Overview

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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 …

Agriculture

Agriculture has played a major role in Arkansas’s culture from territorial times, when farmers made up more than ninety percent of the population, through the present (about forty-five percent of the state’s residents were still classified as rural in the early part of the twenty-first century). Beginning as a region populated by small, self-sufficient landowners, the state evolved through a plantation culture before the Civil War, to an era when tenant farming and sharecropping dominated from the Civil War to World War II, before yielding to technology and commercial enterprise. For more than 150 years, agricultural practices had hardly changed. Hand tools and draft animals limited an average farmer to cultivating about four acres a day and made it difficult …

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 …

Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

Arkansas’s cultural record may begin on the state’s eastern edge, with a painted buffalo skin made by the Quapaw, nine figures in a line, the one at the left with a rattle. Or perhaps it begins still earlier, with fragments of cane flutes and whistles from ancient Ozark Indians. These offer only the briefest of hints, a mere glimpse of Arkansas’s earliest peoples, but enough to make it clear that they entertained themselves, that there were dancers, musicians, and artists among them. A millennium later, Arkansans entertain themselves at Riverfest in Little Rock (Pulaski County), the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), or maybe the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. They celebrate the successes of home-grown authors, …

Business, Commerce, and Industry

Business, commerce, and industry in Arkansas developed with the help of Arkansas’s natural resources. In the twentieth century, former governor Charles Hillman Brough boasted that if Arkansas were walled off from the rest of the nation, it could exist independently due to the fertile soil, multitude of minerals, and wide variety of trees. In addition, Arkansas’s location in the central United States, which gives it access to navigable waters, intercontinental railroads, and interstate highways, helped integrate and encourage a wide variety of businesses, commercial enterprises, and industries. Despite the state’s reputation for backwardness, it was at the forefront of prehistoric development and, in the twentieth century, became home to the world’s leading revolutionizing business force, Walmart Inc. Prehistoric Period The …

Civil War through Reconstruction, 1861 through 1874

In the last years of the 1850s, Arkansas enjoyed an economic boom that was unparalleled in its history. But in the years between 1861 and 1865, the bloody and destructive Civil War destroyed that prosperity. The conflict brought death and destruction to the state on a scale that few could have imagined, and the war and the tumultuous Reconstruction era that followed it left a legacy of bitterness that the passage of many years did little to assuage. Prelude to War In the 1850s, Arkansas was a frontier state. Most Arkansans, especially those who lived in the highlands of the north and west, were farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture on small parcels of land. In the fertile lands along the …

Early Twentieth Century, 1901 through 1940

Arkansas faced a number of opportunities and challenges in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Not only did the state introduce some significant initiatives in response to the multi-faceted reform movement known as progressivism, it also endured race riots, natural disasters, and severe economic problems. Even as it attempted to modernize its road and school systems, expand its manufacturing sector, and deal with increasing urbanization, most Arkansans continued to live in rural areas and remained largely conservative, both in their attitudes toward traditional social relations, particularly with regard to race, and in their religious orthodoxy. The tension between the need to modernize and the provincialism of rural Arkansas persisted throughout the era and inhibited meaningful change. Although the …

Education, Elementary and Secondary

Education has been evolving since the first humans arrived in Arkansas. By the late nineteenth century, as Americans became enamored with modernization, active programs of state-funded schools were looked upon as vital necessities. Since many Arkansans did not share these modernizing values, a state commitment to education lagged significantly behind the rest of the nation. Largely agrarian Arkansans remained unconvinced that tax-supported education was worth the cost, and the end of racial segregation produced a cultural crisis witnessed across the nation. By the 1990s, some evangelical Christians began sending their children to church-related schools or practiced home-schooling in response to what they saw as the failure of Arkansas’s public schools. Pre-European Exploration Education started in Arkansas with the arrival of …

Education, Higher

Formal education above the high school level came to be known as higher education in the twentieth century. In Arkansas, higher education appeared, at least in name, prior to the Civil War, but the state university and most of the private institutions were postwar products. Early Nineteenth CenturyDuring Arkansas’s colonial period (1686–1802), there is no evidence of any public interest in higher education and little interest in even the most elementary sort. The transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States resulted in the arrival in Arkansas of numerous persons with backgrounds in higher education. James Miller, the first territorial governor, had attended Williams College in Massachusetts, as had Chester Ashley, the leader of the state bar association and …

Environment

Arkansas’s physical environment features a mild climate, adequate rainfall, a rural and relatively uncrowded landscape, and diverse geology, which promote a variety of plants, animal life, and water resources. Understanding this environment requires examining the historical changes that have taken place, primarily those changes effected by human occupation. Each new culture and industry moving into the state has brought environmental changes, often dramatically affecting the landscapes of Arkansas’s six distinct geographic regions. An Environmental SnapshotArkansas contains 53,104 square miles (some thirty-four million acres) composed of six regions: the Arkansas River Valley, Crowley’s Ridge, the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (also called the Delta), the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark Plateau, and the West Gulf Coastal Plain. More than 14.6 million acres is farmland, …

