Arkansas and the Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase State Park

Louisiana Purchase State Park near Brinkley

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson signed the papers to purchase the vast territory of Louisiana from Napoleon's France, doubling the size of the United States. Within the next few years, President Jefferson sent explorers William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore present-day Southwest Arkansas to gather information on the area's resources. This expedition brought back an extensive collection of data on the region's plant and animal life and varied landscapes and also how the Native American population along the Red, Black and Ouachita Rivers used the river's resources to build their communities. While exploring the hot springs, Hunter and Dunbar found that many people would make pilgrimages to the area to take advantage of the water's healing properties; some had developed cabins and shacks to reside near the hot springs for extended periods of time. The Hunter-Dunbar Expedition resulted in the first description in English of the area and the first scientific mapping of the Ouachita River valley.

In 1815, President James Madison ordered an official survey of the formerly-French territory to explore the geography and establish a system for distributing to veterans of the War of 1812 land they had been promised for fighting against the British. On October 27, 1815, a survey party led by Prospect K. Robbins headed north from the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers on an expedition to establish a north-south line to be known as the Fifth Principal Meridian. The same day, a second company led by Joseph C. Brown departed westward from the junction of the St. Francis River and the Mississippi to establish an east-west line, known as a baseline.

 

The crossing of the two lines would be the initial point from which future surveys would originate. Robbins' party had traveled north almost 56 miles when they crossed the baseline surveyed by Brown's party. Two native gum trees about 18 inches in diameter were marked as witness trees to delineate the initial point, some 26 miles west of the Mississippi.

Both the meridian and the baseline would later be extended, and land surveys for all or parts of the Louisiana Purchase states west of the Mississippi would subsequently be measured from this point in an eastern Arkansas headwater swamp.

The site went unheralded for more than a century. In 1921, two surveyors discovered the witness trees, and the L'Anguille Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in nearby Marianna placed a monument there in 1926 to document one of the most important places in America’s westward expansion.

Louisiana Purchase monument

Louisiana Purchase State Park

Two hundred years after the purchase, the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park near Brinkley preserves this site and the history of the Louisiana Purchase. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993, visitors can walk an elevated, barrier-free boardwalk through the swamp to this monument to the history of the Louisiana Purchase, experiencing the sights and sounds of the wilderness much as the original surveyors did.

For more information on Arkansas and the history of the Louisiana Purchase visit www.LAPurchase.org. Don't forget to check out the many other historic travel destinations in Arkansas.