The Great South - Down the Mississippi

Politics, Religion, Education, Development, Taxes, & Murder

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 Ouachita 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 Louisiana, and with the same disastrous results. A stern reign of law and order for four years would fill Arkansas with immigrants; but a coup d'état every four years will not be very reassuring. The legislature should enact a law forbidding the bearing of arms, and should enforce it, if possible. Murder is considered altogether too trivial an offence in Arkansas. I walked through the penitentiary at Little Rock, and saw a large number of white and black criminals who were serving life, or long term, sentences for homicide. A brace of negroes working at the prison forge were murderers; an old man, peacefully toiling at a carpenter's bench, was a murderer ; a young negro, hewing a log, was a murderer; and in a dark cell, a murderer, stretched on his iron bedstead, was sleeping off the terrors which had partially subsided with the reprieve just sent him. The governor had fifteen proclamations, offering rewards for murderers, flying about the State at the date of my visit. The day before I left Little Rock, however, a desperado was hung in the neighboring town of Clarksville, and it was thought that the execution would have a salutary effect on the lawless element.

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