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In March 1819, Congress recognized Arkansas as a territory separate from Missouri. Creating territories--and later states--was the means by which Congress decided to divide the vast expanse of new lands which came to the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.

From the Purchase in 1803 until its creation as a separate territory in 1819, Arkansas was attached to various districts and territories, including Missouri Territory. In 1818 Missouri applied for statehood, specifying a southern boundary that excluded the five counties that are now Arkansas and Oklahoma. Thus Arkansas was born by this act of exclusion.

Missouri leaders probably jettisoned Arkansas because of its remoteness and small population. Only a few white settlers and traders called Arkansas home when the area became a territory.

John B. Treat, who arrived at Arkansas Post in 1805, estimated that fewer than 1,000 people, including a few hundred Quapaw Indians, lived on the lower Arkansas River. The 1820 U.S. census counted 14,273 people living in the newly established Arkansas Territory.

Who were these early Arkansans, and how did they survive in what was certainly a challenging environment? Many made a living by hunting and trapping, just as generations of Frenchmen had done.

Russell W. Benedict, who came to the Cadron settlement on the Arkansas River in modern Faulkner County in 1818, described two families of local hunters who "plowed not, neither did they hoe or reap, [making] no pretensions toward farming."

With an abundance of wildlife, these early hunters could make a living. In 1822 one trader valued bear skins at $1.50 each, while beaver pelts fetched $2.50 apiece and raccoon skins were worth 24 cents. There was always a demand for bear oil, used for everything from cooking to insect repellent.

Many of the early settlers wore buckskin clothing. However, as James Billingsley recalled living on the Arkansas at the mouth of the Mulberry in 1816: "The French came up the river in large canoes and supplied us with domestic and check [cloth] and earth[en] ware and calico."

Billingsley complained about the high prices charged by itinerant traders, noting, "I paid $4.00 for the first set of teacups and saucers I ever owned and $2.00 for a green edge dish worth now about 5 cents."

Early arrivals in Arkansas Territory often lived in a temporary log structure until a permanent home was erected. German visitor Frederich Gerstaecker, who unlike many early visitors was favorably impressed by early rustic Arkansans, described one of these temporary cabins: "The ... dwelling was nothing but a simple rough log house, without any windows, and all the chinks between the logs were left open ... Two beds, a table, a couple of chairs, one of them with arms, some iron saucepans, three plates, two tin pots, one saucer, several knives, and a coffee mill, formed the whole of his furniture and kitchen utensils."

While it is true that many of the pioneering settlers in Arkansas relished the isolation of the frontier, the notion that they lived independent of the larger American economy is a myth. The fact that many early arrivals settled along navigable rivers is testimony to the connection to the larger world.

At first, settlers in territorial Arkansas relied on itinerant river merchants or peddlers for their commercial needs. Soon, however, the country store made its debut in Arkansas.

Massachusetts native Hiram A. Whittington opened a store in Hot Springs in 1832. In a letter home to his skeptical brother, Hiram wrote: "Now and then a mountaineer will trot in dressed in his leather hunting shirt and leggings. He will inquire what's going on in the world of Arkansas, buy a few goods at a hundred percent [markup] on a twelve month's credit, to be paid in bear's oil, bear skins, etc. ... Did you ever hear of anything like it?"

Not all early settlers were hunters or merchants. Most people farmed. While it was never an easy way to make a living, Arkansas farmers during the territorial period did well compared to neighboring states. By 1840, Arkansas farmers owned more horses, cattle, and swine than farmers in Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana per 100 people.

Historian Charles Bolton, author of Territorial Ambition, the standard history of territorial Arkansas, concluded: "From its meager beginnings in 1820, Arkansas agriculture advanced steadily for two decades. By 1840 it was successful in a number of ways. Per capita production was high by the standards of nearby states. Cotton production was relatively small, but it was concentrated geographically [in the Delta region] and quite rewarding in those areas. Corn and hogs and cattle, on the other hand, must have produced a bountiful subsistence for almost everyone."

While cotton production grew dramatically across the state during the territorial years, an amazing 91 percent of it was grown in 10 counties--all but one of which were located in eastern Arkansas.

William E. Woodruff, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, realized in 1822 that cotton was becoming a mainstay. He wrote of "the general disposition which prevails among our citizens to cultivate ...large crops of cotton." He also noted that during the previous year, Hempstead County farmers had shipped 400 bales of cotton to New Orleans. Only three years earlier not a single cotton gin could be found in the territory.

The population of Arkansas grew steadily during the territorial period. No one knows how many people lived here when Arkansas became a territory in 1819, but the 1820 census reported a population of 14,273. Over the next 10 years the population more than doubled to 30,388, tripling again by 1840 when the census counted 97,574 people.

While the period was a time of relative prosperity for many Arkansans, a large number lived in poverty. As Charles Bolton has written, the distribution of wealth in early Arkansas was "markedly unequal." He noted that "the wealthiest 10 percent" owned 70 percent of the taxable wealth.

Mitigating that statistic was the practice of poor people squatting on public land. Although in 1840 54 percent of taxpayers did not own land, they did own taxable livestock. Bolton concluded: "these landless cattlemen owned 51 percent of the horses and 43 percent of the cattle ..."

By the time Arkansas became a state in 1836, the area had changed dramatically since 1819 when it was lopped off from Missouri. Towns were emerging, steamboats plied all of the major waterways in Arkansas, and a few schools were emerging in the larger towns. Matthew Cunningham, the first professionally trained medical doctor to practice here, arrived in Little Rock in 1820. The city was the scene of the state's first theatrical performance in 1834.

Despite all the growth and change, lives of enslaved black people as well as women of both races were still typified by drudgery, unrelieved tedium, and little hope for the future.


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

Editorial on 07/07/2019

Print Headline: TOM DILLARD: Two centuries of territorial status


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