The Delta region is composed of the counties that run from Arkansas’s northeastern border with Missouri south to Louisiana. It is bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and, across the river, by the states of Tennessee and Mississippi. Together these Delta counties make up approximately one-third of Arkansas. Besides the Mississippi, numerous rivers and streams water this region, all helping to form its fertile soil. The White River more or less parallels the Mississippi, joining it at Desha County in the southeast, and the Arkansas River connects with the Mississippi just south of the White. The region is also notable for its many oxbow lakes formed when the rivers and streams changed course.
Most of this region is low-lying and relatively flat except for Crowley’s Ridge, a crescent-shaped ridge of land running north–south and varying in width from less than a mile to twenty-five miles. The ridge reaches two hundred feet, and east and west of it are level lands where today fertile soils yield extensive crops of cotton, rice, soybeans, and corn. Crowley’s Ridge (named after a c. 1820 settler, Benjamin F. Crowley) is considered a separate geographic region in Arkansas, but because it slices through the center of eight Delta counties, it is incorporated in this chapter so that each county’s architecture can be understood in its totality.
The Delta has a long history of Native American occupation evidenced by the many mounds built here, although farming has leveled most of the sites. The Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park (LN4) contains Arkansas’s highest surviving mounds.
Before the railroads, waterways provided the Delta with transportation, aiding the early development of the timber and cotton industries. Slavery formed the workforce for the cotton plantations, and before the Civil War, Chicot County in the southeast had the most cotton plantations and the largest number of enslaved persons in the state. After the war many African Americans moved from the plantations to urban centers.
In 1897 W. H. Fuller planted the first rice crop in Arkansas in Lonoke County. The flat land with its abundance of water and impervious clay soil made rice an ideal crop for the central western portions of the Delta. By the early twentieth century, rice had become a major cash crop.
While river floods had created the fertile alluvial plain and the impetus for much of the Delta’s economy, the rivers also posed dangers. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inundated thirty-six of Arkansas’s seventy-five counties, devastating communities and farms, especially in this region. Recovery had barely begun when the Great Depression struck. Further, with increasing mechanization and other farming options that do not require a large workforce, fewer people were employed. The Delta’s population has declined over the years. In the second half of the twentieth century, improved flood control measures reduced the danger of flooding. The population of many river towns has shrunk, although intermodal (river, rail, and highway) transportation systems have revived some towns, notably in Helena–West Helena and Marion. Moreover, an increased interest in cultural tourism and the distinctive history and culture of the Delta has seen historic buildings renovated and interpreted, and others have taken on new purposes, rehabilitated for civic use or as local museums. And the region’s natural resources—for example, the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge and St. Francis National Forest and its many lakes—offer numerous ways to understand the region’s geography.
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