Little Rock: History

Little Rock Named Territorial Capitol

The earliest inhabitants of the area that is now Little Rock were Stone Age people who—despite their lack of sophisticated tools, wagons, and domesticated animals—constructed huge earthen mounds that are still in existence. (Some of the most significant ones in the state are located just a short distance down the Arkansas River from Little Rock.) Used as public meeting places, living quarters, and burial chambers, these mounds have yielded numerous examples of pottery and other artifacts. Historians believe that the mound-builders' culture was eventually absorbed into that of more advanced and aggressive invaders.

In 1541, when Spain's Hernando de Soto became the first European to explore the territory, he and his party encountered a group of Indians who called themselves Quapaws or "downstream" people, a reference to the fact that they had migrated down the Mississippi River from Sioux lands in Missouri. It was estimated that approximately 7,000 Quapaws were then scattered throughout the region; by the time the French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed it as part of the Louisiana Territory in 1682, this number had dwindled to about 1,300 people, primarily due to disease and war.

The naming of Little Rock is said to have occurred in 1722 when another French explorer, Bernard de la Harpe, was leading a party up the Arkansas River from New Orleans and came upon two rock outcroppings, one large, one small, on opposite sides of the river. Local Indians had long used both rocks as landmarks; de la Harpe presumably decided on the name "little rock" as a means of distinguishing the smaller outcropping from the larger bluff upstream, which he christened "French Rock."

Throughout the years when control of the region alternated between the Spanish and the French, few permanent settlements were established. Thus, at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Arkansas was virtually uninhabited. Once the territory became part of the United States, however, increasing numbers of Americans were willing to move west of the Mississippi. The first white settler near the "little rock" is believed to have been William Lewis, a hunter. In July 1812 he built a small hut and planted a few pumpkin seeds so that he could file a homestead claim. In 1819 a land speculator from St. Louis named William Russell bought Lewis' claim, and by May 1820, he had staked out a town site. Later that same year, members of a rival faction laid out a second town site that they named Arkopolis. In 1821 Russell's Little Rock settlement was chosen as the capital of Arkansas Territory. When tensions between the two opposing groups touched off fears that the capital would be moved elsewhere, the speculators resolved their differences amicably, and the site was authoritatively named Little Rock.

Civil War Divides Citizens

Little Rock grew rather slowly after that, though remained a boisterous frontier village for many years; it was officially chartered in 1831 and reincorporated in 1835. The 1830s also marked the beginning of cotton cultivation on a major scale, and it soon became the area's chief cash crop. Little Rock saw its importance as a distribution center increase as southbound steamboats loaded with cotton bales passed northbound boats carrying clothing, tools, and molasses from New Orleans.

A slave state with a large rural population of small farmers, Arkansas was drawn into national politics when it seceded from the Union in 1861 and then began serving as a supply center for the Confederate Army. The state's sympathies were not entirely with the South, however; many citizens had opposed secession, particularly those in the northern counties. When Little Rock was captured in 1863 and made headquarters for Union troops, the occupation was exceptional in its orderliness and cordiality.

Conservatives Rule for a Century

The postwar Reconstruction period in Arkansas was marked by financial ruin and political upheaval. Attempts to create a northern-style industrial economy failed, largely because the demands placed on the agrarian society were too great. Furthermore, disagreements between Republican liberals (who controlled the state government through a system of executive patronage) and mostly Democratic conservatives crippled efforts to establish a more progressive regime. The conflict came to a head in 1874 with the so-called Brooks-Baxter War, when two rival politicians claimed the governorship of Arkansas. A legal battle ensued, and eventually the state constitution was rewritten to impose severe limits on the chief executive's power. Arkansas then entered a phase of conservative rule that endured for nearly a century.

After the turmoil of the Reconstruction period ended, Little Rock slowly began to broaden its economic base, especially in the areas of commerce and industry. The 1880s saw a great expansion in the state's railroad system, and the city's population soared to 25,874 people by 1890 (up from 12,000 people in 1870). During World War I, Little Rock became an army induction and training center with the opening of nearby Camp Pike, which was reactivated (as Camp Robinson) during World War II and again provided an influx of money and jobs in Little Rock.

In 1957 world attention was drawn to the Arkansas capital when Governor Orval E. Faubus and the Arkansas National Guard forcibly tried to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending U.S. troops to the city with orders to enforce the integration and protect the students. The incident left its mark, however; business and industrial developers were reluctant to locate to an area linked so closely in the public's mind with racism and segregation.

The 1960s brought sweeping changes to the South, and today's Little Rock has for the most part abandoned the attitudes of the "Old South" to embrace a lifestyle compatible with that of the Sunbelt. The area's good climate and abundance of water and energy make it increasingly attractive to industry, and the 1970s and 1980s saw it recovering some of the ground it lost in earlier years, as evidenced by employment and industrial growth. In a state known as the "Land of Opportunity," Little Rock continues to be the centerpiece of progress and development.

A Presidential City

The election of progressive Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to the U.S. presidency in 1992 placed a new focus on the city. The nation began associating Little Rock with the birthplace of its president rather than a center of racial strife. President Clinton facilitated this new focus, accepting the presidency on the steps of the Old State House in 1992, and celebrating his reelection in 1996 on its balcony. Even after his terms expired, he continued the momentum of this presidential connection. In November 2004 the William J. Clinton Presidential Center opened its doors, drawing the spotlight of national and international attention and tourism to Little Rock for years to come.

Historical Information: Arkansas History Commission, One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201; telephone (501)682-6900