Overview by Tom DeBlack
In 1831, forty-year-old Joel Johnson, the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family, sold his house and grist mill in Scott County, Kentucky, and, leaving behind a wife and five children, set off for Chicot County in the southeasternmost part of the Arkansas territory. The southern expanse of the Arkansas delta that Johnson entered in 1831 was a foreboding frontier wilderness. Bordered by Louisiana on the south and by the Mississippi River on the east, the county’s name may have originated with French riverboatmen of an earlier era who referred to the snags that threatened their boats as “chicots,” the teeth of the river. The Mississippi played a crucial role in the life of Chicot County. Like the Indians who came before them, the earliest white residents of the county settled along its banks and became familiar with its geography and unpredictable nature. They gave it names which reflected their mixed feelings toward it–Old Man River, Old Devil River, Old Big Strong.
The Early Years
The land which bordered the river was described by an early resident as “showing to perfection nature’s grand handiwork, replete with towering forest trees of every wood valuable in commerce.” Nourished by the Mississippi and other streams, the incredibly fertile soil would make the delta one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
But, as historian Willard Gatewood has pointed out, “The same rivers and bottomlands that nourished the Delta’s economy also jeopardized public health. Mosquito-borne malaria was a constant threat to inhabitants; contaminated water spread cholera and dysentery; and the damp climate contributed to a host of respiratory ailments that were a principal cause of death.” Floods menaced those living along the river. Natural levees formed along the river’s channel, but they often proved insufficient to hold back the raging water. When the river flooded, the water raced over these barriers and was trapped on the backside of the levee. The result was a backswamp, a permanent or semipermanent body of water that was home to cypress and tupelo trees.
Early travelers to the region noted the strong sense of foreboding that these swamps exuded. “No prospect on earth can be more gloomy,” wrote Timothy Flint, an early nineteenth-century missionary. “[A] cypress swamp, with its countless interlaced branches, of a hoary grey, has an aspect of desolation and death.” The sense of foreboding was more than just visual. Flint observed, “The musquitoes [sic] swarm above the water in countless millions. A very frequent adjunct to this horrible scenery is the moccason [sic] snake with his huge scaly body lying in folds upon the side of a cypress knee; and if you approach too near, lazy and reckless as he is, he throws the upper jaw of his huge mouth almost back to his neck, giving you ample warning of his ability and will to defend himself.”
Travel through the swamp was a daunting task. “I travelled forty miles along this river swamp, and a considerable part of the way in the edge of it, in which the horse sunk at every step half up to his knees,” the missionary noted. “Nothing interupted [sic] the death-like silence, but the hum of mosquitoes.”
Beyond the swamps, prospects for travel improved only slightly. An early resident of Chicot County described the surrounding land as “a dense forest of huge trees, oaks, gum, cotton-wood, hickory, pecan, elm, cypress, pine, and other varieties of forest growth. This wilderness was [made] almost impenetrable by large dense canebrakes, a variety of luxuriant vines, wild grape, muscadine, and other nonbearing fruit vines. . . . It took a stout heart [and] much bravery to enter and establish a claim in this dense, wooded wilderness.” Trails through the wilderness were forged by chipping barks from trees, forming “bridle paths” that made travel by horse possible. But, this resident noted, “Between settlements vast swamps, [and] streams without bridges prevented frequent intercourse or business of the people.”
The paradox in the nature of the land was reflected in the people of the region. “In this solitude,” an early resident noted, “were found very worthy cultivated people, as well as some very bad characters.” An early Arkansas political figure (who lived to regret the remark) observed that “every man left his honesty and every woman her chastity on the other side of the Mississippi River, on moving to Arkansas.” The territory quickly developed a reputation for violence and lawlessness. Missionaries who traversed the region in the early 19th century were appalled at the conditions they found. A Congregational minister noted, “It is painful to witness the deplorable state of morals in this place. The Sabbath is awfully profaned; idleness, drinking, swearing, and gambling almost universally prevail.”
The early white settlers of the region exploited what the historian Walter Prescott Webb called the “primary windfalls,” the wild game, fur-bearing animals, and fish that abounded in the area. But the second generation of white settlers, of which Joel Johnson was a part, was concerned with the “secondary windfalls,” the abundant timber and the incredibly fertile land. Their arrival would dramatically alter the natural and social landscape of the delta.
The Planter Class
Many of those who came to the trans-Mississippi frontier envisioned establishing plantations like those in the more settled southeastern states. In the Arkansas delta in 1830, however, this dream of a sprawling plantation served by large numbers of black slaves was difficult to realize. Before the fertile land could produce a crop, it had to be “cleared” of trees and underbrush. Even after the clearing was accomplished, it took years of additional “grubbing” away bushes, clearing stumps, and leveling to make a field smooth.
