Thursday, February 21, 2019

How the Arkansas Post became the Arkansas Territory Capitol

Reproduction Arkansas Territory map, Arkansas State Archives

When Arkansas Territory was established in 1819, Arkansas Post was named as the territorial capitol. By then, the small settlement near the mouth of the Arkansas River already had a history stretching back over 100 years.

In 1682, a French explorer named Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, better known as La Salle, took an expedition to row the lower Mississippi by canoe. Once he reached the mouth of the river, La Salle claimed the land for France and named it “Louisiana” in honor of French King Louis XIV. 

La Salle had an enterprising young man named Henri de Tonti with him. When the expedition ended, La Salle gave de Tonti land in the Mississippi Delta for a trading post. De Tonti created a small garrison of 10 soldiers to establish a permanent settlement. That settlement later became a version of the Arkansas Post.

This remote outpost was essential to the French. It served as an intermediary fortification for merchants traveling the Mississippi River between the Illinois River and New Orleans. 

The Native Americans in the lower Arkansas River Valley were divided into two tribes, the Quapaw and the Chickasaw. The Quapaw tribe was small enough that the French didn’t consider them a major threat. The tribe also was at war with the Chickasaws, which often pulled the fort into conflict. At one point, the Quapaw sided with the colonists, which led to constant friction between the Chickasaw and fort residents.
De Tonti also invited a Catholic missionary to evangelize to local Native American tribes. One missionary, a Jesuit priest named Father Avond, lived in “a makeshift hut,” according to the writings of another priest, Father Vitry.

Father Vitry wrote the hut’s “walls are made of split log, the roof of cypress bark and the chimney of mud, mixed with grass which is the straw of this country. I have lived elsewhere in such dwellings, but nowhere have I had such fresh air. The house is full of cracks from top to bottom.”

The French moved Arkansas Post’s location as a colonial fort three times. One move was due to the ongoing struggle with the Chickasaws. A band of 150 Chickasaw warriors attacked the fort and partially burned it in 1749. The tribe killed six men and took many prisoners. After the attack, the French moved the fort up the river. 

Another reason the fort had to move was because the Arkansas River constantly flooded. Initially, the French thought the land would yield enough food to feed 30,000 families, but the flooding resulted in low harvests. In 1758, the commander of the fort wrote to his superiors in Paris that “The fort is entirely flooded. On January 27 it rained hard, in the evening there was hail and snow until morning…  Today the level of the water increased in such a way and so rapidly that there are only 5 inches [of ground] left in front of the ramp of the fort.” One farmer living near the fort complained about losing his crop and said he “cannot guarantee for his yard or garden, and begs [the King] to take pity on a poor family head.”

The settlement also was remote, which meant there was a lack of supplies. The problem was exacerbated by some people taking advantage of others or providing poor-quality goods. One commander said he had to bribe people with goods from his personal stock “to maintain peace in this establishment of over 300 men who could not be kept quiet even with 50 men if they were not given presents from time to time.”
France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1763. Spain renamed Arkansas Post to Fort Carlos III.

Little changed in Fort Carlos III. Residents continued to suffer from lack of supplies, and the Chickasaw remained skeptical of the new fort rulers and continued to raid it occasionally. Louisiana changed hands again when the Spanish ceded it back to the French in 1801. The exchange had little impact on the daily lives of those at the Post. 

The fort came under American control after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. The fort continued as a trading post and military garrison with little success. Even so, the post was the only large, white settlement in the Arkansas River Valley for many years, which led to the Post being named as the territorial capitol.