The Great South - Down the Mississippi

Arkansas: wild and weird forests and swamps

These wild and weird forests and swamps bordering the junction of the Arkansas and Mississippi were threaded by the French as early as 1671, and the State now known as Arkansas was a part of Louisiana until the purchase made by the United States in 1812. It had a varying fortune for some time thereafter; was made a territory in 1819, then became part of Missouri territory, but was finally admitted into the Union as a separate state in 1836. Arkansas is, in area, one—sixth larger than the state of New York, comprising more than 52,000 square miles. It is separated by nature into two important divisions—the one is comprising some of the richest agricultural bottom lands in the world, the other containing vast deposits of valuable minerals. The mountain ranges, beginning in the south-western part of the state, develop into the Masserne range, and towards the north and east become broad elevated tracts until they reach the Ozark Mountains, which run from the vicinity of Little Rock, north and west, into Missouri. The often-repeated remark that “Arkansas is all swamp and backwoods “ is an error inexcusable in one who travels so much as does the average American. There are tracts along the Mississippi which certainly are swamps, and will remain such until reclaimed by some general system of drainage; but they comprehend but a small portion even of the lowlands. Drainage is necessary both to render the land productive, and to guard against the spread of pernicious climatic diseases. The lands which extend from Napoleon to Memphis on the Arkansas side form the nucleus of a mighty lowland empire. Drained, settled, and carefully cultured, they would produce almost incalculable wealth. The negro is the man for this work. He is adapted to the climate, and if he but had the ambition, could speedily enrich himself.

The Arkansas river journeys two thousand miles to meet the Mississippi coming eastward from the mountains of Colorado, and the entrance from it into the White River, near its mouth, is easy. The White River drains, with its tributaries, a large expanse in the north-western middle and south-eastern parts of the State, and renders the transportation of products easy and inexpensive. The Arkansas forms a superb water highway directly across the State, and into the recesses of the Indian Territory. It is navigable for several months in the year, and with needed improvements might be always serviceable. The Ouachita and its contributing streams drain that part of the State lying south of the Arkansas River, and the Red River gives drainage to the south-west. It would be difficult to find another State of which it can be said that out of its seventy-three counties fifty-one are watered by navigable streams. The climate varies with the location, but none could be healthier than that of the romantic mountain region more invigorating than that of the thick pine forests in the lower counties or more malarial than the undrained and uncleared bottom lands.

Time was when a journey up the Arkansas River was not devoid of thrilling adventure when the passengers landing at Little Rock laid their bowie-knives and pistols beside their knives and forks, on the hotel table, at supper; and when along the river bank could be heard the pistol shot from hour to hour. Great numbers of outlaws from the older States came to Arkansas when it was first opened up, and, fascinated with the grandeur and beauty of the more elevated portions of the State, they remained there— some to become honest and hard-working citizens, others to pursue their old callings of robbery and murder, and finally to die at the muzzle of a rifle. Wild life and careless culture of the soil, disregard of humanizing influences, and a general spirit of indifference characterized large numbers of the people while others were as orderly, enterprising and industrious as those to be found in any of the older States. But the Commonwealth has thus far been completely terra incognita to the people of the North and East. No railroads, up to a very recent date, had penetrated its fertile lands; river navigation has been tedious and unattractive; and the stories, more or less exaggerated, told of the sanguinary propensities of some classes of the inhabitants, were such a grotesque mixture of fun and horror, that civilized people had no more desire to go there than to Central Africa.

