June is statehood celebration month for Arkansas, which was admitted to the union as the 25th state on June 15, 1836.
We were truly the Natural State back then, with a scant population dotting the broad expanse inside our freshly decreed borders.
A cartographic document published by H.S. Tanner at the time illustrates the scarcity of towns. The counties aren’t fully formed, and precious few recognizable incorporated areas are present.
Up in the northeast corner, for example, no towns are listed at all in Greene, Mississippi or White counties. Among the small number of towns that are listed—no county boasts more than two—the names are mostly unfamiliar.
Good luck finding Jackson, once the county seat of Lawrence County, although a diligent sojourner can still navigate his way to the appropriately named Old Jackson Cemetery.
What’s left of Davidsonville is memorialized in a state park, and the only other Randolph County town marked is Columbia, which time has mostly obliterated except for an old church and cemetery.
Over in Jackson County, Litchfield was another early county seat that is gone with the wind, and the only outpost named on the 1836 map.
In Crittenden and Independence counties are the only two Northeast Arkansas towns which survive intact on modern maps: Batesville and Marion.
St. Francis County lists two towns: Franklin and Walnut Camp, neither of which exist today; Franklin was located in what now would be Cross County, near the St. Francis River.
North of Marion in Crittenden County, the map denotes the community of Greenock. A navigator today would find nothing but farmland where the early county seat once stood, and the funeral for the last person interred in the old Greenock cemetery occurred in 1935.
Izard County centers of population on the 1836 map are listed only as Pine Bayou and C.H., the latter of which may signify a “Court House,” given its proximity on the White River.
Looking over the rest of the state on Tanner’s cartographic rendition, only a handful of names still mark popular towns and cities: Little Rock, Benton, Hot Springs, Helena, Fayetteville, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren.
Several unincorporated communities, like Carrollton in Carroll County and Collegeville in Saline County, are featured on the old map.
City and town locations shifted over the 18 decades since the statehood map against a geography that’s largely unchanged. Our rich supply of rivers were all mostly named by 1836, and landmarks such as Magnet Cove in Hot Springs County and Sugarloaf Mountain and “Petite Jean” in Scott County were marked.
The latter mountain inspired visitor Washington Irving, a few years prior to statehood, to wax eloquent: “a picturesque line of waving highlands—of mingled rock and cliff and wood, with far bottom below.”
None of our prominent present-day lake destinations existed back then, of course, but the large oxbows along the Mississippi are shown, with Grand Lake down in Chicot County specifically called out.
In accordance with Missouri Compromise stipulations, Arkansas’ application as a slave state was paired with Michigan’s—though there were initially few slaves within the boundaries of the Arkansaw Territory when it was organized in 1819.
That would change quickly.
Census figures show that the slave population grew from fewer than 2,000 in 1820 to more than 111,000 on the eve of the Civil War. The reason for the influx was primarily the growth of cotton production in the southeast regions of the state, and as an early land of opportunity, the state’s overall population saw similar gains.
Only 12,000 souls called the entire territory (which included most of modern-day Oklahoma) home in 1820. Four decades later, state residents in a land mass roughly 50 percent smaller totalled 435,000 in the 1860 census.
Life in Arkansas in the late 1830s or early 1840s was still primitive, compared to northern and eastern states, and accounts from the time vary in describing the people that travelers encountered.
One German visitor related his stay in 1838 at the small Northeast Arkansas farm of a man named Saint, with an Irish wife: “Our hosts to all appearances are very religious people, and we had prayers every evening. … The house was built of logs, roughly cut. … A field of about five acres was in front of the house, planted with Indian corn …”
He also described a beautiful night in which the soft breeze and starlit sky kept him and two American co-workers, one of whom was a “strict Methodist,” from sleeping:
“[T]here was nothing more natural than that we should talk of the stars, then of heaven, then of religion; and as we entertained very different views, our conversation degenerated into a hot dispute which was put to an end to about midnight by a heavy shower of rain …”
That selection is taken from A Documentary History of Arkansas, which serves up 300 pages of letters, essays, editorials, legislation and other material to chronicle our state’s origins and progression.
Arkansas history is a rich but often untapped resource. The statehood anniversary is a good time to remedy that, even if only a little.