Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Birth of Little Rock as the Capital of the Arkansas Territory

Arkansas Territory map courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives

The story of how Little Rock went from a population of one family to becoming the capital of the Arkansas Territory in the space of a few short years is one of political deals and questionable ethics. It also reveals how politics was practiced in the early days of Arkansas’s Territorial period. 

Early in the territory’s existence, it became clear Arkansas Post was not going to be suitable for a capital. The Arkansas Territory was created March 2, 1819, and the territorial legislature convened for the first time on July 28, 1819, at the Arkansas Post, which was the territorial capital. At the time, Gov. James Miller wrote to his wife in New Hampshire “the people live miserably poor, their houses but little better than a square of rail fence.” 

Flooding, poor crop harvests and ongoing fights with Native Americans in the area plagued Arkansas Post. Everyone agreed the site was temporary, and in fact, the legislature did not even bother passing any bills funding the construction of permanent government buildings. 

Then on Feb. 20, 1820, Thomas Tyndall, a representative from central Arkansas, submitted a bill to move the territorial capital. From the outset, it seemed as if every member of the legislature had his own personal choice for where the capital should be located. Miller offered Crystal Hill, where he had settled just over the river from Little Rock, but others supported Cadron, a small settlement north of modern-day Conway.

William Russell, who had made a career of land speculation, claimed ownership to a tract of land in what was known as the Little Rock. Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist who traveled through the area in 1818, noted only one family living in the area. Still, Little Rock’s central location on the Arkansas River and the major road linking St. Louis and Mexico made it a prime choice for the new capital. 
However, Cadron seemed the most likely choice because of the large amount of settlers along the creek. Cadron had some drawbacks, though. There was little level ground, which could hinder settlements and farming. Despite that, supporters continued to back Cadron, leading the legislature to establish Cadron as the county seat of newly formed Pulaski County. Legislators also voted to appropriate money for a jail and courthouse in the Cadron settlement. 

Politicians in the Arkansas Territory rarely were concerned with appearances of conflicts of interest. For example, Speaker of the House Joeb Hardin owned property at Cadron, possibly fueling his support for it becoming the capital. Russell, who stood to gain financially if his tract of land in Little Rock was chosen, realized he would need to convince Cadron supporters to switch their votes to Little Rock. Russell offered Hardin a block of land from his claim in Little Rock, and Hardin agreed to the deal and changed his vote.

Russell then turned to Thomas Tindall and Radford Ellis, who also supported Cadron as the site of the future capital. Russell offered Tindall and Ellis a deal to make Cadron the permanent county seat of Pulaski County if they changed their votes to support Little Rock as Arkansas Territory’s new capital. They agreed to the deal.

But the fight wasn’t over. A group of land speculators led by St. Louis attorney Chester Ashley claimed property in the Little Rock area. In the wake of the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, settlers who could claim that property had been destroyed in the earthquake were entitled to government land elsewhere. Ashley’s group quickly bought many of the New Madrid claim certificates, laying claim to much of the property in Little Rock. Then, they renamed the area as “Arkopolis” and began selling land. 

Meanwhile, Russell also began selling land. For a time, there were two rival towns in the disputed area: Little Rock, which was owned by the Russell faction, and Arkopolis, which was owned by the Ashley faction.

Russell was not to be outdone by what he called the “enterprising gentlemen from St. Louis.” He rounded up support from some of the territory’s leading political powers and sued the St. Louis group. Russell contended the New Madrid claims were illegitimate. The court agreed with Russell and ruled in 1821 that the St. Louis group did not legally own the land they had been selling. Shortly after the verdict, Little Rock became the new capital in the same year.

Soon after the court ruling, the Ashley faction loaded their houses with gunpowder and destroyed any vestige of Arkopolis. As for Cadron, despite the promise the village would remain Pulaski County’s permanent county seat, the territorial legislature voted to move the county seat to Little Rock in 1822. 

For more information about the Arkansas Territory and its capital, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or at Archives, along with other Department of Arkansas Heritage divisions, also recently participated in the Arkansas Territory Bicentennial Celebration at the Arkansas State Capital in Little Rock. Find out more about the event and see videos and slideshows, check out our Facebook event page or contact Archives.