Early History of the Region
Humans first entered the Arkansas Delta more than 9,000 years ago. Initially, the impacts these first inhabitants made on the valley’s landscape was limited to the manufacture of stone artifacts and the hunting and gathering of the abundant wildlife and plants. As the population increased over time, these alterations came to include the construction of more elaborate dwellings as well as earthen mounds used for ceremonial and religious activities, and other population centers. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans the human impact on the landscape intensified greatly. At first this took the form of the establishment of trading and governmental centers such as Arkansas Post and the creation of small, individual farmsteads.
Descriptions of the early French inhabitants of the region are generally unflattering; painting these hunters, trappers, and traders as lawless and dangerous. The depiction of the early American residents continued this theme. The greatest impact these new residents had upon the landscape was the introduction of the idea of land ownership. The initial explorers were acting on behalf of established European governments to claim ownership of this vast region along with the exclusive rights to control the lucrative fur trading system. French ownership patterns tended to allot private lands in blocks which extended back from river banks. The Spanish granted much more extensive parcels of land and many of the current property titles can be traced back to these early grants. The Villemont family, direct descendants from Don Carols de Villemont, commandant of Arkansas Post in 1790 unsuccessfully defended a claim for a prime area around Point Chicot in Chicot County as being originally part of a Spanish Land Grant.
After the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Purchase by the United States government in 1803, a new system of land ownership was imposed on the region. This was the public land survey system developed by Thomas Jefferson whereby parcels of land could be designated by a system of Sections, Townships, and Ranges whose locations were permanently established through surveys. This is the system which was in place when Joel Johnson first came to the Arkansas Delta in 1831 and much of the land he acquired, he purchased directly from the United States Government and these purchases were recorded in the General Land Office records. With this system in place an increasing number of farms and settlements began to appear along the river.
This increased settlement was matched by the development of a much more sophisticated political system. Initially, what was to become the State of Arkansas was contained entirely within the political unit called the Louisiana Territory. When Louisiana became a State, this area was incorporated for a time into the Missouri Territory with this portion of the delta being made a part of what was called Arkansas County. In 1819, the United States Government created the Arkansas Territory, with its associated governmental institutions, and in 1836, Arkansas was granted statehood.
For the next several decades the area grew and the impacts on the landscape became more extensive. In the delta, land ownership and agricultural development was controlled by a relatively few individuals and families; many of whom set out to create plantations modeled on those elsewhere in the southeastern United States. Large tracts of land were cleared and put into agricultural production by the use of slave labor. The immense stands of vegetation including huge cypress trees and vast stands of cane were cleared and burned. Forest trails were widened to accommodate oxen and horse-drawn vehicles and, more importantly, steamboat landings suitable for the transfer of goods and travelers were established up and down the river.
As the available “high ground” was taken for agricultural development by individual farms, larger scale developments designed to minimize the river’s impact on the landscape were undertaken. The most monumental of these efforts was the creation of man-made levees designed to restrict the river’s often devastating floods. Levee districts were formed and public monies, in the form of taxes, were collected to build and maintain these elements of the infra-structure. In addition to the extensive networks of levees, drainage networks were constructed so that the effects of run-offs and overflows could be minimized.