The first European to reach Arkansas was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, a veteran of Pizarro's conquest of Peru who died near Lake Village on the Mississippi River in 1542 after almost a year traversing the southern part of the state in search of gold and a passage to China. Arkansas is one of several US states formed from the territory purchased from Napoleon Bonaparte in the Louisiana Purchase. The early Spanish or French explorers of the state gave it its name, which is probably a phonetic spelling of the Illinois tribe's name for the Quapaw people, who lived downriver from them. Other Native American tribes who lived in Arkansas before moving west were the Quapaw, Caddo, and Osage nations. In their forced move westward (under U.S. Indian removal policies), the Five Civilized Tribes inhabited Arkansas during its territorial period.
The Territory of Arkansas was organized on July 4, 1819. On June 15, 1836, the state of Arkansas was admitted to the Union as the 25th state and the 13th slave state. Planters settled in the Delta to cultivate cotton; this was the area of the state where most enslaved African Americans were held. Other areas had more subsistence farmers and mixed farming.
Arkansas played a key role in aiding Texas in its war for independence from Mexico; it sent troops and materials to Texas to help fight the war. The proximity of the city of Washington to the Texas border involved the town in the Texas Revolution of 1835–36. Some evidence suggests Sam Houston and his compatriots planned the revolt in a tavern at Washington in 1834. When the fighting began, a stream of volunteers from Arkansas and the southeastern states flowed through the town toward the Texas battle fields.
When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Washington became a rendezvous for volunteer troops. Governor Thomas S. Drew issued a proclamation calling on the state to furnish one regiment of cavalry and one battalion of infantry to join the United States Army. Ten companies of men assembled here, where they were formed into the first Regiment of Arkansas Cavalry.
The state developed a cotton culture in the east in lands of the Mississippi Delta. This was where enslaved labor was used most extensively, as planters brought with them or imported slaves from the Upper South. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, enslaved African Americans numbered 111,115 people, just over 25% of the state's population.
Arkansas did not secede in early 1861, when the gulf states did, and only joined the Confederate States of America after United States President Abraham Lincoln demanded they provide Union troops to help conquer following the Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Arkansas proclaimed its secession from the Union on May 6, 1861. While overshadowed by the larger engagements in the east, Arkansas was the scene of many skirmishes and small battles during the American Civil War. Arkansans of note of that time include Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne. Considered by many to be one of the most brilliant of the Confederate division commanders, Cleburne was often called "The Stonewall of the West." Major General Thomas C. Hindman, a former Congressman, led the Confederate forces at the Battle of Cane Hill and Battle of Prairie Grove, both in northwestern Arkansas.
Under the Military Reconstruction Act, Congress declared Arkansas restored to the Union in June 1868. The Republican controlled reconstruction legislature established universal male suffrage (though disenfranchising all former Confederates, who were mostly Democrats), a public education system, and passed general issues to improve the state and help more of the population. The state soon came under almost exclusive control of the Radical Republicans, (those who moved in from the North being derided as "carpetbaggers" based on allegations of corruption), and led by Governor Powell Clayton they presided over a time of great upheaval and racial violence in the state between Republican state militia and the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1874, the Brooks-Baxter War, a political struggle between factions of the Republican Party shook Little Rock and the state governorship. It was settled only when President Ulysses S. Grant ordered Joseph Brooks to disperse his militant supporters.
Following the Brooks-Baxter War, a new state constitution was ratified re-enfranchising former Confederates.
In 1881, the Arkansas state legislature enacted a bill that adopted an official pronunciation of the state's name, to combat a controversy then simmering. (See Law and Government below.)
After Reconstruction, the state began to receive more immigrants and migrants. Chinese, Italian, and Syrian men were recruited for farm labor in the developing Delta region. None of these nationalities stayed long at farm labor; the Chinese especially quickly became small merchants in towns around the Delta. Some early 20th century immigration included people from eastern Europe. Together, these immigrants made the Delta more diverse than the rest of the state. In the same years, some black migrants moved into the area because of opportunities to develop the bottomlands and own their own property. Many Chinese became such successful merchants in small towns that they were able to educate their children at college.
Construction of railroads enabled more farmers to get their products to market. It also brought new development into different parts of the state, including the Ozarks, where some areas were developed as resorts. In a few years at the end of the 19th century, for instance, Eureka Springs in Carroll County grew to 10,000 people, rapidly becoming a tourist destination and the fourth largest city of the state. It featured newly constructed, elegant resort hotels and spas planned around its natural springs, considered to have healthful properties. The town's attractions included horse racing and other entertainment. It appealed to a wide variety of classes, becoming almost as popular as Hot Springs.
In the late 1880s, the worsening agricultural depression catalyzed Populist and third party movements, leading to interracial coalitions. Struggling to stay in power, in the 1890s the Democrats in Arkansas followed other Southern states in passing legislation and constitutional amendments that disfranchised blacks and poor whites. Democrats wanted to prevent their alliance. In 1891 state legislators passed a requirement for a literacy test, knowing that many blacks and whites would be excluded, at a time when more than 25% of the population could neither read nor write. In 1892 they amended the state constitution to include a poll tax and more complex residency requirements, both of which adversely affected poor people and sharecroppers, and forced them from electoral rolls.
By 1900 the Democratic Party expanded use of the white primary in county and state elections, further denying blacks a part in the political process. Only in the primary was there any competition among candidates, as Democrats held all the power. The state was a Democratic one-party state for decades, until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.
Between 1905 and 1911, Arkansas began to receive a small migration of German, Slovak, and Irish immigrants. The German and Slovak peoples settled in the eastern part of the state known as the Prairie, and the Irish founded small communities in the southeast part of the state. The Germans were mostly Lutheran and the Slovaks were primarily Catholic. The Irish were mostly Protestant from Ulster.
After the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the Little Rock Nine brought Arkansas to national attention when the Federal government intervened to protect African-American students trying to integrate a high school in the Arkansas capital. Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to aid segregationists in preventing nine African-American students from enrolling at Little Rock's Central High School. After attempting three times to contact Faubus, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1000 troops from the active-duty 101st Airborne Division to escort and protect the African-American students as they entered school on September 25, 1957. In defiance of federal court orders to integrate, the governor and city of Little Rock decided to close the high schools for the remainder of the school year. By the fall of 1959, the Little Rock high schools were completely integrated.
Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was born in Hope, Arkansas. Before his presidency, Clinton served as the 40th and 42nd Governor of Arkansas, a total of nearly 12 years.
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