The first generation of planters was often able to clear only enough land to raise a small crop. The more land that could be cleared, the larger the crop that could be planted, and the greater the potential profits to be made. In the years to come, those profits, and the power and prestige that accompanied them, would be derived from three major sources–ownership of large tracts of rich river land, ownership of black slaves to provide a reliable source of cheap labor, and the production of a cash crop. In this part of the delta, that crop was cotton.
In 1830 Chicot County’s population stood at only 1,165. Of that number, 888 (76.2%) were free whites, 270 (23.2%) were black slaves, and 7 (.6%) were free persons of color. The percentage of slaves was considerably higher than it was in the state as a whole, but significantly lower than in the nearby slave states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Slaveowners were only a small minority of the county’s population, and those who did own slaves owned only a few. Census records indicate that only two men in the county owned twenty slaves, the generally accepted minimum number to be considered a “planter.” When Joel Johnson arrived in the county in 1831, his twenty-three slaves made him the largest slaveowner in the county.
Johnson purchased a tract of land southeast of Old River Lake (present-day Lake Chicot) just above a large oxbow curve in the river called American Bend. The plantation he developed there was named Lakeport after a nearby steamboat landing.
For the next fifteen years Johnson expanded his holdings in land and slaves and brought more land under cultivation. The soil produced abundantly, and slave-based plantation agriculture became firmly entrenched in Chicot County. An 1839 map of the region showed approximately fifty plantations along the river and the area around Old River Lake. The census figures for 1840 revealed that the county’s population had risen to 3,806, but whites, who had comprised 76.2% of the population in 1830, now accounted for only 29% (1,105), while black slaves, who made up only 23.2% of the county’s population in 1830, now accounted for 70.9% (2,698) of the total.
By the time of his death in June 1846, Joel Johnson owned over 3,700 acres of rich delta land and ninety-five slaves. His estate was divided among his six surviving children, with his eldest son, Lycurgus Leonidas Johnson, receiving the largest share. Lycurgus was twenty-eight years old when his father died. Born in 1818 in Scott County, Kentucky, he joined his father in the Arkansas delta in the mid-1830s and acquired land just south of his father’s Lakeport holdings. In January 1842, Lycurgus married Lydia Taylor. The union produced twelve children, four of whom died before reaching age three.
To the casual observer, Chicot County at the time of Joel Johnson’s death might have seemed little different from the wilderness frontier he had found there fifteen years before. Crude roads had begun to replace the “bridle paths” that linked the county’s settlements, and, as early as 1835, a contract had been let to clear a road all the way to the state capital in Little Rock.
But dense forests and thick undergrowth still covered much of the county, making travel difficult. An early resident recalled that, as late as 1847, it was common to see men and women traveling by horseback through the forests, the young ladies riding side saddle, accompanied by an attendant, and carrying their wardrobes in a “carpet-bag” suspended from the saddle’s right horn. When it rained overland travel became virtually impossible. After one downpour in February 1849, a resident noted in his journal, “[T]his afternoon I have been to town with Richard[.] [W]e had to ride as much as a mile in water from six inches to four feet deep.”
The county seat, Columbia, was still a crude village. “It has some four or five stores[,] a tavern or two and some thirty or forty houses,” a citizen of the county wrote in December 1848. “It has no Church and no Court house if we except an old dilapidated building which is used for one.” Malaria and cholera were still common, especially in the “fever season” of summer and early fall. Steamboats remained the county’s principal link to the outside world.
Yet, in spite of poor roads, disease, and other discomforts, the growing demand for cotton meant growing prosperity for Lycurgus Johnson and other Chicot County planters. While a legal challenge kept Joel’s estate tied up in litigation for several years, the 1850 census still showed Lycurgus with 2,850 acres and ninety-five slaves. Those holdings and his father’s estate, which Lycurgus administered, combined to produce 7,000 bushels of corn, 742 bales of cotton, and 400 bushels of sweet potatoes, in addition to Irish potatoes, peas, beans, wool, and honey.
That same year Chicot County planters produced 12,192 bales of cotton, almost a fifth of the state total, and the cash value of county farms reached $1,324,607. Still, only 29,886 acres of county land was listed as “improved,” while 103,362 remained “unimproved.” Of Lycurgus Johnson’s 2,850 acres, only 650 were improved.
Slavery also continued to grow in the county. Between 1840 and 1850, the white population of the county increased by a net total of only seven people, while the slave population increased by 1,286. Blacks outnumbered whites in the county by almost four to one, and Chicot surpassed every other county in the state in proportion of slaves to total population. Sixty men now owned twenty or more slaves, and eight owned over a hundred.
