Native American History in Arkansas
Arkansas’s first inhabitants knew well the rich resources and beauty of the land we call The Natural State. The Native Americans who occupied the region hunted and fished in its rivers, lakes and forests, just as we can today. They built shelters and settlements from its trees, earth and stones, and we are still able to visit and honor those sites. They fashioned beautiful artifacts from its clay, and some of the largest collections of enduring Native American crafts and art can be found in the state.
"History has a way of intruding upon the present, and perhaps those who read it will have a clearer understanding of what the American Indian is, by knowing what he was."
— From Arkansas writer Dee Brown's classic best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.
As in many other parts of the country, the history of Native American interaction with European explorers and American homesteaders is often painful but worthy of remembrance. By following in their footsteps and discovering who they were through the wealth of sites and museums all around the state, we live their past in the present, celebrating the glory of their accomplishments and imagining their noble history.
History of the Tribes
Historians and archeologists estimate that Native Americans have inhabited the lands now comprising the state of Arkansas for almost 14,000 years. We are able to gain a clearer picture of the peoples who made their homes here and distinguish among different tribes from the historical records that begin with Hernando de Soto’s expedition in 1541-43 and from other explorers who followed him.
Those most prevalent in Arkansas included the Caddos, Quapaws, Osages and later, Cherokees, as they traveled through Arkansas on the Trail of Tears to present day Oklahoma.
History of the Tribes: Prehistoric
The Paleoindian peoples, as archeologists call them, entered the area of Arkansas in groups of less than 50 before settling in small communities. There, they found plentiful chert, or fine-grained quartz, from which to make sharpened points for hunting. You can see examples of these early tools at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, the Parkin Archeological State Park and Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park near Scott.
In the Archaic Period, between approximately 9500 and 650 BC, the Native Americans in Arkansas adapted to the transforming, more fecund environment, which was warming after the “ice age” and producing more plentiful plant and animal life. They began forming larger communities and engaging in domesticating plants; nuts and plants became more important to their diets.
These peoples hunted Ice Age animals such as mastodons, and as extinction changed the fauna available, they pursued deer, elk and other smaller mammals for their meat and hides. The Dalton point, a sharpened stone affixed to the end of a stick sited in a hurling mechanism, proved an effective hunting tool. In addition, the Dalton culture at the Sloan site (near Crowley’s Ridge State Park but not open to visitors) has given archeologists the oldest example of a ceremonial burial ground in the Western Hemisphere.
By 600 BC, pottery was being used for cooking and storage of grain, nuts and seeds, and the bow and arrow became a widely used hunting tool by the end of the Hopewell era, around 500 AD. With further cultivation came a more stable village life, and the use of salt for preservation and for trade encouraged settlement in the saline springs of southwest Arkansas.
Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park provides a stunning example of early mound-building practices among a native tribe known as the Plum Bayou Indians.
Their use remains somewhat of a puzzle, but shows an alignment with solstice and equinox lines.
The Mississippi era, beginning around 900 AD, was characterized by further developments in farming and trade, with the Parkin site, now a state park, showing a settlement of several mounds and dozens of houses. Some scholars believe it to be the city of Casqui, identified in accounts from de Soto’s party.
History of the Tribes: The Caddos
When European explorers in the 16th through the 18th centuries encountered the Caddo peoples in the vicinity of the Red and Ouachita rivers in southwest Arkansas, they found a settled, sophisticated community, with family homesteads spaced generously apart to allow for farming. The houses commonly resembled a beehive, with a hearth in the center, and were sometimes as large as 60 feet in diameter. The household might contain extended matrilineal families. Other Caddo confederacies occupied areas of east Texas and northwest Louisiana.
Their social structure had the women preparing hides for clothing, cooking, weaving, raising children and gardening, while the men hunted, celebrated religious ceremonies and sometimes engaged in warfare. Other activities were shared communally, such as preparing soil and building houses. Tattooing was also common in both sexes. The leader of the community, the caddi, greeted visitors and forged relationships with the smoking of a calumet, or peace pipe (as did some other tribes in Arkansas).
Salt was of particular use and interest for food preparation, preservation and trade, and the saline water in marshes in southern Arkansas where the Caddos resided provided a plentiful supply, extracted by boiling the water in clay pans. Caddoan pottery was often intricately and beautifully decorated, and you can view many examples of it in the holdings of the Arkansas Archeological Survey at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
The Native American population was reduced by encounters with Europeans carrying smallpox and measles and by battles with the Osages and some other tribes.
The Caddo were forced out of Arkansas by the late 18th century and officially ceded their Arkansas land under pressure in an 1835 treaty.
They moved first to Texas and then to Oklahoma near the town of Binger, where the Caddo tribal rolls currently number about 5,000. The rotating site of the annual Caddo Conference (caddoconference.org) is often held in Arkansas, with many exhibits and sessions open to the public.
History of the Tribes: The Quapaws
Quapaw land stretched on both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River when the Marquette-Jolliet expedition from Canada first encountered members of this tribe in 1673. According to accounts from the explorers, the French were invited to the village of Kappa, some miles north of the mouth of the Arkansas River, and were offered a calumet, or peace pipe, to smoke, an important ceremony for forging alliances. The French called the Quapaws the “Arkansas,” the Illini word for “People of the South Wind,” and so named the river and the countryside after them.
