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Over the next two years we will be celebrating the bicentennial of several Arkansas counties, four in 2020 alone. However, we should not forget that next month Arkansas County, our first county, will be celebrating its 205th anniversary. Created Dec. 13, 1813, Arkansas County, as established by Missouri Territory, consisted of most of modern Arkansas plus a good chunk of modern Oklahoma. No part of our state has had a more interesting and significant history than Arkansas County.

With 988.7 square miles, Arkansas County is one of the larger counties in the state -- only slightly smaller than our largest, Union County with 1,039 square miles. Most of Arkansas County falls within the Grand Prairie, a large natural prairie with an unusual geology -- the rich topsoil rests on a dense layer of clay, making the area excellent for rice cultivation.

Arkansas County was peopled by the Quapaw Indians when a French expedition under Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette briefly visited the area in 1673. The French returned in 1682 with a party of about 30 Frenchmen from Canada under the leadership of Robert Cavelier de La Salle and Henri de Tonty. La Salle awarded Tonty the region around the Arkansas River as a "seigneury" -- a sort of feudal land grant commonly used in French Canada. Tonty established a tiny post of six men near the Quapaw town known as Osotouy. Over time, this became known as Arkansas Post. The location of Osotouy is today known as the Menard-Hodges site, and in 1989 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Federal Judge Morris S. Arnold of Little Rock, the leading historian of Colonial Arkansas, has written about the significance of this tiny French outpost: "In fact, in consequence of the New Mexican pueblo revolt of 1680, which had driven the Spanish south of the Rio Grande, Tonty's outpost was for a few years virtually the only white establishment west of the Mississippi River."

Arkansas Post never developed into much of a town, but in 1783 during the American Revolution, it was attacked by a band of British partisans, one of the few Revolutionary War actions west of the Mississippi River.

The area today known as Arkansas County became American Territory in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, soon becoming a part of Missouri Territory. In 1813, the Missouri legislature created Arkansas County, and six years later the county became Arkansas Territory. According to Bill Shrum, author of the entry on Arkansas County in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, "more than half the state's counties were formed from this original county." Arkansas Post became the territorial capital.

Arkansas Post, small though it was, played an important part in Arkansas history. For example, the state's first newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, was established there in November 1819. During the Civil War more than 5,000 Confederate soldiers were captured when Fort Hindman at Arkansas Post fell to the Union army -- one of the largest surrenders in the state.

Arkansas Post, which was located in the extreme southern tip of the county, was replaced as the county seat in 1855 when a new courthouse was erected in the new and more centrally located town of DeWitt. The towns of Casscoe, St. Charles and Crockett's Bluff were situated along the White River. Crocketts Bluff was named for William F. Crockett, a son of Davy Crockett.

St. Charles was the scene of one of America's largest mass lynchings. Thirteen black men were murdered in March 1904. The terror came close to being much worse as armed mobs from as far away as Clarendon in Monroe County imprisoned some 60-odd black men, women and children in a St. Charles warehouse and threatened to burn the building.

Stuttgart, which is today the dual county seat of Arkansas County, was founded in 1878 by a colony of German speaking immigrants from the Midwest under the leadership of the Rev. Adam Buerkle, a Lutheran minister who hoped to establish a new synod within the church. Buerkle purchased a large farm known before the Civil War as Gum Pond Plantation. For about $3 per acre, Buerkle acquired 7,749 acres. He later sold half of this land to other settlers.

Germans also made up a large percentage of the small town of Gillett, a community which is now known for its annual "Coon Supper" -- one of the premier political gatherings in Arkansas.

For years the main crop grown on the Grand Prairie was hay. However, rice cultivation quickly caught on in Arkansas County after its introduction to Arkansas in 1904. That year farmers on the Grand Prairie produced substantial crops, and the local Experiment Station produced 65 bushels per acre on a planting of 160 acres. The state's first rice mill opened in Stuttgart in 1906. By 1909 Arkansas farmers were producing an amazing 1.25 million bushels of rice.

Riceland Foods, a cooperative that began in 1921, is headquartered in Stuttgart. It has more than 9,000 members today in Arkansas and four other states. Producers Rice Mill is another major rice business in the county.

Arkansas County had a population of 19,019 in 2010 -- a decline from its high point of 24,437 people in 1940. Despite the loss of population, residents of Stuttgart and DeWitt are working to maintain the vitality of their communities. Each year during Thanksgiving week, Stuttgart hosts the World Championship Duck Calling Contest as a part of the venerable Wings Over the Prairie Festival.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 11/18/2018

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