European Exploration and Settlement, 1541 through 1802

The region that became Arkansas was unknown to Europeans until the 1540s. Fifty years after Christopher Columbus landed in the western hemisphere, the European exploration of Arkansas began. The first settlement was not founded for another 140 years, and the first permanent settlement forty years after that. Throughout the colonial era, Arkansas underwent dramatic demographic changes. At the time of the first Spanish explorers in the 1540s, Arkansas was a land of heavily populated villages and extensive farm fields. By the time of the first French expeditions in the 1670s, Arkansas was sparsely populated with isolated villages and tribes but with an abundance of wild game and other resources. The focus of the colonial era was not on the promotion …

Folklore and Folklife

When English antiquarian William J. Thoms introduced his new coinage “folk-lore” in 1846, he intended it as a “good Saxon substitute” for “popular antiquities,” a Latinate term that referred to the manners and customs of the “olden time.” Although subsequent folklore scholars have recognized that their subject is an ever-changing, modern phenomenon, the association of folklore with antiquity has often sent folklorists to people and places that seem to lie outside the mainstream of cultural development and where, they assume, a way of life untouched by modernization and globalization endures. In the United States, the “folk” were those who lived in isolation as a result especially of geography but sometimes of ethnicity or another distinguishing factor. Arkansas, especially its Ozark …

Food and Foodways

Because nutrition is essential to human survival, the production and consumption of food has been central to life in what is now Arkansas for more than ten thousand years. Evolving social customs dictate when, where, and how food is presented. Because of Arkansas’s ties to rest of the South, as well as to the Southwest and Midwest, the core components of local food preparation followed traditional “American” lines, with little impact being felt from the small immigrant population. The globalization of food, mostly via restaurants, came generally after 1960. Prehistory The first humans in Arkansas, the Paleoindians, were hunter-gatherers. Despite Arkansas’s lack of excavated and analyzed sites, evidence from adjacent areas suggests that besides hunting the now-extinct mega animals (mammoths, …

Geography and Geology

Geography has played an important and continuing role in the history and culture of Arkansas. From settlement patterns to Civil War battlefields to centers of economic development and political party affiliation, geographic patterns are obvious. These are often related to the distinct physical/biological landscapes of the state, each one of which has a unique combination of limitations and potentials for human use. These landscapes often occur in regions where the character is set by the underlying geology, which in turn influences soil and vegetation. Also, climate varies across the state as a result of changes in latitude, elevation, and local topography. All of these factors combine in varied ways to make Arkansas surprisingly diverse. One approach to understanding the patterns …

Health and Medicine

Arkansas long had a reputation for being sickly because much of the state supported large mosquito populations, carrying malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases. Modern medicine, a largely nineteenth-century creation, arrived late, and throughout the twentieth century, diseases eradicated elsewhere continued to flourish. Only after World War II did sharp improvements in health occur, but the Delta lagged far behind. Problems in health and medical programs were compounded in part because many Arkansans deliberately engaged in forms of risky behavior such as tobacco use and unhealthy diets. Prehistoric Arkansas The first settlers more than 10,000 years ago brought to the New World only a few major illnesses. One was tuberculosis, evidence of which is visible in bones from burial sites. …

Historic Preservation

Arkansas has an active preservation community with a notable success record in saving buildings, sites, and neighborhoods. The tools successfully used in Arkansas were developed on the national stage and successfully transplanted to the state. The first preservation achievements were the result of strong individual leadership focused on saving landmark buildings. The first major success was what is now called the Old State House (Arkansas’s first state capitol building), which was constructed beginning in 1833. It remained the capitol until 1911, when construction of the present Arkansas State Capitol was sufficiently completed for occupancy. Since 1901, the legislature and the governor had debated the idea of selling the old building once it was vacated. This proposal garnered serious attention again …

Law

Law develops out of the customs practiced by groups of people. In Arkansas, as in other places, the law has evolved over time with different cultures and interest groups within them. In the early eighteenth century, French colonizers replaced the familial and village-wide chiefdom systems of law developed by the natives with legal rules and regulations developed in France. These new rules appeared more sophisticated and complex than those developed by small groups of native hunter-gatherers. However, in many respects, they reflected a similar hierarchical structure with a hereditary ruler at the top. Given the geographical distance from which these laws were applied, they had to be adapted to fit the circumstances of frontier living. As had the natives, local …

