My wife and I were among the huge crowd that gathered in Arkadelphia recently to celebrate the bicentennial of Clark County. The Missouri territorial legislature created Clark County on Dec. 15, 1818. The original county stretched in a great arc from the Saline River westward far into modern Oklahoma.
As the location of Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, generations of young Arkansans have lived at least temporarily in Arkadelphia, the Clark County seat. The small city of about 11,000 residents still has the welcoming feel it had for me when I arrived on the Henderson campus in the autumn of 1966. During the ensuing years, I have learned much more about Arkadelphia and Clark County, home to some fascinating characters who led quite remarkable lives.
Three men among the early settlers in what is today Clark County played interesting and important roles in birthing the city of Arkadelphia. William Blakely arrived early—1809, only six years after the Louisiana Purchase. He built a blacksmith shop on the western side of the Ouachita River and a small settlement called Blakelytown grew up. Just to the east of the river at about the same time, John Hemphill opened a salt factory, producing a valuable commodity with a ready market.
Hemphill was instrumental in convincing Jacob Barkman to settle in the vicinity.
Jacob Barkman’s life and career resulted in his being considered “the father of Arkadelphia.” Born in Kentucky in December 1784, Barkman bought a farm four miles north of Blakelytown in 1811. David Sesser, the author of the entry on Jacob Barkman in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, described how Bark-man built his plantation: “After clearing an area to grow crops, Barkman began construction of his home in 1815. Using sun-dried bricks, he built the house two stories high with a separate kitchen. Located almost on the bank of the Caddo [River], the house was near an Indian mound and faced the Southwest Trail.”
Barkman was an energetic man. In 1820 the Barkman home became the first post office in the county, with Barkman as postmaster. He opened his home to travelers as a stagecoach stop. His race track facilitated lively gambling. He bought land regularly, eventually accumulating 22,000 acres. He represented Clark County in the first meeting of the Arkansas Legislature in March 1819. He is credited with building the first steamboat constructed in Arkansas—named the Dime— which he used to open steamboat service between Arkadelphia and New Orleans.
By 1830 Barkman was already recognized as the leading settler on the Ouachita. A young journalist recently arrived from Massachusetts named Hiram A. Whittington described Bark-man as “a genteel sort of man, [who] was formerly a member of the Arkansas Legislature, county judge, etc. He lives in a fine brick house (probably the best in the Territory), has a farm of about 4,000 acres with several salt springs on it, from which he makes about five thousand bushels of salt per annum, with a large number of horses, hogs, cows, etc., without number and between forty and fifty slaves, besides nine thousand dollars in the bank at New Orleans.”
Jacob Barkman, like so many early settlers in Arkansas, had a profound love for horse racing. As one historian has written, “Jacob Barkman’s makeup contained a lot of sporting blood.” He built a large race track, which often attracted “two or three hundred people,” about one-fourth of whom were “young women.”
In a biographical sketch published in 1960, the venerable Arkadelphia historian Farrar Newberry reported that Barkman’s race track “surrounded an Indian mound, the top of which served as [a] reviewing stand for the spectators.”
Barkman’s wife, Rebecca, was a woman of renown. She was the subject of a brief but conclusive description by none other than the most upright George W. Featherstonhaugh, an English-born American geologist conducting a survey of Arkansas natural resources in the 1830s. Finding Jacob Barkman away from home, “… I shall certainly not forget his lady soon, as I have never seen anyone, as far as manners and exterior went, with less pretensions to be classed with the feminine gender.”
“She chewed tobacco,” Featherstonhaugh continued, “she smoked a pipe, she drank whiskey, and cursed and swore as heartily as any backwoodsman, all at the same time … She must have been a person of surprising powers in her youth, for I was informed that she was now comparatively refined to what she had been before her marriage; at that period, so full of interest to a lover, she was commonly known by the name of old Davis’ [her father] ‘She Bar.’”
According to Hiram Whittington, Rebecca Barkman was given to the habit of “boxing her husband’s ears when he displeases her. He bears it very patiently, as a good and loving husband is duty bound.”
Norma Arnold and Wendy Richter, authors of the entry on Clark County in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, have stressed the importance of the Southwest Trail to the growth of early Clark County: “In the 1830s, the Military Road was constructed along the Southwest Trail through Clark County and passed near Barkman’s home. This road became the county’s main land transportation artery. Today, U.S. 67 and Interstate 30 cross the Caddo River within a few hundred yards of Barkman’s former residence.”
The story of Clark County and Arkadelphia only gets more interesting following this bang-up of a beginning.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org .
Print Headline: Two centuries of Clark County