A Genealogist’s Historical Timeline for Arkansas, 1539 – 1836

The following Historical Timeline for Arkansas, 1539 – 1836 is from William Dollarhide’s new book, Arkansas Name Lists, 1686 – 2005, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present:
Arkansas Name Lists
For genealogical research in Arkansas, the following timeline of events should help any genealogist understand the area with an historical and genealogical point of view:

1539-1542. Spaniard Hernando DeSoto was a famous Conquistador, having spent time as a loyal captain under Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru in 1532. He had returned to Spain a hero in 1534 where he was granted an enormous share of the treasure of the Inca conquest. He requested from King Charles I the governorship of Guatemala, and to lead an expedition for the “discovery of the South Sea.” But Charles gave him the Governorship of Cuba instead.
On his own in 1539, DeSoto assembled and financed a party of some 620 men, 500 beef cattle, 250 horses and 200 pigs. He had a mandate from Charles I to find gold, find the Pacific Ocean, and find a direct passage to China. He embarked from Havana with a total of nine ships, and landed on Florida’s West Coast. The DeSoto party traveled on land past Tampa Bay and then further north to present-day Georgia. DeSoto and his party were the first Europeans to travel inland into present-day Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
The Indian fighting techniques DeSoto had learned against the Inca of Peru did not work well against the Creeks of present Georgia and Alabama. The Creeks had no fear of DeSoto’s horses, killed them at will, and after a couple of battles, DeSoto had lost nearly half of his men, and over half of his horses. He determined to press on anyway, and headed his party towards the Mississippi River. At a point near present-day Memphis, he took over a month building rafts before finally getting across the river. In doing so, he became the first European to cross the Mississippi River.
He seemed to like Arkansas, because he meandered within the land of the Osage and Quapaw for nearly a year. At one point, he had floated down the Mississippi as far south as the mouth of the Arkansas River. To gain dominance over the Quapaw Indians, DeSoto had tried to convince them that he was immortal, but when he died from fever in 1542, his men wrapped his body in blankets filled with sand and tossed him unceremoniously into the Mississippi to prevent his discovery. Today, there are at least three towns along the Mississippi River that claim to be the burial site of Hernando DeSoto.
The remaining expedition leaders decided to head for Texas, then down to Mexico City. But it was so dry in Texas, and the group was still well over 350 men in size, it was not possible to live off the land. So the party headed back to the Mississippi River. They spent another Winter there and melted down everything they had made of iron to make enough nails to build seven sailing vessels. After two more months at sea, the party arrived in the Spanish frontier town of Panuco. From there, many of the party continued on to Mexico City.
Hernando DeSoto’s legacy in Arkansas lives on with the domestic pigs he intentionally released to run wild there. Their descendants are now called Razorbacks.

1673. Floating down river from the Great Lakes, French Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette and trader Louis Juliet reached the Quapaw villages of Arkansae and Kappa.

1682. French explorer René-Robert Cavelier (Sieur de la Salle) erected a cross near the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, after floating down rivers from the Great Lakes area. He claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for Louis XIV of France, for whom Louisiana was named. All of the rivers and streams flowing into the Mississippi were part of the Mississippi Basin and included in the Louisiana claim.

1686 Arkansas Post. A son of an expatriated Italian, French soldier/trader Henri DeTonti founded Arkansas Post, near the point where the Arkansas River joins the Mississippi. Arkansas Post was the first white settlement in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. DeTonti, who accompanied LaSalle in several explorations of the Mississippi Valley, was to later build a fort on the Yazoo River, now Mississippi, and was known to have explored Texas, all before 1700.

1700. French Missionaries arrived in the Osage and Quapaw villages of present-day Arkansas to convert the natives to Catholicism.

1721-1762 French Louisiana. By 1721, several hundred French colonists abandoned Arkansas Post. Most returned to France, but some relocated in the French Caribbean Islands. The trading fort at Arkansas Post remained and continued to be the focal point for trade with the Quapaw and Osage Indians in the region. As a failed farming community, Arkansas Post was typical of the French efforts to colonize Louisiana. They were much more interested in trading for furs with the Indians. For the next 40 years after the Arkansas Post experiment, the French presence in the Mississippi Basin consisted mainly of single French trappers and traders paddling their canoes from one trading post to the next. The French established military forts at strategic locations, mainly as a means of protecting the trappers during their contacts with the Indians. In comparison with the French colonies, by 1762 the British colonies had constructed over 2,500 miles of improved wagon roads on the Atlantic Coast, between Boston and Charles Town. The British colonies had an economy based on town tradesmen surrounded by small farms, with the exchange of goods and produce up and down the coast. During this same period, the French had built one road that was 12 miles long, and that was only to provide portage between rivers. In the Mississippi Basin, there were very few French farming communities, and there was very little exchanging of goods or produce, except for the trapping and trading of furs.

