traditions, within a particular place, through policies and activities both official and unofficial. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Arkansas’s population to consist of the following racial makeup: 79.9 percent white, 15.6 percent African American, 6.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.5 percent Asian, 1.0 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.3 percent Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and 1.9 percent two or more races. As both Arkansas and the United States as a whole have become increasingly diverse, steps have been taken by academic institutions, organizations, government entities, businesses, and individuals to encourage positive multicultural environments. Academic institutions in …

Native Americans

Arkansas was home to Native Americans long before Europeans arrived. The first explorers met Indians whose ancestors had occupied the region for thousands of years. These were impressive and well-organized societies, to whom Europeans introduced new technologies, plants, animals, and diseases, setting in motion a process of population loss and cultural change that would continue for centuries. The United States government forced Indians to leave their ancient homelands and attempted—during the nineteenth century—to eradicate Indian traditions altogether. Indian communities persevered and today continue to celebrate their rich cultural heritage. This heritage is an important part of Arkansas history. First Encounters The first encounters between Europeans and Indians living in what is now Arkansas took place in 1541, when Hernando de …

Osage

The Osage lived in several villages located in southwest Missouri when Europeans began to explore and settle the lands west of the Mississippi River late in the seventeenth century. During this period, Osage hunters made frequent forays into northwest Arkansas, but, more importantly, their role as key players in economic and political affairs before the modern era touched the lives of nearly everyone living in the region. The Osage language is one of the Dhegiha dialects of the Siouan language family, closely related to languages spoken by members of the Quapaw, Omaha, Kansa (or Kaw), and Ponca tribes. Archaeologists have not identified the pre-Columbian ancestors of the historic Osage, but oral traditions and the mutually intelligible character of Dhegihan dialects …

Prehistoric Caddo

aka: Caddo, Prehistoric
Prehistoric Caddo culture developed as a regional variant of the Mississippian tradition in southwest Arkansas and in parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas between AD 800 and 1100. The characteristics that archaeologists use to identify this prehistoric culture include pottery containers with new shapes and decorations, flat-topped mounds used as platforms for buildings, conical mounds erected over dismantled buildings that occasionally were used as burial sites, new burial practices, new settlement practices, and new subsistence practices. Parallels between some of these features and European descriptions of the historic Caddo who lived in the same large region in the 1600s and 1700s indicate that the prehistoric Caddo were ancestors of the modern Caddo Nation. In Arkansas, Caddo culture developed among local …

Quapaw

The Quapaw are members of the Dhegiha Siouan language group, which also includes the Osage, the Omaha, the Ponca, and the Kansa. They first appeared in historical accounts in 1673 when they encountered the first French explorers in the Mississippi River Valley, led by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. The French called the Quapaw the “Arkansas,” the Illini word for “People of the South Wind” and so named the river and the countryside after them. At that time, the Quapaw lived in four villages along the Mississippi River. They established one village, Kappa, on the east bank of the Mississippi. Two others, Tongigua and Tourima, were located on the west bank and a fourth, Osotouy, at the mouth of …

Romani

aka: Gypsy
The Romani, commonly referred to as Gypsies, have a longstanding tradition of immigration and migration, in which the economic draw of the United States and the Southeast has always been very strong. Romanies trace their heritage to ninth-century India. Western migration from this point of origin has helped to develop a culture that is truly unique. While many Romani still speak a language that is closely related to Sanskrit, each different ethnic group of Romani has incorporated loan words from other languages. Romani culture has been subdivided through this continued migration to the West. For example, two major Romani ethnic groups are present in the United States: the Romanichals of the British Isles and the Vlax of southeastern Europe. Small …

Shawnee

Among the immigrant Native Americans who lived in territorial Arkansas were several Shawnee communities. They came from Indiana and Missouri at the invitation of the Cherokee after the Treaty of 1817 created the Cherokee Nation on land in the Ozarks between the White and Arkansas rivers. The Shawnee, who built settlements on Crooked Creek and White River, departed after more than a decade of life in Arkansas. The Shawnee were a large Algonkian-speaking tribe, widely scattered across the eastern woodlands. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the majority of them were living in the area both north and south of the Ohio River. Euro-American settlers from the east brought on years of violence. In a peace treaty in 1774, …

St. Joseph Colony

St. Joseph Colony, covering land throughout Conway, Faulkner, and Pope counties, served Roman Catholics living along the Arkansas River Valley and the German-speaking Catholic immigrants who later settled these lands. Father Joseph Strub of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic missionary society, founded the colony in 1878. St. Joseph Colony attracted immigrants to Arkansas until the middle of the 1880s, though the presence of the colony is still felt today. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussian-dominated Germany expelled Strub and other Holy Ghost Fathers in 1873 by means of his anti-Catholic policy, Kulturkampf. The Holy Ghost Fathers fled Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, Strub learned of railroads offering land in Arkansas for settlement. Strub …

Tunica

aka: Tunican Indians
The Tunica were one of several Native American tribes situated in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the French colonial period. As allies of the French colonial Louisiana government, the Tunica were involved in many of the turbulent events that took place between the start of the Louisiana colony and the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. As a result, their population was severely reduced in numbers during this century, and they moved their villages repeatedly, generally downstream, until settling near present-day Marksville, Louisiana, about 1790. Tribal traditions and early colonial historic reports do not give a clear picture of Tunica ancestral homelands and cultural traditions. There is evidence, however, to indicate that the Tunica resided, at least in part, …