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Arkansas Natives Thrived, Declined Before Louisiana Purchase
January 2004

By Jim Taylor
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Note: This is the first article of a two-part series surveying the history of Native Americans in Arkansas, including the loss of their homelands and expulsion from the state's territory after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Two centuries after the United States claimed possession of the state's territory through the Louisiana Purchase, Arkansas's most significant vestiges of more than 11,000 years of Native American presence are geographical names derived from native languages, some earthen mounds among thousands of archeological sites, and collections of pottery, tools and other artifacts. Unlike many other states, in Arkansas there are no traditional communities of indigenous peoples, no tribal cultural centers and no reservations.

Behind the paucity of the state's living native legacy lies a history seldom told. Within about 30 years after the 1803 purchase, Americans settling in what would become Arkansas had displaced the area's natives from their ancestral homelands and had denied permanent residence to two tribes being forced from states to the east. By the time statehood was achieved in 1836, no organized native or transplanted tribes still resided in or routinely visited Arkansas.

Yet, the story of Native Americans in Arkansas began long, long ago.

Native Rising

From the discovery of a few artifacts, archeologists have concluded that humans first came to Arkansas around 9,500 B.C. They first became widespread around 8,000 B.C. when the Dalton people, as archeologists call them, were present throughout Arkansas. During what archeologists have designated the Archaic Era (8,000 B.C.-500 B.C.), hunting and foraging cultures became "settled-in" in their distinctive regional environments. One such group was the Tom's Brook people, who lived in southern and western Arkansas from 5,000 to 4,000 B.C. Archeological sites related to late Archaic-era cultures are found across the state.

Many different types of Woodland Era (500 B.C.-A.D. 900) sites have been discovered in Arkansas. Among them, small villages of two to four acres appear to have been common. Pottery use became standard during this period and, near its end, the bow and arrow appeared.

Natives' handiwork preserved at Toltec Mounds State Park
Natives' handiwork preserved at Toltec Mounds State Park

The first large platform mounds built in the state were part of a political and religious center constructed and occupied by the Plum Bayou people (prominent from A.D. 650-1050) at a site southeast of Little Rock now preserved as Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. One of the largest and most complex mound sites of its era in the lower Mississippi River Valley, the center once included 18 mounds. Three mounds, including one 49 feet high, and portions of a mile-long earthen embankment are still prominently visible.

During the Mississippian Era (A.D. 900-1541), Arkansas's Native American population reached a peak that has been estimated as low as 75,000 and as high as 350,000. Evidence suggests that by 1541, tens of thousands of people lived in compact, often fortified villages along and near the Mississippi River. An economy based on the cultivation of maize, beans and squash, still supplemented by hunting and the gathering of wild foodstuffs, contributed to the growth.

Two prominent Mississippian groups in Arkansas were the Parkin people, who lived along the St. Francis River, and the Nodena people, who resided along the Mississippi in extreme northeast Arkansas. Both groups built large towns combining platform mounds, plazas and numerous square houses with thatched roofs. Their arts included elaborately shaped pottery, shell engraving, weaving, sculpture and woodcarving.

Effigy pot at Hampson Museum reflects Nodena culture.
Effigy pot at Hampson Museum reflects Nodena culture.

Parkin Archeological State Park at Parkin preserves a 17-acre village site occupied by the Parkin people from A.D. 1000 to sometime after 1550. The village was possibly the capital of a province of some 25 settlements and may have had a peak population of some 2,000 people. The culture of the Nodena people was first explored through the excavation of a village site likely established around A.D. 1350 some five miles east of the present-day town of Wilson. The Hampson Museum State Park in Wilson exhibits a large collection of Nodena artifacts.

Also during the Mississippian Era, Plaquemine peoples, probable ancestors of the Tunica Indians, inhabited the Mississippi Valley south of the Arkansas River. In southwest Arkansas, ancestors of the Caddo Indians are believed to have settled by 500 B.C. along and between the Red and Ouachita rivers. The Caddo culture began to emerge between A.D. 900 and 1000, and by 1200 they were sedentary farmers with a highly complex culture that included ceremonial centers where mounds were built.