The fortunes of Chicot County planters rose and fell with the price of cotton. In the mid-1840s, cotton prices declined and remained low through the mid-1850s. But in 1856, the price rose by over three cents per pound to 12.4 cents, the highest level since 1838. Prices for the years 1856-1860 averaged 11.4 cents per pound. “If cotton will only hold present prices for five years,” one state newspaper proclaimed in May of 1857, “Arkansas planters will be as rich as cream a foot thick.”
For Lycurgus Johnson, that prediction was coming true. Improvements to the levee system lessened the threat of overflows and dramatically increased the value of plantations near the river. In May 1857, a favorable legal settlement enabled Joel’s widow and his children to gain complete control of his estate. Lycurgus was able to add the Lakeport portion of the estate to his holdings. By the end of the decade, he owned over 4,400 acres of land and 155 slaves. This large labor force allowed him to further transform the delta wilderness into a productive cotton-growing operation. In 1858 Johnson began the construction of a large plantation house at Lakeport. The house, built in a modified Greek Revival style, was an imposing two-story, L-shaped structure containing seventeen rooms and measuring sixty-six feet long and forty-four feet wide. Constructed largely of cypress from the surrounding region and situated amidst the surrounding cotton fields, the mansion faced east toward the river. The front of the structure, along the base of the “L,” was graced by a two-story portico with a triangular pediment gable and centered rose windows. Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico.
The house was built on a slight elevation in the terrain, and the first floor was set four feet above the grade as protection against flooding. Entry was gained through eleven-foot-high wood paneled doors flanked by glass sidelights into a large central entry hall measuring over twenty-six feet long and almost sixteen feet wide. An elaborate ceiling rosette, from which a chandelier hung, adorned the fourteen-foot high ceiling, and a decorative painted cloth covered the floor. The hallway was large enough to accommodate parties and dancing.
The Lakeport plantation house was a showplace of the state’s “cotton aristocracy,” and Lycurgus Johnson staffed it accordingly. He purchased several house servants to attend to the family’s personal needs and hired a tutor for his children. In 1860, Lakeport produced 1,300 bales of cotton and 10,000 bushels of corn, and Chicot County tax records placed the total value of Lycurgus Johnson’s taxable property at $204,850.
Johnson’s prosperity reflected that of the county. The number of improved acres had risen from 29,886 in 1850 to 66,423 in 1860. The yield of corn was 329,941 bushels, an increase of over a hundred thousand bushels from a decade earlier. Cotton production had more than tripled to a total of 40,948 bales, and the total cash value of farms had risen to $4,399,554. A northern visitor described Chicot County in the late antebellum period as “the richest, fairest and most productive county in the state” with plantations “like a continuous garden all under cultivation, raising a bale of cotton to the acre.” He concluded that the region was “the most beautiful spot for a home I have ever seen in any country, and as rich as beautiful.” But lying at the very core of this prosperity, at the heart of the planters’ wealth and power, were the seeds of its dissolution.
The Civil War
Black slavery, which formed the foundation upon which the region’s economic and social systems were built, brought on the great war which transformed both forever. The cannon blasts that rocked Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on 12 April 1861 reverberated along the banks of the Mississippi River in Chicot County, and the river that had been the county’s lifeblood now became the highway that brought Federal soldiers to the delta.
In the early stages of the war, Chicot County remained remote from the fighting, and, for many, life went on much as before. Lycurgus Johnson continued to buy land and slaves to add to his Lakeport holdings while serving as a purchasing agent for the Confederate government. But Chicot County’s strategic location and its agricultural abundance soon brought the war to its doorstep. By the end of 1862 Federal gunboats and supply ships were a common sight on the Mississippi River near Lakeport. Both armies foraged in the county and partisan bands roamed the countryside, taking what they needed from area residents. In 1863 or 1864 Union soldiers came to Lakeport and took all the plantation’s mules, horses, and cattle. A brutal guerrilla war ravaged the county. “We are here worse than ‘between the Hawk and Buzzard,'” one county resident remarked in 1864. By the time of the Confederacy’s final surrender in the spring of 1865, the county was thoroughly devastated. Returning soldiers found homes and barns destroyed, livestock gone, and fields overgrown with weeds.
Beyond the physical devastation, the Confederacy’s defeat meant the end of a way of life for residents of Chicot County. The former slaves rejoiced at their newfound freedom, but for many white residents of the county, the legacy of the war was bitterness and despair. For both black and white, the end of the war brought a lingering sense of uncertainty about the future. The old forms and relationships had been destroyed by the war, but exactly what new forms would replace them was unclear.
Wealthy planters like Lycurgus Johnson were severely impacted by the war. Johnson’s loss in slaves alone was well over $100,000, to say nothing of the his losses in crops and livestock. County tax records for 1865 make no mention of the pleasure carriage, the jewelry, or the expensive household furniture that had graced Lakeport before the war.
