The exact year Des Arc was founded is unknown, though the town is one of the oldest river ports in Arkansas. The earliest settler of record is Frenchman Francie Francure, who received a Spanish grant for land near the mouth of the Little Red River. In establishing the land's title, he declared he had lived on it since 1789. According to "Goodspeed's History of Central Arkansas," the first U.S. citizens settled in the Des Arc Bayou area around 1810.
James Erwin and George C. Watkins, who plotted Des Arc in 1848, are considered the founders of the town, which was incorporated in 1854. Des Arc became an important stop for steamboats transporting lumber as well as cotton grown in the fertile area and the population of the small community grew. During the town's heyday, eight sawmills operated along the White River. Fishing, boat-building and mussel harvesting were also vital to Des Arc's economy. Mussels provided not only food, but shells for making buttons, which was a major industry in the region during the late 1800s.
During the Civil War, Union Brig. Gen. Willis A. Gorman's cavalry took the town on January 18, 1863, during a Union expedition up the White River from Helena, a part of the Vicksburg Campaign. Along with the town, he captured 70 Confederate troops, weapons, a quantity of corn, and artillery ammunition. The overall effects of the war caused many Des Arc businesses that were not destroyed to close. By war's end, the town was home to only 400 people.
Des Arc is located along the historic Butterfield Overland Mail Route from Memphis to Fort Smith, a mail route established in 1858 by a former stagecoach driver from New York. The route, along with other historically significant passages, is now part of the Arkansas Heritage Trails System. After the war, the effects of new railroads on Des Arc were mixed. The White River's importance as a transportation route diminished as many goods that had once been shipped by boat were transferred to trains. But, the area's timber industry fared well as the demand for cross ties increased. The river remained popular for fishing, and several commercial operations -- that harvested buffalo, catfish, carp and drum -- flourished.
Today, one sawmill operates in Des Arc, and both commercial and recreational fishing continues on the river while barges move grain down the still-vital channel.
Since the founding of Des Arc, farming has remained a staple in the area's economy. Rice, soybeans, cotton and winter wheat are still major crops grown by farmers around Des Arc, which is home to about 2,000 people.
The importance of the White River in the formation of the town is preserved by the Lower White River State Park Museum. Area history is also found in the Prairie County Log Cabin Museum located next door to the state park. The museum is not the only way in which the community remembers its past. During the first week in June, Des Arc holds an annual Steamboat Days Festival.
In addition to the White River, Lake Des Arc, a 320-acre public Arkansas Game & Fish Commission lake with primitive campsites, electrical hookups; hunting, fishing, bird watching is located five miles north of Des Arc on Ark. 11. Des Arc is located approximately 60 miles east of Little Rock in Prairie County.