Marianna is located in the state's Delta Region, approximately 100 miles east of Little Rock and 50 miles southwest of West Memphis. Originally established as a trading post along the L'Anguille River, Marianna (named after the daughter of John Harland who sold the land that originally established the town) was incorporated in 1870. Marianna serves as the county seat of Lee County, which was incorporated in 1873.

During the first few decades of its existence, Marianna was a thriving river town. Residents would load their wares – including hides, timber and agricultural crops – and send them via steamer to Memphis. As railroads became more accessible and reliable means of transportation, traffic on the L'Anguille and St. Francis Rivers declined. Agriculture and timber soon became the major economic forces in Marianna. Surrounded by fertile farmland and hardwood forests, the city continued to grow throughout the beginning of the 20th Century.

On August 13, 1918, fire ravaged downtown Marianna, completely destroying 14 businesses and causing over $1 million in damage. Marianna's downtown is a National Historic District and the city boasts eight listings on the National Register of Historic Places. Located along the Great River Road and Crowley's Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byways, Marianna is home to the northern portion of the St. Francis National Forest. At just over 22,000 acres, the St. Francis is one of the smallest National Forests but offers a cornucopia of outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, hiking and boating. Bear Creek Lake is noted for its abundance of largemouth bass and blue and channel catfish.

The town is also located along Davidson's Approach, a movement of U.S. General John Wynn Davidson's troops during the 1863 Little Rock Campaign. Davidson's Approach began in St. Francis in northeast Arkansas and headed south through Marianna and then west to Clarendon, where the troops would meet with General Frederick Steele's forces. Davidson's Approach, along with other historic Civil War routes and significant movements as the Trail of Tears, are now part of the Arkansas Heritage Trails System.