In the earliest days of its settlement, northwest Arkansas was physically isolated from the rest of the state. The Ozark Mountains, which reach heights of nearly 3,000 feet and define the northern portion of the region, are composed of ridges of timberland and deep valleys of great beauty. The Springfield Plateau, which forms part of the Ozarks and has an elevation of approximately 1,800 feet, has fewer ridges or deep valleys and includes large areas of grassland and tillable soil that proved attractive to immigrants. At the region’s southern edge, the rugged Boston Mountain Range (also known as the Boston Mountains) proved another formidable barrier to early settlers, for they rise to 2,600 feet.
Although travel to the region was difficult and slow, the region’s fertile grasslands were attractive for homesteaders. Occasionally a military road carved out with federal funding helped quicken the economy and spur agricultural production, and steamboats reached communities along the White River by 1831. As settlers moved in, Native Americans were pushed out. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 saw the forcible removal of Native American tribes to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The region’s hardwood forests, interspersed by stands of pine, and the endless supply of sandstone and limestone were the building materials for early settlers. The earliest buildings—single-pen cabins, dogtrots, one- and two-story houses, and churches and stores—were usually constructed of logs. The logs generally were squared, laid horizontally, and chinked with mud. One early log building, moved from its original site, is the Latta House (WA30), which can be seen at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. By the mid-1840s, water-powered sawmills were producing sawn lumber.
Connections beyond the immediate region improved after 1858, when John Butterfield, owner of the Overland Mail Company, organized a regular stagecoach route from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, which included stops at Shiloh (today’s Springdale) and Fayetteville. This ambitious but not very profitable enterprise was brought to an end in 1861 by the outbreak of the Civil War. One of the bloodiest and most decisive Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River took place near the Elkhorn Tavern (BN13). It is now a component of the Pea Ridge National Military Park.
Railroads brought profound changes after the war, affecting all aspects of Ozark Mountain life. In the early 1880s, the arrival of the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway (the Frisco) was key to the economic success of the region. It made possible the marketing of the region’s new agricultural economy, importantly apples, which were shipped to the West and East coasts. Zinc mining also flourished in the late 1870s and in the 1880s. Education has been a major factor in giving northwest Arkansas its special identity. The University of Arkansas (WA26), first known as Arkansas Industrial University, was established in Fayetteville in 1871 and proved a welcome event in the region. By the early twentieth century northwest Arkansas was flourishing and a tourist industry was emerging, notably at Eureka Springs for its mineral springs and pure mountain air.
Early in the Great Depression, John W. Tyson began experimenting with chicken farming, and many small farmers joined his lead, discovering that the gentle hillsides were ideal for poultry houses. After World War II, Tyson Foods became the nation’s largest and most profitable poultry processing and marketing network. Although rail passenger service through northwest Arkansas had ended in 1966, some bulk freight products continued to be transported by rail, but trucks proved quicker and cheaper. The need for food for chickens and the shipment of poultry encouraged truck growth. J. B. Hunt’s van lines made northwest Arkansas a trucking capital of mid-America. Interstate highways across Arkansas aided Hunt’s business and helped merchant Sam Walton leapfrog a small-town traditional “five-and-dime” store into Walmart stores, a global enterprise. The corporate headquarters of Walmart remain in Bentonville, and the company’s impact on the town’s population and economic growth has been great. The university in Fayetteville remains a major presence and employer, and the region’s scenic and cultural attractions entice many tourists in the summer.
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