History of Little Rock

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The explorer Hernando de Soto first crossed the Mississippi into what is now Arkansas in 1541. Since the fabled gold he was looking for was not found, the Spanish soon lost interest in the area. The French explorer Bernard de la Harpe called attention to the area in 1722 with reference to the rock formations he called La Petite Roche and La Grande Roche on the banks of the Arkansas River. The area of the 'little rock' turned out to be a convenient area for crossing the Arkansas River, near a Quapaw Indian settlement. La Harpe built his trading post at this point on the river. The 'big rock,' a little further upstream, later became the site of an Army post. The 'little rock' can be seen today downtown in Riverfront Park. A trapper named William Lewis built his home at the Little Rock post in 1812. When Arkansas became a territory in 1819, the capital was at Arkansas Post, a site downriver. Two years later, it was moved to the bustling area of Little Rock. Little Rock was incorporated as a city in 1831 and became the state capital when Arkansas was admitted into the union in 1836.

The territorial history of the city and the state is interpreted at the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, where living history portrayals and displays depict the period. This complex of buildings includes the territorial capital building, where the government met before Arkansas was made a state. Arkansas is unique in being the only state capital with three capital buildings still standing. The second is now known as the Old State House Museum, where the state's first governor was sworn into office in 1836. This was the seat of government until 1911. The present capital building was only partially completed when the general assembly started sessions there in 1911, and was completed in 1916.

Civil Woes

Little Rock was the center of a tug-of-war between the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. The Federal arsenal in Little Rock was seized by anti-Union forces in February 1861. In May of that year, Arkansas seceded from the Union. The Confederate state government moved to Washington, Arkansas in 1863, after Little Rock was taken over by the Union. During the time the Confederates were in Washington, AR, the Union had its own state government functioning in Little Rock under Isaac Murphy. It was truly a divided state. More than 10,000 federal loyalists fought in the northern part of the state against the Confederate army.

Rebuilding the Economy

Arkansas was readmitted to the Union in 1868 only after the Murphy government was replaced by a totally new Northern Republican government. In 1874, a month-long struggle known as the Brooks-Baxter War erupted over a gubernatorial election, which ended only when President Grant ruled that Elisha Baxter was indeed the rightful governor. After this debacle, the Democrat Augustus H. Garland won the next election. However, after many years of this rule, which favored businesses, the agricultural interests were suffering. Jeff Davis was elected Governor in 1900 on the promise of redressing the wrongs done to the agricultural community. This became known as the Agrarian Revolt.

By the 1880s, Little Rock was the center of a sinewy network of railroad lines. Even today, Little Rock is the chief market for the state, especially in terms of agriculture, lumber and bauxite. An increasing tourism trade is blossoming across the state. As the state's largest metropolitan area, Little Rock is touting its historical and cultural attractions to great benefit.

In 1969, the economy of the city of Little Rock received a great boost when a series of locks and dams were opened on the Arkansas River, effectively making the city a river port.

Central High School

What many consider one of the defining scenes of the civil rights movement played out in Little Rock. In 1957, nine black students attempted to attend Little Rock Central High School, under a 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation. Troops were called out by the governor to prevent them from attending. President Eisenhower stepped in to prevent the state from interfering, and federal troops replaced the state troops. This is now commemorated at the Central High Museum and Visitor's Center, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Presidential Ties

Of course, Little Rock moved to center stage with the election of William Jefferson Clinton as President of the United States. The former governor was a lifelong resident of Arkansas, and two-term governor. The Clinton Presidential Library will soon be added to the cultural jewels of the town on the river, 'La Petite Roche.'