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Arkansas and Indian Removal

Thomas Jefferson considered the Louisiana Purchase an opportunity to set his plan for Indian removal in motion. Believing that Native Americans could not survive in close proximity to white Americans, Jefferson thought that their removal to a more distant territory would give them time to become more "civilized" and, therefore, more agreeable neighbors for Americans. By 1808, and for two decades thereafter, the Arkansas River watershed and, later, Arkansas Territory, seemed the most likely location for settlement of the tribes. However, as the territory rapidly became populated, it became clear that Arkansas would be a pass-through territory or state for removing tribes, whose final destination lay beyond its western borders. Nevertheless, Arkansas was a pivotal state that profited greatly from the removal process.

Although Cherokee had migrated and settled in Arkansas as early as 1794, it was not until 1817 that the United States took the first official step to remove Native groups to the territory. That year, a treaty with the Cherokee established a reserve on the Arkansas River in west-central Arkansas for those who agreed to voluntarily remove. The Cherokee signed an additional treaty in 1819, the year Arkansas became a territory. The Treaty of Doak's Stand (1820) provided for voluntary removal of Choctaw beyond the western border of Arkansas. By the late 1820s, however, it was clear that the territory would not provide for the proper settlement of the tribes, and in 1828, the Arkansas Cherokee agreed by treaty to remove beyond the territory's western border.

When removal began, a system of roads crossed Arkansas from east to west to the Indian Territory. In the southern part of the state, a road went west from Point Chico on the Mississippi River to Ecore Fabre, presently Camden, and then to Washington and from there to the Choctaw Nation. In central Arkansas, a road left the Mississippi opposite Memphis and went west, crossed the St. Francis River and Crowley's Ridge north of present-day Forrest City, and continued west across the L'Anguille River, which was bridged, to the 64th mile west of Memphis. There it turned southwest to Mouth of Cache, now Clarendon, where there was a ferry across the White River. From there the road passed westerly across the Grand Prairie to Brownsville, then west to present-day Jacksonville, where it joined the old Southwest Trail, turned south, crossed Bayou Meto, which had been bridged, and followed the old trail to present-day North Little Rock. This road was joined in the Grand Prairie by a road that led north from Arkansas Post. At Little Rock, the Memphis road connected with the Military Road, which had been completed in 1827 to Fort Smith. On this road at Dardanelle, many parties crossed the Arkansas River and took a road west to Fort Coffee or the Choctaw Agency. From Little Rock, the old Southwest Trail went southwest to Washington, where it joined the road from Point Chico. In northern Arkansas, a post road left the Southwest Trail in northeastern Arkansas and went by Batesville on the north side of the White River to present-day Gassville, where it crossed the river and went to Fayetteville and the Cherokee Nation. In northwestern Arkansas, the Missouri Road entered Arkansas near Pea Ridge and went to Fayetteville.

The quality and condition of the roads varied. The military roads were unquestionably the best, but they were far from adequate. Particularly problematic throughout the removal period was the segment of the Military Road between Memphis and the St. Francis River. In 1834, appropriations were made for surveying and reconstructing the road, which was rerouted in some places, but the road from the St. Francis River to Little Rock was considered unfinished as late as 1836 and 1837. Despite efforts at improvement, however, the four-mile stretch directly west of Memphis, usually referred to simply as the "Mississippi Swamp," was flooded much of the time and was either impassable or almost so in most seasons. The swamp, perhaps more than any other single factor, caused removal parties or their conductors to choose water transportation at Memphis rather than land.

Travel by steamboat was much more convenient than travel by land when the water conditions were favorable. In the spring months, the Arkansas River was navigable from its mouth nearly to Fort Gibson. The White River was navigable from its mouth to Batesville, and the Ouachita was navigable as far north as Ecore Fabre. At other times of the year, travel by steamboat was problematic. Many removal parties had to unload and make on-the-spot arrangements for overland travel, for which the people were often not prepared.