Surviving First Contact

In 1541, members of an expedition led by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first Europeans known to enter Arkansas. Evidence suggests they visited the Parkin village in northeast Arkansas and later encountered the Tula Indians, likely Caddo predecessors, somewhere in what is now western Arkansas. Journals kept by expedition members tell of frequent contact with native peoples, an indication that populations were spread across the state.

More than 130 years would pass before Europeans again visited. Descending the Mississippi in 1673, the French explorers Marquette and Joliet found almost no one in northeastern Arkansas, where thousands had previously lived. The first villages they encountered were those of the Quapaw, near the mouth of the Arkansas.

It is believed that European diseases such as smallpox, to which the natives were particularly vulnerable, had virtually erased the Mississippian peoples from northeast Arkansas and also had caused a precipitous population decline in southwest Arkansas. A long-term drought in the later 1500s may have contributed to the losses.

As European colonial powers France, Spain and England began solidifying their presence in and around Arkansas, the Quapaw, the Kadohadacho (a confederation of tribes that would later unite with two other confederations and become known collectively as the Caddo) and the Cahinnio were the future state's only resident native groups. The Osage frequented the state, but their villages were in Missouri.

Linguistic evidence indicates the Quapaw and Osage descended from a common Dhegiha Siouan group that may have migrated from northeast of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. By the 1600s, the Dhegiha had formed five tribes. Quapaw traditions hold that, when the Dhegiha separated, their tribe migrated south and settled near the mouth of the Arkansas. The Quapaw, whose name means "the Downstream People," may have numbered as many as 6,000 when Marquette and Joliet arrived in 1673.

The Osage, also a Dhegihan-speaking tribe, had settled in western Missouri by the 1700s. From there, they launched hunting excursions into the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Later, some Osage drifted southwest from Missouri and settled in northeastern Oklahoma.

The tribes of the Kadohadacho confederation resided along the Red River in southwestern Arkansas and adjoining areas in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Cahinnio had been encountered by French explorers in 1687 in a village along the Ouachita River near present-day Arkadelphia. They apparently vacated the Ouachita basin in the early 1700s and may have merged with the Kadohadacho, with whom they likely had been allied.

Living with Europeans

Toltec State Park exhibits interpret Plum Bayou culture.
Toltec State Park exhibits interpret Plum Bayou culture.

Into this circumstance of native populations came European claims upon the region. After its 1521 conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico, Spain had eventually extended its presence into Texas. Arkansas, meanwhile, was among lands in the Mississippi's basin that had been claimed for France by the explorer LaSalle in 1682.

The next century brought France's defeat in the Seven Years' War. The French lost to Spain their territory west of the Mississippi, including Arkansas, from 1763 until it was ceded back to France in 1800. East of the Mississippi, the French lands were transferred to English control until, in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, they became part of the fledgling United States.

The histories of the Quapaw and Kadohadacho during the colonial period were alike in many ways. Both became valued as allies by European powers seeking to maintain territorial control with limited forces. Both engaged in shrewd diplomacy to advance tribal interests when opportunities allowed them to play competing European nations against each other. Both became dependent on manufactured European trade goods at the expense of ancestral tribal ways. And, both were enemies of the Osage, who were feared across the region by natives and Europeans alike.

As the 17th and 18th centuries unfolded, the Quapaw and Kadohadacho continued to suffer severe population losses from disease, from warfare made more deadly by the introduction of firearms, from abductions to supply slaves in colonies to the east, and, as their social fabric came under increased stress, from alcoholism.

Still, Arkansas's native peoples managed to survive the colonial period in part because they contributed to the economic, political and military goals of the French and Spanish. Moreover, their homelands were never appropriated on a large scale because neither the French nor the Spanish succeeded in settling large numbers of European colonists in the region.

Then, in 1803 the United States agreed to pay Napoleon's France $15 million for some 830,000 square miles that would become all of Arkansas and all or part of 12 other states. As increasing numbers of Americans began settling in Arkansas in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, the natives would soon discover they were living on coveted ground.

Read Part 2 - 1803 Louisiana Purchase Sealed Dismal Fate for Tribes in Arkansas

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