Marked Tree is a small town in Poinsett County in the northeastern part of Arkansas, midway between Jonesboro and West Memphis and sandwiched between the St. Francis River and Little River. The town was named for a blazed oak marked with a foot-high “M” that used to be on the bank of the Little River. Two stories have been handed down about who marked the tree. One is that the John Murrell Gang, a band of outlaws that terrorized parts of Tennessee and Arkansas during the first part of the nineteenth century, burned the mark into the tree to signal the quickest overland cutoff to the St. Francis. The other is that it was done by Native Americans who hunted in the area for many generations. The town’s namesake apparently fell into the river during an 1890 flood, but a tree found in the river in 1971 is believed to be the same tree.
Regardless, the rivers have always been a part of the lore and the heritage of the town. In some places, the rivers are less than a quarter of a mile apart, yet they flow in opposite directions. Marked Tree did not begin to develop until the Frisco Railroad was built between 1881 and 1883, bringing workers to the area to haul out the enormous stands of timber for factories in the north. Once timber was cleared, the rich land nourished by the rivers was converted to agricultural production. In 1887, Ernest Ritter began a movement to incorporate Marked Tree as a town, and ten years later the petition was granted. A few years later, Ritter Jr. founded E. Ritter & Company, which has remained the town’s primary employer, with the Ritter family still providing leadership in the town.
Marked Tree is part of the St. Francis Sunken Lands, created when the 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes dropped vast tracts of land as much as 50 feet into the earth. The Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area, which can be accessed at Marked Tree, is a popular place for fishing and hunting waterfowl. An engineering marvel was accomplished in 1939 when huge siphons were developed to control flooding in the Sunken Lands area by lifting excess water from the St. Francis River over a levee and depositing it in the channel on the other side to continue downstream. The historic Marked Tree Lock and Siphons were a major part of the St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project after the 1927 Flood and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They remain a fascination for visitors. Marked Tree is on the Sunken Lands Loop of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.