Literature and Authors

Arkansas’s place in Southern American literature is partly a result of its place on the map. The eastern border, the Mississippi River, isolated Arkansas from the rest of the South, and the western border, in Indian Territory, pulled it toward the western frontier. The Arkansas River, slicing the state diagonally from northwest to southeast, further divided the region culturally and economically. Arkansas contains six natural divisions ranging from the Ozark Plateau (commonly called the Ozark Mountains) to the flat and fertile Delta on the eastern border. The combination of isolation from without and cultural diversity within its borders continues to influence Arkansas writers and writing. Even those whose association with the state is temporary or tenuous often bear the stamp …

Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood, 1803 through 1860

A century of French and Spanish imperial control had little permanent effect on Arkansas, leaving it with fewer than 500 European-born inhabitants when it became part of the United States. The most significant change of the eighteenth century had been the decimation of the Quapaw Indian population, which ended the period only slightly more numerous than did the white settlers who had always been their friends and allies. Even after the Louisiana Purchase, change came slowly. Arkansas became a separate territory in 1819, but not until the 1830s did it begin to grow rapidly, a process that led to statehood in 1836. By that time, it was becoming a distinctly Southern state, the production of cotton and the ownership of …

Mass Media

For a small state with regard to population and geography, Arkansas has a surprisingly large number of mass media: 135 newspapers, 256 commercial radio stations, twenty-three commercial television stations, and dozens of magazines and other publications. In addition, there are ten non-commercial television stations, twenty-nine non-commercial radio stations, and twenty-six cable television networks. Mass media in Arkansas developed much like they did throughout the country. That is, they appeared where and when population and business development supported them. Two key elements determine the success of any of the mass media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and cable): revenue, in the form of advertising and purchases (subscriptions and single copy sales); and audience, in the form of readers, viewers, and listeners. Arkansas …

Military

Arkansas’s military history began sometime after the first Paleoindian hunter-gatherers arrived. Territorial conflicts doubtless occurred at intervals during prehistoric times. The attempt to establish European dominance led to more conflicts, and Arkansas has played a role in all the wars involving the United States. Although physical violence has always been rooted in the state’s popular culture, militarism was slow to take root. In the absence of military schools, Arkansas’s support for the military often reflected a rural economy that lacked economic opportunities for young males, as well as the diligence of service recruiters. Prehistoric and Territorial Aggression No evidence documents the first hostile encounters between Arkansas tribes, but excavation at the Late Archaic Crenshaw site in southwest Arkansas unearthed a …

Modern Era, 1968 through the Present

In November 2004, President George W. Bush joined former presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter to speak at the dedication of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Thousands of people, including a broad array of notable national and international figures, braved an incessant rain to hear these men celebrate the career of the former Arkansas governor. Following an introduction by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, President Bill Clinton explained that the library architecture symbolized the bridging of the past and future. This observation on the force of history resonated particularly with Arkansans. The rise of Clinton himself to the presidency demonstrated the social and political transformation of his native state. The …

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 …

Politics and Government

“Arkansas,” its leading newspaper once lamented, “has too much politics.” But while the state has seen plenty of noisy contention, healthy two-party competition has occurred only fitfully throughout its history. And the hoopla and hair-pulling of campaigns have typically been out of proportion to what state and local government actually did for—or required of—Arkansans. Pre-European Exploration Relatively little is known about how Arkansans were governed through the larger part of their past, there being no written records dating from before the era of European exploration. Archaeological evidence indicates that, by the Mississippian Period (AD 900–1600), the region harbored large settlements and intensive agriculture, its residents living in hierarchical societies governed by hereditary leaders exercising both political and religious authority. This …

Post-Reconstruction through the Gilded Age, 1875 through 1900

In the years that followed Reconstruction, Arkansas experienced changes that paralleled trends taking place elsewhere in the nation. Nationally, the creation of the mass market and the economic growth that followed gave the era its basic character. The economy, and particularly the rise of industry, produced great prosperity for some whose spending habits gave the period its name—the Gilded Age. These developments also encouraged the movement of many people from the countryside to the city, producing a cultural and social transformation. But all of this came at a cost. Changes disrupted traditional economies and society, and many, particularly farmers and workers, failed to share in the bounty of the new world. In a state with an economy still largely agricultural, …

Pre-European Exploration, Prehistory through 1540

The pre-European history of Arkansas begins 13,500 years ago in the Pleistocene epoch, when cold weather prevailed over most of North America. Our understanding of life in Arkansas since then will never be complete because many archaeological sites have been lost through erosion, human development, and vandalism, and most ancient fragile and perishable objects have decomposed over the centuries. It is possible, however, to describe the general characteristics of life in Arkansas over the last 12,000 years based on discoveries made here, similar finds made elsewhere in North America, and lifestyles of modern nonindustrial hunters who lived in remote areas of the earth in recent times. Archeologists divide this time into five periods, each having distinctive lifestyles, cultural practices, and …