Trade with the French became common for the tribe, and in 1686, a fur dealer named Henri de Tonti established a trading post at the Quapaw village of Osotouy in order to buy pelts from them. Now, the area is home to the Arkansas Post National Memorial near Gillett, run by the National Park Service.
The memorial sometimes hosts events involving the Quapaw Tribe, who educate attendees about their history, beliefs and rituals.
Quapaw community was based around the family, a number of which were grouped into clans through the male line. The clans were divided into two groups, the Sky People and Earth People, each practicing related rituals, the former attending to spiritual concerns and the latter to material well-being. The Quapaws also believed in a force called Wakondah, which held everything in balance.
Sedentary farmers, they grew corn, beans, squash, gourds and tobacco. Women were in charge of gardening, and butchered and prepared the hides of animals such as deer, bear and buffalo, which men took in hunting. Men waged war, hunted, fished and conducted community affairs in large “longhouses,” constructed of parallel rows of poles connected in an arch and covered with bark.
By the beginning of the 19th century, disease and war had reduced the number of Quapaws to around 500, or perhaps half the count of white settlers. That population pressure on the tribe led to two forced treaties with the United States, in 1818 and 1824, by which their territory was reduced to a fraction and eventually consisted of a reservation in northeastern Louisiana. Suffering under difficult conditions of severe weather and starvation there, many Quapaws returned to Arkansas and pressed claims against the government for possession of their homeland. Finally, with few options and little power to wield, they signed a treaty in 1833 that granted them reservation land in Indian Territory.
The current tribal administration, now led by an elected group called the Quapaw Business Council, is based in the northeastern Oklahoma town of Quapaw.
History of the Tribes: The Osages
As was the case with the Quapaws, the Osage tribe was a member of the Siouan language family, acknowledged a spirit force called Wakondah, divided its population into Sky People and Earth People, and organized its society by clans through the father’s line. Their dwellings – long, rectangular structures with bark covering – were also similar to Quapaw longhouses.
Though they primarily resided in present-day southern Missouri, the Osages frequently made hunting forays into northern Arkansas and were fiercely defensive about protecting their land.
The tribe was divided into five groups, organized in separate villages, overseen by a group of elders called the Little Old Men. The process of becoming one of these elders was arduous and long, with instruction beginning in childhood.
Hunting was an important ritual and sustaining activity, providing clothing, food and other valuable materials from the spoils. During the summer, Osage men, notable for the lone scalplock extending from their shaved heads, left their villages and ranged widely into Nebraska and Kansas to hunt buffalo. Women were responsible for gardening, gathering and storing nuts and plants, and providing utensils and furnishings for the home.
History of the Tribes: The Cherokees
Members of the Cherokee tribe began to immigrate to areas of current-day Arkansas in the mid- to late 1700s, as Euro-American settlers began occupying their homeland in the areas comprising current-day western North and South Carolina, northern Georgia, northeastern Alabama, and northeastern Tennessee. This brought them into conflict with the Osages, who were already established there, but the Osage treaty of 1808 with the United States (in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase) ceded lands that would eventually be settled by the Cherokees.
The founding of Fort Smith primarily arose as a way for the government to manage attacks on the Cherokees by the Osages.
Historians estimate that by the early 1800s, as many as 3,000 Cherokees were living in the area along the St. Francis River in northeast Arkansas (and southeast Missouri), and along Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River in Pope County. By that time, because of interaction with Europeans over the previous centuries, the Cherokees had adapted many of the practices of the white settlers, including subsistence farming, animal husbandry, and dress and shelter resembling American frontier life. Native customs, however, were still very important to the Cherokees, including the Green Corn ceremony, which united the sometime distant homesteads and villages. One famous Cherokee resident of Arkansas during this time was Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabry.
The founding of Dwight Mission on Illinois Bayou demonstrated the Cherokees’ thirst for knowledge. John Jolly, a Cherokee leader and an advocate for education among the tribe, welcomed and facilitated the building of the mission community that grew to include some 36 structures, including mills, barns and residences, and served some 60 children by the time it closed in 1829. At that time, the mission moved to present day Oklahoma as the tribe ceded land under a treaty in 1828. The site is marked now by a sign on Highway 64 at a boat ramp to Lake Dardanelle, which covered the site when it was created. A previous treaty between the Cherokees and Acting Governor Crittenden near what is known as Council Oak in Dardanelle had resulted in the surrender of all Cherokee lands south of the Arkansas River.
That treaty ended significant occupation of the Cherokees in Arkansas, but their imprint on the state remains through the land’s place on the Trail of Tears, as well as their participation in the Civil War.
The National Park Service’s site at Pea Ridge tells the story of Stand Watie, who led the Confederate 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles and commanded the regiment at the battle there. The park also has one of the best-preserved routes of the Trail of Tears, where Elkhorn Tavern stands.
That tragic forced removal of the Eastern Cherokees to the west in 1838-39 brought many of the tribe to northeastern Oklahoma and the town of Tahlequah, where the tribal headquarters stands today. Subsequent allotment policies ended the practice of holding land in common and the operation of the Cherokee Republic. Tribal leaders have sought to preserve and reinvigorate some of the traditions of the tribe lost or neglected during assimilation with Euro-American culture.