State Research Guide: Arkansas

State Research Guide: Arkansas

Get back to your Natural State roots with a healthy dose of history.

When it comes to Arkansas, practically everyone has the same question: How did it end up with such a strange name? Why isn’t it pronounced “Ar-KAN-zes”? Or conversely, why isn’t its neighbor to the northwest called “kan-SAW”?

Back in the 1600s, when the French were exploring what would become Arkansas, they encountered the Quapaw Indians. Other tribes knew the Quapaw by a term meaning “south wind,” which to the French sounded something like the modern-day pronunciation of Arkansas. For the next 200 or so years, the state’s name was pronounced and spelled different ways. In fact, during the early days of statehood, even Arkansas’ two US senators disagreed about the pronunciation: One preferred “AR-kan-SAW and the other “Ar-KAN-zes.” Finally, in 1881, Arkansas’ General Assembly standardized die moniker declaring it should be spelled Arkansas but pronounced “AR-kan-SAW,” an Anglicized version of the original French pronunciation. Meanwhile, Kansas chose to adopt an English pronunciation based on the spelling of its name, which has similar roots.

So Arkansas reflects the state’s American Indian and French heritage. Now that we’ve cleared that up, you can get on with your research. Let us show the way.

Getting settled

Of course, Arkansas’ first inhabitants were American Indians. When the Spanish and French started exploring the region in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily Quapaw, Osage and Caddo Indians lived there. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Shawnee and Delaware didn’t arrive until after 1790.

In 1686, Frenchman Henri de Tonti founded Arkansas Post, the state’s first permanent white settlement. France and Spain took turns occupying Arkansas until 1803, when the United States acquired the area through the Louisiana Purchase.

Arkansas remained mostly unsettled until 1818, when the cotton boom drew families of Scottish, Scots-Irish and English descent from Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. These settlers brought black slaves and set up plantations in southern and eastern Arkansas. By 1860, slaves made up a quarter of the state’s population. Most modern-day Arkansans descend from the Anglo-Saxon and black families who migrated from older Southern states before 1900.

As the white settlers rushed into Arkansas, American Indians were forced out. By the time Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836, Congress had withdrawn all land titles from Arkansas’ Indian tribes and pushed them into Oklahoma.

After die Civil War, Arkansas’ fertile farmland attracted many European emigrants. Families from Poland settled in Pulaski County, and Italians went to me northwestern part of the state. Immigrants arriving in New Orleans traveled up the Mississippi River to make their homes in Arkansas. If you don’t find your family’s origins in another Southern state, look at passenger lists of ships that arrived in New Orleans. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> in Washington, DC, and a few of its regional facilities, such as die Soudiwest Region <> in Fort Worth, Texas, have these records on microfilm.

Calling home

Before you begin tracing your roots outside Arkansas, though, you should find out where and when your ancestors lived in the Natural State. You can do so through censuses, vital records and land records. The federal government recorded the state’s citizens every 10 years starting in 1840. An 1830 federal census for Arkansas Territory also exists. You can access microfilmed Arkansas enumerations through 1930 (except 1890, which burned) at large libraries, NARA facilities, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> and its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). They’re also at HeritageQuest Online <> (free through subscribing libraries), <> and < > (subscriptions required).

Statewide registration of births and deaths began in 1914, marriages in 1917 and divorces in 1923. You can request copies of these records from the Arkansas Department of Health (see resources). The agency also has a few birth and death records for Little Rock and Fort Smith dating from 1881. Most vital records predating state registration, however, reside in county courthouses. The FHL has microfilmed copies of county marriage records to about the 1920s, which you can borrow for viewing at FHCs.

Use land records to track your ancestors’ movements. After the United States acquired Arkansas, unclaimed land fell into the public domain and was distributed through land offices, the first of which opened in 1818. The Commissioner of State Lands (109 State Capitol, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-324-9222, <>) has records of those initial transfers, and you can get copies for a nominal fee. Clerks of circuit and county courts recorded all subsequent land transfers, and the FHL has microfilm copies of many county deeds and indexes. To see the FHL’s holdings, go to the Family-Search home page, click on Library, then Family History Library Catalog, and run a place search for your Arkansas county. Look under the subject heading Land and Property.

Going to war records

If your relatives were among Arkansas’ first white settlers, they may have fought in the War of l812 and received bounty land from the federal government. The FHL, NARA and the Arkansas History Commission (AHC) <> have microfilmed bounty-land warrants, which provide the date of the warrant and the soldier’s name, rank and unit.

In May 1861, Arkansas seceded from the United States. A few thousand people in northern Arkansas fought for the Union, but the majority of Arkansans sided with the Confederacy. For Civil War service and Confederate pension records, look to the AHC. Pension records for Union veterans are at NARA, but the FHL has an index of Union petitioners. In 1911, a special census was taken of Confederate veterans. The AHC has returns for most Arkansas counties and a majority of these are on microfilm at the FHL.

The AHC has an extensive collection of military records in addition to those pertaining to the Civil War. The FHL also has a wide selection of microfilmed military records and indexes.

Surveying state resources

You can do a lot of preliminary roots research right in your own backyard — at a local FHC. (Be sure to consult the FHL’s Arkansas Research Outline: From the home page, click on guides, Research Outline, then Arkansas Research Outline.) But eventually you’ll want to take advantage of these Southwestern repositories’ riches — see the resources for contact information.

? Arkansas History Commission: The official state archives has lots more than military records, including an impressive historical newspaper collection (search a database of titles on the commission Web site). Before you go to the AHC, sample the fruits of the Stage One Digitization Project: It offers 13,000 searchable historical images at <>.

? Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives: This facility has hundreds of family histories, genealogies, photos, cemetery records, pre-1917 marriage records and court records for Arkansas’ 12 southwest counties.

? Richard C. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies: The Central Arkansas Library System hopes the Butler Center will become a premier online resource for historical information related to the state of Arkansas. So far, so good: Go to <> to see the wonderful collections. Arkansas Black History Online features photos and illustrations, biographies of prominent black citizens and interviews with former slaves. The Butler Center Manuscript Collections page details the center’s massive manuscript holdings, and the Arkansas Map Collection documents the formation of the state’s counties.

? University of Arkansas Libraries: The David W Mullins Library in Fayetteville houses more than 900 manuscript collections, including church, school, business and organization records; diaries; letters; scrapbooks; memoirs; maps; and 100,000-plus pictures. Be on the lookout for a series of regional biographical encyclopedias (for example, Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Eastern Arkansas) published by Good speed Publishing Co. in 1890.

? NARA Southwest Region: This facility is worth another mention for those researching American Indian ancestors. It has census rolls and removal muster rolls on microfilm.

Of course, tapping into most of these repositories will require a trip to your ancestral state—but you probably don’t need much convincing given such natural attractions as its hot springs, and the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Once you’re there, you can impress the locals with your knowledge of “AR-kan-SAW” history.

From the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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