1762. The French secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain. The cession was formalized a year later at the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War.

1763. The Seven Years War (in Europe) and the French and Indian War (in America) ended with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. France lost virtually all of its North American claims, first the western side of the Mississippi was lost to Spain, and the eastern side of the Mississippi was lost to Britain. The British also gained Florida and Quebec from the French.

1783 United States of America. The treaty of Paris of 1783 first recognized the United States as an independent nation. Its borders were described generally from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and from Maine to Georgia.

1802 Louisiana. In Europe, Napoleon defeated the Spanish in battle and gained title to Louisiana again, after trading them a couple of duchies in Italy. However, Napoleon found that his troops in the Caribbean were under siege and unable to provide much help in establishing a French government in Louisiana. About a year later, when a couple of American emissaries showed up trying to buy New Orleans from him, Napoleon decided to unload the entire tract to the Americans (to help finance a trip to Russia he had in mind).

1803 Louisiana. Surprised and delighted that Napoleon was willing to sell the entire tract called Louisiana, President Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to vote in favor, and the U.S. purchased the huge tract from France, doubling the size of the United States. The purchase of Louisiana immediately created a dispute about ownership of lands east of the Mississippi River, since the legal description of the Louisiana Purchase was the “drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.” The Spanish did not agree that it included lands east of the Mississippi and maintained their claim to West Florida.

1804 Louisiana District and Orleans Territory. Congress divided the Louisiana Purchase into two jurisdictions: Louisiana District and Orleans Territory. The latter had north and south bounds the same as the
present state of Louisiana, but did not include land east of the Mississippi River, and its northwestern corner extended on an indefinite line west into Spanish Texas. For a year, Louisiana District was attached to Indiana Territory for judicial administration, but became Louisiana Territory with its own Governor in 1805.

1805. Arkansas settlements were part of Louisiana Territory contained within New Madrid and Arkansas counties.

1806-1807. The Pike Expedition was a military effort authorized by the U.S. government to explore
the south and west of the recent Louisiana Purchase. In progress at the same time as the more famous Lewis & Clark expedition, the Pike Expedition was led by Captain Zebulon Pike, Jr., and managed by General James Wilkinson, the first Governor of Louisiana Territory (later called Missouri Territory). From documents released by Mexico many years after the death of James Wilkinson, there are now many historians who believe Wilkinson really sent Pike out to spy on the Spanish along the southern boundary of the original Louisiana Purchase area, and that Wilkinson was a double agent, paid by the Spanish Governor in Nuevo Mexico, as well as the U.S. government. If so, it might explain why early in Pike’s expedition, his entire party was arrested by Spanish soldiers in present Southern Colorado near the Arkansas River. These were the same soldiers who had been sent north from Santa Fe to arrest the Lewis & Clark party, but were unable to find them. Pike and his party were taken to Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico, where they were treated very well. It was never clear how the Spanish knew so much about the Lewis & Clark expedition or the Pike expedition. But after just a couple of weeks, Pike and his party were escorted back to the Arkansas River and allowed to continue their explorations. The expedition continued into the Rocky Mountains, documented the discovery of Pikes Peak, and spent time trying to find the head waters of the Red and Arkansas Rivers. Captain Zebulon Pike’s party was credited as the first Americans to follow what would become known as the Santa Fe Trail. In 1810, Captain Pike’s published book of his expedition included the first English description of the Spanish culture in North America, and was a best seller in America and Europe.

1806 Louisiana–Spanish Mexico Line. The Louisiana Purchase caused a border dispute between the U.S. and Spain over the Louisiana-Mexico boundary. Spain claimed east to the Red River; the U.S. claimed west to the Sabine River. They made a compromise in 1806 with the so-called Neutral Ground, where neither exercised jurisdiction. From 1806 to 1819, the Neutral Ground became a haven for outlaws, fugitives and pirates. (The French pirate, Jean Lafitte, was a frequent visitor to the Neutral Ground, in and around the Lake Charles and Calcasieu regions). Yet, in the 1810 census for Orleans Territory, a few thousand American settlers were actually enumerated within the Neutral Ground, many of whom could be traced back to the Arkansas settlements of Louisiana Territory.