But now the most effective civilizer, the iron rail, has been laid down across the State. The St. Louis, Southern, and Iron Mountain railroad has stretched an arm from the Missouri border down the Black and White River valleys to Little Rock, the pretty and flourishing capital of the Commonwealth; thence through Arkadelphia, along the Ouachita valley, and across the Little Missouri and the Red River valley to the Texas boundary, where it connects with the Great Northern, the International, and the Trans-Continental. In other words, it has placed Arkansas on the direct high road to Texas, and opened up to settlement, on terms which the poorest immigrant can accept, good lands for raising corn and the smaller grains, uplands wooded with pine, and bottoms all through the Red River Valley timbered with walnut, oak and ash,—noble cotton lands,— and a fine country for fruit and grapes. The wild grape grows abundantly in the forests, and to large size. Along the line of this railroad also are scattered iron, coal, kaolin and clay in large deposits. That portion of the road extending from the Missouri border southward was built as the Cairo and Fulton railroad, giving a through line from Cairo, Ill., on the east bank of the Mississippi, to Fulton, on the Texas line; but it is now consolidated with the St. Louis and Iron Mountain road, which has recently completed its line from St. Louis to Little Rock, running through the range of mineral mountains in south-eastern Missouri, and uniting with the Cairo and Fulton route at Newport. Through the White River Valley there are some of the loveliest river-bottom lands on the continent, where cotton yields a bale or a bale and a half, corn, seventy-five bushels, and wheat, twenty-five bushels, to the acre. This section of Arkansas is also admirably suited for the culture of tobacco and hemp, besides being an excellent fruit and stock country. Along this mammoth line of rail nearly two million acres, confirmed to the company by act of Congress, are now in market, and immigrants are rapidly settling at distances of five and ten miles from the railroad.

The Arkansas River at Little Rock is broad and noble, and here and there the bluffs are imposing. The town is said to take its name from a small rock on the west side of the stream, which is the first one encountered on that side from the mouth of the Mississippi to that point, so level is the alluvial. Some distance up stream, on the east bank of the Arkansas, stands Big Rock, a bluff of a little prominence. The river is handsomely bridged for the railroad’s convenience, and the city, since the iron horse first snorted in its streets, has had a wonderful growth. It is a pretty, well laid out town, containing twenty thousand inhabitants; and one can see, from any eminence, hundreds of small, neat houses—the best testimonials to individual thrift in a community. The handsome but somewhat dilapidated State Capitol, the picturesque Penitentiary, perched on a rocky hill, the Deaf and Dumb State Asylum, the Asylum for the Blind, the land offices of the railroad companies, St. John’s College, and St. Mary’s Academy are among its best public buildings. Many of its streets are beautifully shaded and the peach trees were in bloom on the March days when I visited it. The main part of the city lies on a high, rolling plateau overlooking the river; back at some distance from the stream is the arsenal and post where United States troops are still stationed, and near by is a national cemetery. Little Rock was for many years the home of Gen. Albert Pike, the noted Confederate general and poet, and his mansion is pointed out with pride by the people of the State. There, too, lived for many years the original of the “Arkansas Traveler,” whose story has penetrated to the uttermost ends of the earth; and there the negro has done much to increase one’s faith in his capacity for industry and progress. The colored citizens of Little Rock, and of Arkansas in general, number many gentlemen of education and refinement. The superintendent of the penitentiary, the commissioner of State lands, the superintendent of public instruction, some of the State senators, police judges, and many preachers of excellent ability are colored men. Among these gentlemen are graduates of Harvard University, of Oberlin, and of many of the best Western schools. A large proportion of the colored people at Little Rock own their homes, which are mainly in the third ward, whence two aldermen,—black men and slaves up to the war, but now worth from $5,000 to $10,000 each,—are sent up to the Council. At Helena and Little Rock there have been many noteworthy instances of progress among the negroes. This is not so common in the back country, although some of the counties have colored sheriffs and clerks. One of the most intelligent of his race in the State told me that the negroes had, as a rule, a horror of clearing up new land, and that they had been a good deal hindered from undertaking cotton farming by the lack of means to begin with — this requiring quite an outlay. The large land-holders, too, have generally been averse to selling land in small parcels. For these reasons the country negroes are mainly “hired laborers, working on shares, or tenants by rental, payable in produce.” In either case the landlord often furnishes the supplies of food, seed and stock, and at the annual settlement has the lion’s share of the proceeds, the laborers making little more than their living for the year. A very reliable colored man told me that if the freedmen of Arkansas had made less progress since the war than those of the elder States since emancipation, he believed it to be because the white population of Arkansas was also, in many respects, behind that of the other States, being more sparsely settled and isolated, without large towns, railroads, and other improving agencies. The educational societies of the North had comparatively neglected the State. Political commotions had been the rule ever since reconstruction, and the State was already bankrupt at the outbreak of the war. The Republican party, which came in with reconstruction, inaugurated vast schemes for “internal improvements,” and to obtain means to carry on said improvements, funded the old ante-bellum bonds of the State as a pledge of good faith. This process, he thought, had resulted in a large increase of the State debt, the debt in onerous taxation, and the taxation in a high rental. The State bonds outstanding March 14, 1874, are classified as follows:

