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.