The Arkansas River cuts a diagonal path across Arkansas flowing southeast to join the Mississippi River at the state’s southeast corner. The river and its valley give this region its name. Hemmed in by the Ozark Mountains on the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the south, the region has aspects of both the Ozarks and the Ouachitas, with plateaus, ridges, and pine and hardwood forests. Mount Magazine, the state’s highest point at 2,753 feet, is in this region, as are Mounts Nebo and Petit Jean. This last has the largest number of prehistoric American Indian rock paintings in Arkansas. The Arkansas River and its rich alluvial flatlands were a natural invitation to explorers and homesteaders. Consequently, some of the state’s earliest communities are in this region. Early settlers followed Indian trails, and explorers and homesteaders from the south generally came by flatboats on the Arkansas River, even though that route was upstream. As early as 1817, the U.S. government felt the need for defensive forts located strategically along westward routes to protect the increasing number of explorers, hunters, and homesteading farmers against Native American attacks. In 1817, Fort Smith was established for that purpose at the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers.
Little Rock was settled in 1814, made the seat of the territorial government in 1821, and designated the state capital in 1836 when Arkansas was admitted to the Union. Steamboats had reached Little Rock and Fort Smith in 1822; within a couple of decades they were busy transporting settlers, freight, and merchandise, and the river road between Little Rock and the Arkansas border with Oklahoma was lined with villages, shops, and taverns. From 1858, Fort Smith prospered as a jumping-off point for forty-niners heading to the gold fields of California. The southeastern edge of the region developed with cotton plantations.
The Civil War caused relatively little destruction in the River Valley, and Little Rock came under Union control in 1863 until the war’s conclusion. Perhaps the war’s biggest impact was the migration of African Americans from plantations along the river and from farther east in Arkansas’s Delta seeking job opportunities in the cities. The region’s economy benefited after 1871, with completion of the rail line from Fort Smith to Memphis via Little Rock. This faster means of transportation encouraged the development of more perishable crops and fruit orchards. Today, the region has a mixed economy, and Little Rock, with a population of just under 200,000, is by far the state’s largest city and in the twenty-first century has flourished with cultural and scenic attractions. Not only has the city taken care to preserve and rehabilitate its historic buildings, but it also has added many exciting new ones.
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