American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


THERE are spots marked out by nature for the sites of cities, where they must spring up as soon as civilization is established and remain as long as it endures. Such a spot is Little Rock.

The southeastern half of Arkansas is low and flat, composed chiefly of alluvial plains; the northwestern half rugged and broken, rising toward the western border into the mountains, some three thousand feet in elevation, which gradually drop away toward the east till they disappear altogether. At the point, almost the exact center of the State, where the last foothills form the south bank of the principal river, it was inevitable that a city should be built and that that city should become the State's capital. Indeed, so manifest was the destiny of the position that it was made the seat of government before it had become a town, and when it was far beyond the limits of actual settlement.

Nor would it be easy to find a more desirable spot not beside the sea. The foundation is a rock bluff of slight elevation, but sufficient to lift the city above the danger of overflow. On this there rests a bed of gravelly clay, covered with a thin vegetable mould, and rising to the south and west in a succession of gently swelling eminences, presenting innumerable building sites of the most attractive character, and draining in every direction; equally free from steep acclivities and unwholesome flatness, and clothed by nature with a magnificent forest of wide spreading oaks and lofty pines. Far out into the river there projects a rocky peninsula, against whose adamantine sides the stream has dashed its ineffectual fury for countless ages; and this, in contrast to the bold precipice upon the other bank, which was called the Big Rock, gave to the place its name.

This promontory is now used as the abutment of one of the three bridges that span the river, and its beauty has been destroyed; but in the old days, when it was clothed with trees and ferns clinging to its rocky sides and reflected in the waters below, it was a charming sight, and must have been hailed with joy by the early travelers after their weary journey from the distant sea through the monotony of the low lying wilderness.

The original inhabitants of the region were the Quapaw or Arkansas Indians, a race much superior to the surrounding savages, and who dwelt not in scattered wigwams but in walled villages, and seem always to have lived in amity with the whites. Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix, an early French missionary, says of them, "The Arkansas are reckoned to be the tallest and best shaped of all the savages on this continent," and he speaks at length of their kindness to the French, and their fidelity to their engagements. So Du Pratz, an early voyageur, says: "I am so prepossessed in favor of this country that I persuade myself that the beauty of the climate has a great influence on the character of the inhabitants, who are at the same time very gentle and very brave."

In the days when Little Rock was a part of the favorite hunting ground of the Quapaws it must have been a lovely spot. Then the tall trees grew untouched upon its rolling hills, and its numerous little streams, now converted into sewers, flowed murmuring beneath overhanging ferns to mingle with the river.

When it was first visited by white men no one knows. During 1541 and 1542 De Soto marched back and forth through the region, seeking for gold with a Spaniard's hunger; but the accounts of his wanderings are uncertain and confused, and the blood of the unhappy natives which once marked out his pathway has long since mingled with the dust.

Then for almost two hundred years the solitude of the wilderness remained unbroken. At rare intervals the French voyageurs went up and down the Mississippi, establishing forts and trading posts; but the great river so engrossed their attention that they left its tributaries unexplored. At length, in 1722, a French officer, Bernard de la Harpe, ascended the Arkansas, and on April 9th reached the picturesque heights of Big Rock, where the army post is now located. Standing upon the brink of its lofty precipice he watched the river winding far away in the distance between the mountains of the West, and dreamed of the mighty empire that France should build up where lay the untrodden beauty of the woods. The whole site of Little Rock was spread out beneath him, clothed in verdure, and he mentions the slate bluffs which it presents to the stream.

Then again the curtain is drawn over the scene. Doubtless from time to time French voyageurs ascended the river to barter with the Indians for their furs, but they left no mark. In 1803, the country passed to the United States as a part of the Louisiana purchase, and the hardy Anglo-Saxon pioneer began to penetrate the wilderness, his Bible in one hand and in the other his long, death dealing rifle. As early as 1814 three or four squatters were dwelling at Little Rock or in its vicinity, subsisting chiefly by the chase; and even then the importance of the site was so conspicuous that strong men dwelling in St. Louis and other places began to struggle for possession of the title with a pertinacity rarely equalled.

At this period it escaped a great danger. An effort was made to christen it Arkopolis, and deeds were executed with that designation; but better counsels prevailed, and it retained its old name, "The Little Rock," the article then being an inseparable portion of the title.

It was still a mere spot in the forest marked by a few log huts when, on October 24, 1820, it was made the capital of the territory. On the 4th of July of that year the Rev. Cephas Washburn had preached the first sermon ever heard there, and in the rude cabin there were gathered to listen to him only fourteen men, no women, probably all the inhabitants of the place. Yet no one doubted that they were standing upon the site of a future city, or questioned the wisdom of the Legislature when it established the capital in the remote wilderness, far from the Mississippi in whose neighborhood the scanty population of the territory was chiefly gathered.

The town grew slowly. It was far from the centers of population, and the means of travel were slight and precarious. It was made a post office town on April 10, 1820, but the inhabitants in 1830 numbered only four hundred and fifty, and it was not incorporated until Nov. 7, 1831.