Recreation and Sports

Recreation and sports have long been vital to Arkansas. Recreation has been important in Arkansas since prehistoric times, and sports also have a long prehistoric as well as historic component. RECREATION We can only guess at the nature of recreation during the more than ten thousand years of habitation before the first Europeans arrived. The modern and Euro-centric term “recreation” very inadequately defines what tribes practiced. Dancing, for example, was a main component of Caddo Indian culture, but in addition to its elements of immediate enjoyment, it transmitted traditions and practices to upcoming generations. European settlement of Arkansas began with the French, and judging by the observations of outsiders, entertainment provided by the Quapaw and other local tribes, such as …

Religion

The number of people in Arkansas who believe in and practice a religious faith has always been high, with the greatest percentage identifying themselves as Christian and Protestant. Numerically, the largest denomination in the state is now Baptist, including its Southern, Missionary, Free Will, Primitive, and other branches. Because of privacy issues and the separation of church and state, it is difficult to arrive at exact statistics pertaining to church membership or affiliation. The U.S. government’s Census of Religious Bodies was discontinued in 1936. Early Religion in ArkansasPrior to European contact, little is known of Native American—in Arkansas, the Quapaw and Caddo groups—religious traditions. Attempts at reconstructions based on archaeology and later ethnography have been made, but recorded accounts begin …

Science and Technology

Arkansas has had a rather conflicted relationship with science and technology throughout its history. On the one hand, the state existed for a long time on the American frontier, separated from the intellectual and academic centers of the rest of the nation; hence, its residents have been popularly perceived throughout history as possessing an anti-intellectual strain, an image on occasion reified during, for example, controversies regarding the place of evolutionary theory in public education. On the other hand, political leaders, and the people themselves, fairly readily support scientific research that promises to have an immediate economic benefit for the state of Arkansas. Given Arkansas’s place as a largely agricultural state, it is no surprise that much of this research has …

Tourism

The term “tourism,” meaning “traveling as a recreation,” was not common in the nineteenth century, nor was the activity it denoted. By the year 2014, however, an estimated 26 million visitors to Arkansas spent approximately $6.7 billion annually in the state. Tourists come to Arkansas for its many sports and recreational opportunities, as well as its natural beauty. Arkansas tourism may have taken root even in the eighteenth century. The decorated buffalo robes the Quapaw made that ended up in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, France, were, in Judge Morris S. Arnold’s judgment, tourist souvenirs. Arkansas—which, because of John Law’s Mississippi Bubble scheme, had international recognition—attracted daring tourists. While Thomas Nuttall and George William Featherstonhaugh came on business, Washington …

Transportation

The systems of conveyance both through and within Arkansas involve routes that include land, air, and water. Because of Arkansas’s geographic location along the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Red rivers, water routes have been particularly important. Land routes have been much affected by the landscapes of the six natural divisions within the state, and achieving travel avenues of roads and railroads posed many problems, both for transportation through the state and among the divisions within the state. Pre-European ExplorationPaleolithic hunters who arrived in Arkansas more than 10,000 years ago appropriated trails beaten down by herds of mastodons and then bison. These trails became the basis for human societal development through transportation. The most significant land route, later called the Southwest Trail, …

Women

From prehistoric times through the French and Spanish colonial eras, from the territorial period through statehood, secession, Reconstruction, and modernization, women have played major and defining roles in the development and history of Arkansas. Women of every race, ethnicity, religion, social class, and legal status have been instrumental in shaping the culture and social structure of Arkansas, even as they have been forced to struggle for equal rights, political and legal equality, economic and social independence—even the most basic human right of freedom. Prehistory The first women in Arkansas were likely the descendants of Asians who crossed the land bridge to North America between 18,000 and 10,000 BC. During the Paleoindian, Woodland, Archaic, and Mississippian periods, women farmed, hunted, and …

World War II through the Faubus Era, 1941 through 1967

Developments during World War II loosened Arkansas from its rural moorings as it moved toward full integration with the national economy and society. Beginning in the war years and through the 1950s, the state resumed an industrialization process that had been interrupted by the Great Depression. Arkansans migrated from the countryside to the cities and participated in the expanding consumer economy. Federal dollars subsidized infrastructure improvements. Although state political leaders welcomed the largesse from Washington, they resisted external pressures to acknowledge African-American rights. Encouraged by ground-breaking federal court decisions, a new generation of civil rights leaders mounted direct challenges to discriminatory practices. Governor Orval Faubus responded to changing conditions with an ambitious expansion of state services, while mollifying white residents …