  Railroad aid bonds   $5,350,000
  Funded bonds, July 1, 1869     2,000,000
      "        "      , Jan. 1, 1870     2,350,000
  Levee bonds     2,208,500
  Outstanding insurance certificates     1,600,000

Some manufacturing has been introduced at Little Rock, and the wholesale trade of the town is very large, although, as no organized chamber of commerce yet exists, I could not discover its amount. At the close of the war it was only a small village, with little or no railroad outlet, and with a minor trade. Planters had been in the habit of bringing almost literally everything which they needed from Memphis; the idea of keeping supplies in the State had never occurred to them. Now the through route to Texas, the Memphis and Little Rock, and the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroads give plenty of outlets, and are bringing the town considerable new population. The latter route, in which a good many Eastern men are interested, is not yet completed, and is in wretched financial and material condition, but it runs through a fine country, and, if ever finished, will develop the most interesting portion of Arkansas. The noble country along the borders of the Indian Territory needs developing: it is rich in minerals and in grand mountain scenery, but is now in semi-barbaric hands, and it will take a persistent effort to improve the tone of society there. Fort Smith is on the Arkansas River and the border of the Territory, has a population of three thousand, is a military post whence offenders from the Indian Territory are taken to be tried, and once had a very extensive Western trade, which has been taken away by the passage of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line of rail within sixty-five miles of the town. Society throughout this section is said to be improving. My own opinion is, that it will never improve much in the face of ignorance, whisky and weapons. Most of the deadly broils occur between drunken ruffians, whose only sentiment is revenge by pistol shot, and whose chief amusement is coarse and bestial intoxication. The “Fort Smith road” runs through the counties of Pulaski, Vincennes, Faulkner, Conway, Pope, Johnson, Franklin, Crawford and Sebastian. Conway, Lewisburgh and Russelville promise to he important towns along the line, although the local business is thus far slight.

Over the thirty-three millions of acres in Arkansas are scattered barely five hundred thousand people, and the nature of their employment forbids the building of many large towns. The grade of intelligence in the interior districts, where they have never had schools, is much the same as in Eastern Tennessee. There are fewer churches than schoolhouses in the “up-country.” The masses of the whites are ambitionless; and even the most enthusiastic that I met seemed dubious about the State’s prospects. The northeastern current of immigration is wanted, and would do much towards reforming the State. Something beyond a rough prosperity in cotton raising and whisky is now demanded; and the cultured people living in the larger towns are making special efforts to redeem the commonwealth from the bad name it has received. Certainly Little Rock’s handsome development should do much to make one believe in the State’s possibilities; it has a flourishing library, a dozen good churches, several well-ordered banks, and fine streets; society and schools are as good as in Eastern towns of the same size. But in the back country!— there. the prospect is very different. Little Rock, with its streets and gardens filled with azalias, japonicas, China and peach trees, the queenly magnolia, and the lovely box elders and elms, is a striking contrast to some of the rude lowland towns near the river, or the log-built unkempt settlements in the interior, where morals are bad, manners worse, and there are no comforts or graces. The Presbyterian Church South is the prevailing denomination at Little Rock, and Northern people worship in it, politics being eschewed. The schools are, of course, classified for black and white; mixed schools having been nowhere attempted, or, indeed, demanded. The Industrial University at Fayetteville is to be a powerful institution, and the Judsonian University, located at Judsonia in White County, is one of the hopes of the future. Schools have been organized and maintained for a number of years in Fort Smith, Pine Bluffs, Helena, Arkadelphia, Dardanelle and Camden, and have been well attended by both white and black children. The State Superintendent could not inform me how many schools were in operation in the community; inasmuch as he had to operate with only the semi-annual apportionment of $55,000 in State scrip, worth forty cents on the dollar, he could not make much new effort. He admitted that but little progress in education had as yet been made in the remote parts of Arkansas; the thinly settled character of the region preventing neighborhood schools.

