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Arkansas Natives Thrived, Declined Before Louisiana Purchase

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Part I

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.

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.

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

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.

Part II
1803 Louisiana Purchase Sealed Dismal Fate for Tribes in Arkansas

By adding Arkansas's territory to the United States, the Louisiana Purchase forever removed the fate of the future state's indigenous peoples from the hands of the French and Spanish, who had been unable to appropriate native lands on a large scale, and placed it into the hands of the Americans. In addition, the acquired lands gave the young country’s leaders new options for relocating tribes from Eastern states.

By the mid-1700s, the Kadohadacho and the Quapaw were Arkansas's only native groups of long-term residency. The Osage claimed territory within the state but resided primarily in western Missouri. Treaties would later give Arkansas land to two Eastern tribes, the Cherokee and the Choctaw. (During the late 1700s and early 1800s, members of various Eastern tribes inhabited the state for brief periods but, except for the Cherokee, they never had tribal territorial claims in Arkansas.)

In the three decades that followed the 1803 purchase, Arkansas's new settlers would prove effectively inhospitable to both their native predecessors and the relocated tribes. "As their attitudes toward the indigenous Quapaws and the transplanted tribes made clear," Arkansas historian Charles S. Bolton has observed, "the new Arkansans...were greedy for land, jealous of Indian claims, and lacking in both charity and sentimentality."

Though the circumstances of each tribe's removal from Arkansas by the time of statehood in 1836 would vary, those who inhabited its territory in the years from1803 to 1835 found themselves not only living on coveted land, but on borrowed time as well.

The Kadohadacho

In the late 1770s, the Kadohadacho vacated their territory north of the Red River in southwestern Arkansas in order to consolidate with allied tribes in northwestern Louisiana. Together, the tribes would subsequently become known as the Caddo.

The Kadohadachos' move appears to have been caused by a combination of European diseases, which had reduced their population perhaps by as much as 90 percent from historic levels, and their resulting vulnerability in conflicts with the more numerous Osage.

Thus, when the Caddo ceded their homelands to the United States in 1835, the only part of present-day Arkansas covered by the treaty was Miller County, which lies south of the Red. (Arkansas's territorial legislature had created in 1820 a larger version of the county than now exists, but its ownership was in dispute with Spain and then the Republic of Texas until 1841.)

The Quapaw

There were an estimated 6,000 Quapaws living in villages near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers shortly before Arkansas Post, the first permanent European settlement in what would become Arkansas, was founded nearby in 1686. They became valued defensive allies of and trading partners with the post's French inhabitants, even as European diseases and warfare were reducing their numbers to about 500 by 1803.

When the United States took control of the settlement in 1804, the Quapaw were so weakened that the Americans found them of little economic or military use. It was their land that drew the Americans' interest.

Under a treaty negotiated in St Louis in 1818, the Quapaw ceded vague claims to land north of the Arkansas as well as a vast, well-established territory between the Red and Arkansas rivers stretching west into Oklahoma. The treaty left them about 8,000 square miles lying between the Arkansas, Ouachita and Saline rivers and bounded by lines running from Arkansas Post to the Ouachita and from Little Rock to the Saline.

The Quapaw were apparently satisfied with the treaty, but after Arkansas Territory was established in 1819 the territorial government soon made clear it was not. In 1820, the territorial legislature protested to Congress that the land set aside for the Quapaw represented about 20 square miles for each native. The Quapaw land, the legislators said, was "the best soil in the Territory." The Arkansas Gazette protested that the treaty would inhibit future pioneer settlement.

In 1821 and again in 1822 territorial officials made the questionable assertion to Congress that the Quapaw had expressed interest in relocating to join another tribe. In 1823, Robert Crittenden, the territorial secretary, informed federal officials that he had the Quapaw "in training for a Treaty."

In 1824, a treaty was negotiated which extinguished Quapaw land claims in Arkansas. In exchange for their 8,000 square miles, the tribe was promised $4,000 in merchandise, six months' living supplies, and $1,000 a year for 11 years. And, the Quapaw were to relocate onto Caddo territory in Louisiana.

"The land we now live on belonged to our forefathers," said Heckaton, the Quapaws' leader. "The lands you wish us to go to belong to strangers. Have mercy -- send us not there." After residing in the area for well more than two centuries, the Quapaw left Arkansas Post in January 1826.

By 1830, most had returned to Arkansas. The Caddo had been unaware they were coming and assigned them to lands along the Red River, which repeatedly flooded crops on which the Quapaw were dependent.

With no land at stake, the territorial governor urged federal pity for the Quapaw. A treaty ratified in 1834 granted them land in what is now Oklahoma. Some moved there and some returned, temporarily, to the Red River region.

