The State Capitals

The State Capitals: Arkansas

The State Capitals: Arkansas

Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas. It has a long history of human habitation, as well as a rich and varied history of European exploration and settlement. Here is the story of how Little Rock became a town, then a city, and then the state capital of Arkansas.

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Little Rock is the state capital of Arkansas, and also the most populous city in that state. In addition, it is the county seat of Pulaski County. It was incorporated as a town in 1831 but had a history with humans long before that. Much like the rest of the mid-North American continent, Arkansas has archaeological evidence of habitation by Native Americans going back thousands of years or more.

Some of the earliest known Native Americans to live in the Arkansas area were the Folsom people, the Bluff Dwellers, and the Mississippians. The Mississippians are a particularly well-known ancient Native American culture, because of the large earthwork mounds they built that can be found all over the central part of the continent, including in Arkansas. In fact, Spanish explorer Fernando de Soto, who is the first known European to explore the area where Arkansas is now located, reported seeing these mounds in 1541. Later tribes who lived in the Arkansas and Little Rock areas were the Quapaw, Osage, Choctaw, Caddo, and Cherokee.

The portrait of Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe

The portrait of Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe (Wikimedia)

Little Rock’s name comes from Le Petite Roche, which means “the little rock” in French. It was given this name by the French explorer and trader Jean Baptiste Bernard de la Harpe in 1722. The name refers to the nature of the area as being transitional between the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the rolling landscape of the Ouachita Mountain foothills. The name Little Rock gained popularity and was used by many travelers. In this area was a formation of small rocks located on the Arkansas River’s south bank that early river explorers and travelers used to navigate. That is how de la Harpe decided on the name of the place.

While a motion was made in the 1820s to officially name the town Arkopolis (and that name did appear on a few early US maps), Little Rock had been used for so long that it is what people preferred to call the town, and that is what it officially became.

While the area had a few centuries of European exploration and trading with the Native American tribes there, the first European settler did not arrive until 1812, when William Lewis, a fur trapper, built a house there. Others soon followed him when his settlement proved successful. By 1819, Little Rock was a minor wilderness town with a few permanent residents. By 1821, Little Rock had become the territorial capital, based on its location in the geographical center of the Arkansas territory and proximity to the Arkansas River. The previous territorial capital had been Arkansas Post.

Little Rock continued to be the capital when Arkansas was admitted to the union as a state in 1836. A decade after that, the town was officially incorporated as a city. The city was captured by the Union Army in 1863 during the Civil War and remained in Union hands until the end of the war. A state courthouse and post office were built there in 1881 and stood serving those purposes until 1932.

During the Union military occupation of Little Rock during the Civil War, Union soldiers built a new military cemetery there. The purpose was to have a central location to place the remains of Union soldiers that had previously been buried in a variety of random locations across Arkansas. The new cemetery was called Little Rock National Cemetery. It was built across the street from what would become the Mount Holly Cemetery, which was established in 1884 as a place to put the remains of Confederate soldiers. Confederate soldiers who had previously been buried at the Little Rock National Cemetery were moved across the street to Mount Holly. In 1938, the two cemeteries merged into one, and the Mount Holly section simply became the Confederate section of the Little Rock National Cemetery.

Little Rock National Cemetery

Little Rock National Cemetery (Wikipedia)

Another brief war occupied the citizens of Little Rock in 1874 when a fight between two different factions of the Republican Party took place there. It was known as the Brooks-Baxter War and lasted a month until US President Ulysses S. Grant named Elisha Baxter as the rightful governor of the state.

Little Rock continued to thrive as a town and had an economic boom when the railroad came there in the 1880s. The city became the center of a network of rail lines, and more people began to move there, as more industries set up shop there. The economy had another welcome boom in 1969 when a series of locks and dams were built on the Arkansas River, which helped tame it for better river transport and commerce.

Little Rock became the center of national attention in 1957 when Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state National Guard to prevent the completion of a court order to desegregate Central High School. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually had to declare the state National Guard was under federal control and ordered the troops to enforce the desegregation order. Today, a museum is on the site of Central High School, along with a visitor’s center, and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Little Rock came to national prominence once again in 1992 when then-Governor Bill Clinton was nominated by the Democratic party for US president and won the election, becoming the first US President from Arkansas.

Today, Arkansas’s original capitol building, which is no longer in use for that purpose, is the oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. It was built in 1833 and served as the capitol building of the state until 1911. The city is also home to one of the oldest African-American churches in the state, the First Missionary Baptist Church.

Little Rock has a lot of history attached to it, and a plethora of things that have made it stand out as a settlement and city over the centuries. Today, it serves the state of Arkansas as well as a fine example of a strong, thriving, and popular state capital city.



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.