The vexed condition of politics in the State since the war has greatly hindered its development. People complained a good deal of the manner in which the Arkansas Central (narrow gauge) Railroad scheme was conducted. This road is now in operation from Helena to Clarendon, and is eventually to be completed to Little Rock. It traverses one of the best cotton producing regions in the South. Its completion is hindered by the anomalous condition of affairs in the State, and by the various accusations brought against its builders as to the manner in which they obtained the money to build it with. The Little Rock, Pine Bluff and New Orleans road now runs from Chicot to Pine Bluff, and will this year reach Little Rock. The Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River road is intended to run across the State from Chicot, on the Mississippi, to Texarcana, on the Red River. The Ouachita Valley road extends from Arkadelphia to Camden, and thence will connect with Monroe in Louisiana. Camden is one of the largest towns in Southern Arkansas, in the heart of a fine cotton-growing section. It will be seen that as soon as these projected lines are completed, Arkansas will be very thoroughly traversed by roads, and, with her splendid river highways, will find no difficulty in annually sending an early crop to Memphis and New Orleans. Steamers can reach Camden from New Orleans, coming up the Red and Ounchita rivers, and thousands of bales of cotton annually go to New Orleans that way. But these facilities for communication cannot enrich the State so long as an appeal to arms by a discontented faction may at any time overthrow law, destroy order, and turn towns into camps. There seem to have been, since the close of the war, the most bitter struggles between the different factions, sometimes resulting in bloodshed, and always in a paralysis of the State’s vitality for some time after each combat. The partisans in a State where the use of arms is so common as it is in Arkansas are, of course, violent and vindictive, and a good many lives are wasted in useless struggling to prevent those sudden changes in party sentiment which are inevitable. When Governor Clayton was elected to the United States Senatorship, he was seemingly unwilling to allow his successor to take his office, for fear that he might change the course of the party. So, recently, the Republican governor now in office, having inaugurated his course by promising something like an honest administration, and by gathering around him the more reputable of the old Conservatives,—in other words, by bringing politics, to a certain extent, back to their normal condition, and not controlling the intelligent property owners by ignorant and incompetent office-holders,—was temporarily ousted by the beaten candidate, who brought a formidable army at his back, expelled the rightful governor, Mr. Baxter, and opened the way to a series of arrests and counter-arrests, which would have been laughable had they not been so disgusting to any one possessing a high ideal of Republican government. It required the interference of the Federal Government to secure the reinstatement of Gov. Baxter, and the would-be usurper, who had mustered at his back a Falstaffian army of idle and worthless fellows, retired only when the proclamation of the President warned him to do so. The reestablishment of law and order was followed by a popular vote on the question of holding a new constitutional convention. The election occurred in July, and the people of the State affirmed, by more than seventy thousand majority, their desire for a convention. Several important amendments to the constitution will, doubtless, be made.

Taxes in the State are now nearly six per cent. The vicious system of issuing State warrants is pursued in Arkansas as in

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