In 1860, the population was only about five thousand. Between 1833 and 1846 the State House was built, a handsome edifice for the time and place; but generally the buildings were constructed of wood, not infrequently of logs, and were wholly unpretentious. Yet it is probable that there has never been in the city so much ability, certainly never so many striking personalities, as in those early days. It was a time when the nation was in its lusty youth, when the spirit of adventure and the love of independence were strong in the breasts of men. It was an age of great orators, when men felt strongly and expressed themselves in words that burned. It was an age when the romantic movement in literature was at its best, and when the sad smallness of the realistic school had not cast its blight on every lofty enthusiasm. It was a time of buoyancy, of expansion, when the love of change and adventure, the weariness of the conventionalities of civilized life, the attractions of a future of unknown possibilities, were drawing many of the ablest and most ambitious of the nation's youth to the distant West. Their hopes were often chimerical; but of their abilities and their energy there can be no doubt. They sought the West, conscious of their strength, burning with ambition, each dreaming that he would be the master spirit of the new empire that was springing from the wilderness. When they found that instead of being unquestioned leaders among ignorant frontiersmen they were pitted against foemen worthy of their steel, and equally determined to rule the destinies of the infant commonwealth, the rivalries were fierce, the animosities bitter, the struggle intense. Politics ran high, a n d conflicting ambitions led to a degree of personal virulence in writing and in speech surpassing anything that we have today. When these young men first met, fire flashed as when flint and steel are struck together, and in the territorial days their quarrels were too often solved by the duel. After the admission of the State in 1836 affairs became more tranquil. The strong men gradually learned to dwell together in peace; but their rivalries, though less bloody, were not less strenuous.

All parts of the country contributed their quota. From Massachusetts there came perhaps the two ablest men, Chester Ashley and Albert Pike, men who would have been remarkable in any age or place. Connecticut sent Samuel H. Hempstead; Virginia, Henry W. Conway and Solon Borland; Kentucky, the State's most accomplished orators, Robert Crittenden and Frederick W. Trapnall, besides William and Ebenezer Cummins and George C. Watkins; North Carolina, Archibald Yell; Tennessee, Absalom Fowler and Ambrose H. Sevier; and there were many others from various sections worthy to enter the same arena.

And not at home alone were the great abilities of these men acknowledged. Arkansas' first two senators were Ashley and Sevier, and the former was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, while the latter was the chairman of its Committee on Foreign Relations, the only time when the chairmanship of both those great committees has been lodged in the hands of a single State, and that a State whose population consisted of a few frontiersmen almost lost in the primeval forest.

And when the Mexican War was over and the time came to reap the fruits of victory, it was Mr. Sevier who, together with Mr. Justice Clifford, negotiated the treaty of peace.

The leaders of the infant commonwealth were all lawyers. In the early days of the Republic the position of lawyers was much more commanding than it is at present. Their social influence has waned before the aristocracy of wealth; and their political power has largely passed to the "boss" and the machine, whose authority rests on a more material basis than eloquence and reason. And never was there a city so dominated by its bar as Little Rock in the olden times. Everything circled around the great lawyers. Even the wealth of the community was mostly in their hands. The houses of the citizens were generally of wood, and usually stood upon the street; but scattered about there arose the stately mansions of the leaders of the bar, of Ashley, Pike, Trapnall, Fowler, Crittenden, Hempstead and others. encircled by extensive grounds and shaded by patriarchal trees, dominating the surrounding dwellings almost like feudal châteaux. In these mansions were concentrated the social and intellectual life of the community, and its history was the story of their daily struggles for preeminence.

So Little Rock grew and flourished, men dwelling in peace beneath their vines and fig trees, until the year 1861 brought up the momentous question of disunion and war. Arkansas was strongly attached to the Union. In its mountainous regions there were no slaves, and three fourths of the people were white. The convention called to determine the course the State should take adjourned without action, declining to enter the confederacy that had been formed at Montgomery, Ala. But when they reassembled the war was already flagrant, and with only a single dissenting vote they cast in their lot with their brethren of the South. The result was hailed by the people of Little Rock with unlimited enthusiasm. Confidence in the success of Southern arms was universal. No grim spectre of invasion and despair haunted their dreams. But the awakening was rude. The Northern armies poured across the border in overwhelming numbers, and soon the people had to fight for their altars and their firesides. Rarely have a people sprung so universally to arms, or defended their homes with such tenacity. Out of a voting population of 61,198, fully fifty thousand were in the ranks. But they fought in vain. On Sept. 10, 1863, Little Rock was captured by the Northern forces under General Steele. They did the place no harm, save that upon one of its highest eminences they constructed a powerful fort, and to hold it in security leveled the forest to a great distance in every direction, destroying many a monarch of the wood which it will require centuries to replace.

Since the Civil War the history of Little Rock has been one of continuous development. Even the period of Reconstruction, that strange saturnalia that constitutes one of the darkest spots in the annals of the Anglo Saxon race, did not retard its growth. It is now a city of some forty thousand inhabitants, and its future has never been so bright. The mildness of its climate and the profusion of its flowers have won for it the name of "The City of Roses." The charm of its society, where Southern hospitality is so happily blended with Northern thrift and neatness, have made it a favorite place for visitors from every State. Its inhabitants are fond of art and of foreign travel, and few cities of its size send to Europe a larger or more regular contingent, or can show to the visitor more statues and pictures brought home from abroad. A breadth of view unique in the South, which has led it to welcome immigration from the North, has saved it from stagnation, and in all departments of business there are almost as many men from the North as from the South. The Indian Territory, which for years has stood as a Chinese wall upon the State's western border, cutting it off from all participation in the great movement of transcontinental traffic, and retarding its progress to an extent that is almost inconceivable, is now opening, and railroads are penetrating the new field. Commerce is flourishing, factories springing up, and everywhere the schoolmaster is abroad in the land. The decrees of the future are inscrutable, but, so far as mortal eye can discern, the twentieth century will be for Little Rock one of constant growth and advancement, material and intellectual, and the wisdom of the men who planted the State's capital upon this rock when it stood alone in the pathless wilderness will be more than justified.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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