1810 Federal Census was the first federal census taken in Louisiana Territory and Orleans Territory, but only the manuscripts from Orleans survive.

1812 (April). Orleans Territory became the state of Louisiana.

1812 (June). Louisiana Territory was renamed Missouri Territory. As early as 1805 the area was often referred to as “Upper Louisiana,” but with the statehood of Louisiana, the confusion between the two had to be resolved. But, for two months, the U.S. had a Territory of Louisiana and a State of Louisiana at the same time.

1817. Fort Smith was established on the Arkansas River (near the present Oklahoma state line). Fort Smith’s most famous resident was Judge Isaac Parker, who served as US District Judge from 1875-1896. He was nicknamed the “Hanging Judge” because in his first term after assuming his post he tried eighteen people for murder, convicted fifteen of them, sentenced eight of those to die, and hanged six of them in one day.

1818. The Quapaw Indians ceded their lands between the Arkansas and Red Rivers, opening the area to white settlement.

1819 (February). The Adams-Onis Treaty between the U.S. and Spain set part of the international boundary between the U.S. and Spanish Mexico as the line of the Sabine River north to a point of intersection with Latitude 32o, then due north to the Red River. This is the modern boundary between Louisiana and Texas.

1819 (July). Arkansas Territory was created by Congress, taken from Missouri Territory. The territorial capital was at Arkansas Post. The area included all of present-day Arkansas and most of Oklahoma. Arkansas Territory misinterpreted the new boundary with Spanish Mexico, believing their southern line with Louisiana extended west on the same latitude. The confusion came from the language of the treaty with Spain, which described the lay of the Sabine River without maps, and the only maps available to the Arkansas territorial legislators had the Sabine River incorrectly located. A new survey of the area was not done until 1828, and during that time Arkansas Territory created counties that extended into Spanish Mexico.

1820 (April). Old Miller County, Arkansas Territory was created in an area partly outside of the legal jurisdiction of Arkansas Territory, due to a misunderstanding of the 1819 Treaty with Spain. Old Miller County straddled the Red River with its northern portion well into present-day Oklahoma, an area legally part of Arkansas Territory; and its southern portion well into present-day Texas, which was still part of Spanish Mexico.

1820 (June). Federal Census was taken in Arkansas Territory, but the original manuscripts were lost.

1821. The Arkansas territorial capital was moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock.

1821 (August). The southeastern portion of Missouri Territory became the State of Missouri. The large remaining area of Missouri Territory was mostly uninhabited and Congress labeled the area as “Unorganized Territory.”

1821 (September). Mexico gained independence from Spain. The part of Old Miller County, Arkansas Territory, south of the Red River was now in Mexico.

1824. The Quapaw Indians were forced to cede their lands south of the Arkansas River, leaving them with just the reservation lands in the area of present-day Lincoln, Jefferson, and Cleveland counties, Arkansas.

1825-1828. In 1825, a small area north of the Red River was separated from Arkansas Territory. In 1828, a larger area of Arkansas Territory was set aside by Congress as an “Indian Reserve,” reducing Arkansas Territory to its present size and shape. The separated area was called the “Indian Territory” by everyone, but that name did not become official until it was mentioned in new treaty documents with the five civilized tribes after the Civil War.

1828. About half of Old Miller County, Arkansas Territory lay north of the Red River, and was impacted dramatically by the creation of the Indian Territory. The inhabitants of Miller County north of the Red River were forced to move, and it could be the only time in U.S. history that whites were forced to leave their homes to make room for the Indians. (It was usually the other way around). Meanwhile, people living in the part of old Miller County south of the Red River had not yet learned that they were actually living in Mexico.

1830 Federal Census was taken in Arkansas Territory, and the manuscripts survive for all twenty-three counties, including old Miller County, now entirely outside of the U.S. in Mexico’s Province of Texas.

1836 (March). The Republic of Texas gained its independence from Mexico, and old Miller County tried in vain to reassert its position as an Arkansas county. When Texas created its Red River County in 1836, old Miller County effectively ceased to exist. Named to honor Arkansas Territory’s first Governor, James Miller, another Miller County, Arkansas was created in 1874, with the original county seat located at Texarkana, Arkansas.

1836 (June 15th). Arkansas became the 25th state.

Excerpted from William Dollarhide’s Arkansas Name Lists, 1686 – 2005, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.