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Arkansas Heritage: Home

List of resources for learning more about the history and heritage of the Arkansas. Research funded by the ALA Carnegie-Whitney Grant.

A Very Brief History of the State

Arkansas is the ancestral home of many indigenous people, including the Caddo, Osage, and the Quapaw. In fact, the word "Arkansas" comes from the Quapaw tribal name "Akansas."1 In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first European to enter Arkansas. He was followed by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673 and Robert La Salle and Henri de Tonti in 1681. These later Frenchmen would be the inspiration for how we pronounce "Arkansas" - with the final "s" being silent as in French pronunciation.2

In 1803, the land that would become Arkansas was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Shortly after the Missouri Compromise, the Territory of Arkansas was created as a slave territory in 1819.3 In 1830, the Indian Removal Act forced thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands to the newly created Indian Territory. Nearly every path of the Trail of Tears went through the state of Arkansas. On June 15, 1836, Arkansas was granted statehood and became the 25th state.

Slavery continued to play a big part of Arkansas agriculture, particularly among the cotton plants in southeast Arkansas. By the Civil War, approximately 25% of Arkansas's population were enslaved people.4 During the Civil War, Arkansas initially voted to stay in the Union, but changed its mind in 1861 after President Lincoln sent Arkansans to fight at Fort Sumter. Several Civil War battles were fought in the state. Arkansas reentered the Union in June 1868 after accepting the 14th Amendment which gave all citizens, including former enslaved people, equal protection of the law.

Even though enslaved people were free after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws enacted in the late 1800s and early 1900s created barriers for African Americans and poor whites which prevented them from voting and taking part of political processes. Racial tensions in the state led to several incidents, most notoriously the Elaine Massacre in 1919 which left an estimated 237 African Americans dead.5 During World War II, Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas were home to two Japanese American Relocation Centers. Both camps held more than 8,000 Japanese Americans each.6 Racial tensions continued after WWII. After school segregation was ruled to be unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case in 1954, some communities strongly resisted the integration of their schools. In 1955, segregationists staged protests and boycotts in Hoxie. The most famous case was in Little Rock in 1957 with the desegregation of Central High School. On September 4, nine African American students, often referred to as the Little Rock Nine, attempted to enter the school. They were met with large angry crowds and turned away by National Guard troops. On September 23rd, the students were finally able to enter the school through a side door. By this time, the crowd of protestors had grown to over 1,000 and many officials feared for the safety of the students. At the request of Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann, President Eisenhower sent in U.S. Army troops to escort the students and maintain the peace. In response to forced desegregation and federal troops, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools during the 1958-59 school year.7

Like much of the country, Arkansas was deeply impacted by the Great Depression. This was made worse by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, severe droughts, and another major flood in 1937. During World War II, nearly 10% of Arkansas's population had served in the war with 3,519 killed in combat. In addition, a further 10% of the population left the state to find higher paying jobs. Many of those who remained found work in one of six wartime production plants created within the state or serving the large influx of troops who entered Arkansas for training. However after the war, many of these new jobs disappeared and more people moved out of the state.

Despite its struggles, Arkansas has persevered. In 1932, Arkansan Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1962, the world's first Walmart was opened in Rogers, Arkansas by Sam Walton.8 In 1993, former Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton, became our 42nd president. His wife, Hillary Clinton, would later go on to be the first woman nominated for president by a major political party in 2016. Arkansas is also home to many musicians, authors, civil right activists, and other people of note.

To help you learn more about what makes Arkansas unique, we have compiled resources together in this guide. Use the tabs at the top of the guide to navigate to different subjects and resource types.

1. Lyon, Owen (Autumn 1950). "The Trail of the Quapaw". Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 9 (3): 206–7. doi:10.2307/40017228

2. Arkansas. Arkansas Code § 1-4-105.

3. Johnson, William R. (Spring 1965). "Prelude to the Missouri Compromise: A New York Congressman's Effort to Exclude Slavery from Arkansas Territory". Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 24 (1): 47–66. doi:10.2307/40023964.

4. United States. (1864). 1860 Census: Population of the United States, Arkansas. Note: PDF

5. Stockley, Grif. (2020). Elaine Massacre of 1919. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

6. Arkansas State University. (2021). Rowher Japanese American Relocation Center.

7. National Park Service. (2018). Desegregation of Central High School. Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

8. Walmart Corporation. (2021). Our History.

Funding provided by:

The American Library Association


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Special thanks to
Mary Sitzer for her research and assistance.