Time Period

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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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …