Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Arkansas Salt Has Long History

Farmer W.J. Menasco stands with
a salt kettle in Sevier County in 1920.

Salt making in Arkansas has long been a source of curiosity, and its production played an important role in Arkansas’s history.

American Indians began extracting the mineral from the earth before the arrival of European settlers. Indigenous peoples, and later settlers, made salt in Arkansas for at least 600 years and left behind historically significant sites that researchers continue to study.

Salt making was first recorded in “A Gentleman of Elvas,” a document written by an unidentified member of Hernando de Soto’s expedition. The explorer documented de Soto’s trek across south Arkansas in 1541 and recorded American Indian’s salt-making process.

“The river ebbeth, leaving it upon the upper part of the sand…because they cannot take it without much sand mingled with it, they throw it into certain baskets which they have for the purpose, broad at the mouth and narrow at the bottom, and set it into the air upon the bar and throw water into it, wherein it falleth,” according to the document. “Being drained and set to boil upon the fire, when the water is a sodden away, the salt remaineth at the bottom of the pan.”

American Indians provided de Soto’s men with much-needed salt during their Arkansas expedition. Tribes repeatedly used Bayou Sel, near Arkadelphia, to make salt. The area serves as one example of salt-making’s lengthy historical significance.

Americans settled in Blakelytown, now Arkadelphia, in the early 1800s. One settler, John Hemphill, brought his large family and acquired land near the Ouachita River in 1811. He thought salt production was a worthwhile enterprise and started manufacturing it using iron kettles to boil the salt water. He sold his salt to settlers. Hemphill’s venture was among Arkansas’s earliest manufacturing operations.

Hemphill expanded his salt-manufacturing business in 1814. He traveled to New Orleans and bought vessels that had been used to boil sugar cane juice. Some of the vessels held up to 200 gallons. Once back in Clark County, he put his new kettles to use in his ever-expanding business.

Unfortunately, Hemphill died in 1818 or 1819. His widow, Nancy, leased his salt works, but the arrangement failed. Her son-in-law, Jonathan O. Callaway, managed the business for several years but couldn’t keep it going. The mine closed in 1851.

The salt wells reopened temporarily during the Civil War, when salt became scarce. The Confederate army supplied salt to the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, which was a major Confederate army under the Department of Trans-Mississippi. Soldiers built a large furnace and made salt-making vessels out of previously sunken ships abandoned along the Ouachita River. Salt production at the site stopped when Union army Gen. Frederick Steele and his troops advanced on the wells during the Red River Campaign in 1864.

After the Civil War ended, businessmen J.M. and George Ashby produced salt until at least 1875, according to a local newspaper.

Little is known about the physical appearance of salt-making facilities, but Civil War-era records refer to the Confederate army using two wells and a large furnace to make salt. Harvard University researchers found portions of a brick structure in 1939. Other archeological excavations have uncovered evidence of considerable architectural construction and extensive habitation areas of American Indians. The Bayou Sel site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

For more information on Arkansas salt works and salt-making in Arkansas, visit