But while the lives of most planters were radically altered by the war, the planter class as a whole survived the war better than their poorer neighbors. For all of their losses, the planters still controlled the land. Chicot County freedmen were almost devoid of money or property, but they controlled the other major part of the economic equation–labor. To secure that labor, Chicot County planters now had to negotiate contracts. A federal agency, the Freedmen’s Bureau, was given the task of supervising the letting and carrying out of these contracts. In the months following the end of the war, a wide variety of arrangements between planters and laborers emerged. Some planters paid their workers cash wages, others a share of the crop. At Lakeport, Lycurgus Johnson utilized both systems.
Cotton prices were high in 1866, and good weather and a bountiful harvest might have gone a long way toward rescuing the planters from their economic distress. Similarly, with demand for labor great, delta freedmen might have established an economic foothold that would have put them on a path to some degree of economic independence. But it was not to be. All the vicissitudes of nature seemed to conspire against Chicot County planters in 1866 and 1867. Floods, drought, and an infestation of army worms caused crops to fall far short of expectations.
High interest rates, a chronic shortage of cash, and declining cotton prices further compounded the problem. The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent received numerous complaints that planters were defaulting on their contracts. As the economic crisis deepened, racial tensions increased. In December of 1871 the murder of a prominent black man by a local planter in a Lake Village store touched off a race riot. A detachment of the Governor’s Guard and 250 federal troops were dispatched to Chicot County to restore the peace, but the riot further imperiled the county’s fragile economy.
A visitor, traveling through the region at the time of the disturbance, described the county as a “gloomy place” and noted, “Homes are desolated, buildings going to decay, stock all gone, land grown up in weeds, . . . white men afraid for their lives and getting away as fast as possible, every plantation for sale at a fraction of its former worth, a large portion of the cotton crop still in the field wasting in the wind.”
But while many of his neighbors were sinking into economic ruin and despair, Lycurgus Johnson was prospering. Several factors made this possible. A new federal bankruptcy law of 1867 made it possible for Johnson and other large planters to gain some relief from their debts. Johnson was also able to successfully negotiate for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves before the war, and he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer. The local Freedmen’s’ Bureau agent, a man not generally favorably disposed toward the planters, wrote that Johnson “works one hundred hands & does them the fullest justice.” He was, the agent concluded, a “model man of Chicot County.” This reputation and the fact that his plantation was ten miles away from the turmoil in Lake Village enabled Lakeport to avoid the racial strife that plagued much of the county in the postwar years.
By 1870 the presence of an experienced work force familiar with the operations at Lakeport helped Johnson establish himself as the leading planter in the county. A gold watch and a pleasure carriage reappeared on his 1870 tax records, and to these was added a piano. But Lycurgus Johnson ruled over a greatly reduced realm. In 1860 the thirteen hundred bales of cotton produced at Lakeport had ranked him no higher than fifth among county growers. In 1870 his six hundred bales made him the largest cotton producer in Chicot County.
A chronicler of the county in the postwar period referred to Johnson as “a good citizen and able business man,” and “a gentleman of superior education, . . . noted for hospitality, dignity, and social culture.” Aside from a brief stint in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1874, the chronicler observed that Johnson “passed the latter portion of his life surrounded by the peaceful and beautiful charms of rural life, free from the busy din of city life, and where, surrounded by all the comforts that wealth can provide, he lived happily and contently until he reached his fifty-eighth year.”
Lycurgus Johnson died on 1 August 1876, apparently the victim of a severe gastro-intestinal disorder. On the occasion of his death, a newspaper writer noted,
In the death of this good man the county and the state have suffered an irreparable loss. . . . He was a quiet, modest and unobtrusive gentleman; always consulted with marked respect, knowing that his counsels were pure and honest and of the most unselfish character. It will not be an exaggeration to say that a better man never resided in the state. . . . His kindness, hospitality and social virtues will long be remembered. He was a most exemplary father and husband, and as a citizen admired by all who knew him.
Sam Epstein Family
In 1930, Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport plantation to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the delta. Through hard work and skillful investments, Epstein overcame poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a sizable fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens. Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations, and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Today Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, runs the Epstein Land Company, encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission. Neither Sam Epstein nor any of his descendants ever lived in the great plantation house. In the fall of 1950, Alvin Ford and his family moved into the house and took over management of the farming operations at Lakeport. The Fords moved out in 1972, and the house has since been unoccupied.
Lycurgus Johnson’s magnificent plantation house still stands at the center of Lakeport agricultural operations, towering over the surrounding fields. And the plantation that Joel Johnson created still produces cotton, as it has every year for more than 150 years.
Thomas A. DeBlack is a retired Professor of History at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. This article is an excerpt from his 1995 doctoral dissertation at the University of Arkansas. The dissertation is the basis for a forthcoming book.