In the wake of the Indian Removal Act (1830), all members of the Choctaw, the Creek, Florida Indians, the Chickasaw, and the Cherokee who removed to the West crossed the territory (later, the state) using its roads and waterways. Choctaw removal began during the winter of 1830–1831, with some Choctaw traveling across southern Arkansas and others traveling by steamboat up the Arkansas to Indian Territory or stopping at Arkansas Post, where they began an overland trek. Later groups took these routes as well, while others went up the White River to Rock Roe and traveled overland from there. Still others traveled overland from Memphis to the West by way of Little Rock and from there along the Military Road to Indian Territory. The other tribes made use of some of these same routes and others.

During Creek (Muscogee) removal, which began in 1828, the Creek traveled the White and Arkansas waterways or followed the overland routes from Memphis or Rock Roe. The Florida tribes made nearly all of their journeys by steamboat from New Orleans to Indian Territory during Seminole removal, 1837–1850. The Chickasaw also traveled by water using the White or the Arkansas or followed the overland route from Memphis during Chickasaw removal. Some groups of Chickasaw and Choctaw diverged from the common route and traveled from Little Rock southwest to the Red River along the Southwest Trail. Of the 17 large Cherokee contingents in the mass Cherokee removal of 1838–1839, five traveled the Arkansas River, one took the Memphis–Little Rock route, and one traveled across the northern part of Arkansas from the northeast to the northwest. The remaining overland contingents crossed the northwestern corner of the state.

In addition to poor traveling conditions, the removing tribes encountered health problems in Arkansas. The summer months were considered the fever season, when people were plagued by heat, mosquitoes, and biting green flies. The Creek encountered a flu epidemic while passing through the state, and the Choctaw experienced a great deal of sickness that ended in death for many who had become infected with cholera at Memphis. Upon their arrival in Indian Territory, many members of all the tribes who had not been vaccinated died of smallpox, allegedly brought by a small removing party that arrived by steamboat.

In addition to generating internal improvements, the movement of such large masses of people and animals through various parts of the state was an economic boon to Arkansas. The government supplied rations for both people and animals, depending in large measure on local production of corn, fodder, salt, and livestock, primarily cattle and swine. The production of rations delayed Arkansas's entry into the cotton economy, which, in turn, saved the state from the economic woes that resulted from the collapse of the cotton market and from the banking panics in 1837 and 1839. The government paid for goods and services in silver dollars, infusing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Arkansas economy during a decade when the common currency was paper money, worth considerably less than specie. As long as the land offices at Batesville and Little Rock would take paper money, those with specie converted it into paper money, which generated as much as 35% more at face value, allowing them to buy more acres. Many acquired thousands of acres. Establishment of the Arkansas State Bank and its spinoff the Real Estate Bank in 1836, the state's first two banks, was accomplished by the War Department's investment of Chickasaw funds generated by the sale of their lands in Mississippi. Finally, Indian removal gave rise to a major light draft steamboat business at Little Rock. Uncertain water levels above Little Rock could be plied more months of the year by "lighters" that had a draft of about one and a half feet. A large number of such craft were docked at Little Rock during the removal season.

The end of the economic growth related to removal in the 1830s resulted in a rise of anti-Native sentiment in Arkansas. As long as the money flowed, few Arkansans were critical of the government's policy of removing large numbers of Indians to the state's western border. However, popular sentiment turned against Native Americans, and there arose a cry for the establishment of a line of forts along the border to protect the people from "hostile" Natives. When the tribes proved not to be "hostile," the prospects of large numbers of troops and the money that might be made from supplying them faded. In response, Arkansans developed a seething resentment against the five tribes that lasted until the allotment period at the end of the 19th century. Removal was a significant event for Arkansans. While removal went on, many Arkansans enriched themselves, and on the basis of their wealth, a number founded what would be known later in Arkansas history as the "first families" of the state.

Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr.


Further Reading
Hoxie, Frederick E. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996; Bolton, S. Charles. “Jeffersonian Indian Removal and the Emergence of Arkansas Territory.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62 (Autumn 2003): 353–371; Paige, Amanda L., et al. Chickasaw Removal. Ada, OK: Chickasaw Nation Press, 2010.
 

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