The Osage and Cherokee

Osage hunters in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas had for many decades been coming into armed conflict with the Kadohadacho, the Quapaw and Europeans. As settlers moved into Missouri after the Louisiana Purchase, the Americans sought to limit their territory. In 1808, a treaty was negotiated in St. Louis by which the Osage agreed to give up their lands east of a line extending south from their Missouri homes to the Arkansas River. In Arkansas, the line passed near modern-day Springdale and intersected the river just east of Van Buren.

The treaty brought relative calm to northwestern Arkansas until the coming of the Cherokee. In 1809, President Thomas Jefferson offered the Cherokee a trade: for any land they would surrender in the eastern United States, they would receive an equal amount in Arkansas from the territory the Osage had vacated under the 1808 treaty.

In 1817, that arrangement became a new treaty assigning to the Cherokee lands located between the Arkansas and White rivers west of a line from near Morrilton on the Arkansas to near Batesville on the White. The treaty specified no western boundary, thus guaranteeing the Cherokee an outlet to unsettled territory.

Conflict between the Osage and Cherokee, which had been simmering, intensified after the treaty. A large engagement occurred in 1817 when the Cherokees raided an Osage village in northeastern Oklahoma while its warriors were away. Sixty-nine Osage were killed, 100 were taken prisoner. The Osage-Cherokee conflict led to the December 1817 founding of Fort Smith, a U.S. Army outpost charged with keeping peace between the two tribes.

In 1818, an agreement was reached in St. Louis under which the Osage sold to the Americans the remainder of their lands (west of the 1808 treaty line) in what is now Arkansas. The hostilities continued until 1822, however, in lands farther west and then a part of Arkansas Territory.

By 1820, there were some 3,000 Cherokee living along both sides of the Arkansas River generally between Morrilton and the mouth of the Mulberry River. Disputes over the boundaries of the Cherokee lands continued until the Cherokee Treaty of 1828, which removed the tribe to the west of a line running from the southwest corner of Missouri to Fort Smith. That line eventually became and remains the northern leg of Arkansas's western border.

The Choctaw

During the War of 1812, the Choctaw were American allies against England and provided military support to Andrew Jackson during his Battle of New Orleans victory. In 1820, they agreed to a treaty, after being threatened by U.S. negotiator Jackson, exchanging some 5.3 million acres of their homelands in southwestern Mississippi for some 13 million acres lying between the Arkansas and Red rivers and west of a line from near Morrilton to near the confluence of the Little and Red rivers. Those lands had been among those ceded to the United States under the 1818 Quapaw treaty.

The Choctaw treaty outraged the new Arkansans. More than a fourth of Arkansas Territory's pioneers were then settled in the area given to the tribe. Protesting the federal policy of relocating Eastern tribes into Arkansas, William Woodruff, the Gazette's founder and editor, variously referred to the Choctaws as "poor deluded wretches" and "a fierce and savage enemy." The territorial government lodged complaints with Congress. Meanwhile, the Choctaw repudiated the treaty and few ever relocated onto their new lands.

A lengthy period of negotiations began to establish a new eastern limit of the Choctaws' territory. In 1825, a treaty set that boundary as a line from immediately west of Fort Smith due south to the Red River.

However, James Sevier Conway, who would later become Arkansas's first governor, surveyed the line and gave it a slant so that it intersected the Red some four miles west from where it should have. That line is now Arkansas's western boundary from Fort Smith to the Red. (In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Choctaws to be compensated for lands they lost because of Conway's survey.)

The Trail of Tears

Arkansas's lone remaining chapter in its relations with Native Americans -- and somewhat ironically its most often recalled -- began with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act put legal teeth into President Andrew Jackson's policy that members of tribes from Eastern states should be relocated westward, mostly into what is now known as Oklahoma. (In 1834, most of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska were officially designated Indian Territory, but it would later be reduced to only Oklahoma.)

Having successfully closed their own territory to the resettlement of tribes, Arkansans watched -- and in some cases profited handsomely by supplying goods and transportation -- throughout the 1830s as thousands of uprooted Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Seminoles and Chickasaws crossed Arkansas in a forced migration that became known as "the Trail of Tears."

Traveling by land and steamboat, the Native Americans were en route from their ancestral homelands to alien ground in the Indian Territory. Adding to the natives' sorrow, many died along the way. In 1907, Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma, marking an end to Arkansas's time as the border of an American frontier.

Under Article VI of the Louisiana Purchase treaty, the United States had agreed to honor existing treaties with Native Americans "until, by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes or nations, other suitable articles shall have been agreed upon." It was in the arriving at "other suitable articles" that Native American tribes were purged from Arkansas, a state known by a Native American name for its indigenous Quapaw people.

Acknowledgement: Research and writing by members of the Arkansas Archeological Survey and historians Charles S. Bolton, Morris S. Arnold and F. Todd Smith were invaluable sources of information included in the preceding series.

Living history program at
Parkin Archeological
State Park

1824 Treaty ceded all
Quapaw lands in Arkansas to
United States

Head Pot


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