Lawrence County Historical Society Quarterly
SPRING 1978 - VOLUME 1- NUMBER 2
Old Roads In North Arkansas
by W. E. McLeod (1869-1951)
Roads are the precursors of civilization, and nothing is more interesting to the student of local history than the effect they have had on the settlement and development of the country. This is particularly true of Northeast Arkansas· Most of the early roads had their beginnings in Indian trails. The Indians were a roving people who moved from one part of the country to another in quest of the best hunting grounds or on missions of war. In their travels they followed certain favorable routes and thus made trails by marching single file. These trails were also sometimes used by wild animals, such as deer, bears, and buffaloes. So in time, these trails became quite clear, even worn in places· The routes of the trails were along the most favorable terrain, which was along tbe ridges between the streams and over the lower parts of the ridges they had to cross. They kept back from the lower courses of the larger streams in order to have better crossings on them, which they had to wade, swim or cross on the trunks of fallen trees. In the lowlands, the trails were located on the higher ground to avoid the sloughs and slashes. Of course all the trails were more or less for dry weather use· Over these trails the Indians made long journeys marching single file, and by them built their campfires at night, or maybe located their villages. When the white settlers came, they found the Indian trails the best routes of travel, and they made them into wagon road by cutting out underbrush and removing the logs.
There were three great early immigrant routes or roads into and through Arkansas: one from north to south, and two from east to west. Each had in- tersections and connections with other shorter roads·
Immigrants into Arkansas came mostly from the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. They came by land, or partly by land and partly by water. Many of them came all the way in ox drawn wagons. Some of them floated in flat boats down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to Ste. Genevieve and New Madrid and then by land the rest of the way; but some of them continued down the Mississippi river to Chicka- saw Bluff (Memphis) and Helena, from which they might move westward and northward. Sometimes they went on to the mouth of white River and up that river, John Lafferty is said to have come to the vicinity of Batesville in that way, in 1810. The river travel was by two kinds of boats ; flat boats down stream, and keel boats up stream. Immigrants could start in keel boats in Tennessee and come all the way to their destinations, if they were on the White or Arkansas. After a few years, they could hire keel boats to convey them up the rivers, and still later they could come by steamboats.
Immigrants who left the Mississippi at Chickasaw Bluff or Helena, had two routes overland to the west and northwest. Starting at Helena, an old road ran a little northwest to Clarendon, Cadron Creek, Morrilton, Old Dwight, and on to Ft. Smith. That is said to have been the first road cut out through Arkansas, in 1807. The other westward route from the Mississippi river, started on the west bank of the river at Chickasaw Bluff (Memphis) and went west to Wittsburg (St. Francis) and from there by Litchfield in Jackson county, near Sulphur Rock and Batesville in Independence county, and on up White river to North fork, where it intersected the western branch of the old Military road. This road cut out by the War Department in 1819 was also called the Military road. Both these routes intersected the old north south Military road, and they were connected by four other shorter roads. One was from Wittsburg to Clarendon, another from that place to Devalls Bluff and Little Rock, about the route of the present highway No. 70. Anotherbegan at Wittsburg and went by Augusta to its connection with the old north south Military road near where it crossed White river. Another ran from Batesville southwest to Morrilton. The writer is using a map prepared by Col. John R. Fordyce in 1919 fm the Centennial issue of the Arkansas Gazette. Another road, not shown on the map, ran northwest on Crowley's Ridge into Missouri. It too was called the Military road. It was very important in the settlement of the Ridge, since immigrants might come in over it from both the north and the south. These roads were northern and eastern routes by which travelers from the states to the east might come into Arkansas. Wittsburg (St. Francis), an early flourishing town, with more road con- nections than any other town of its time, was at the head of navigation on the St. Francis river, by which steamboats landed immigrants to spread out nor- thward on Crowley's Ridge and into the counties to the west and northwest. The road which was most important to Northeast Arkansas was the road commonly called the Military road. It was first opened into Arkansas soon after 1803, by Hix's Ferry acroes Current River, aptly called the "Northern Gateway to Arkansas", at the northeast corner of what is now Randolph county. The route of the road was an old Indian trail, called by the whites the Southwest Trail. It extended southwest from the Illinois country to Texas and Mexico. It was trod by many moccasined foot before white men ever saw it. Through Arkansas it ran along the foothills of the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains, far enough up the streams which run down from the highlands to give good crossings on the streams and the ridges between them· The route would be suitable for s modern highway. In fact, highway No. 67 parallels it clear through the state. The old trail was first converted into a wagon road from Ste. Genevieve and Potosi, Missouri, and on into Arkansas about 1803. William Hix is said to have opened his ferry across Current river at that time, and immigrants began to come in, a trickle at first and then a rushing stream to the region soon to become the big county of Lawrence, first in Missouri territory and a litt1e later in Arkansas territory. The road was extended through the state about 1810. The . territory now in Randolph, Lawrence, Sharp and Independence counties being a fair country and closest to the route got most of the immigrants for awhile, but soon the stream overflowed into other parts of the state.
In Randolph county two settlements large enough to be called towns were made before 1815 . . . Columbia, first called the "settlement of Fourche de Thomas", in the northeast part, and the "town of Lawrence", in the southern part. Columbia was on the Military road and Lawrence (Davidsonville), a short distance off it. Jackson in the western part of the county, grew up on the road a little later. The road was intended to go by Davidsonville but had to be aban- doned because of the difficulty of crossing Spring river a short distance to the south. So the road bypassed Davidsonville to easier crossings on Eleven Point and Spring rivers. It has been stated several times by writers that David- sonville was on the Military road, but it was not. That is one cause why the town was short lived. This shows effect of or lack of a road.
The Military road as it may be traced at this time through Randolph, Lawrence, and Independence counties, ran from Hix's Ferry by Columbia, Black's Ferry, on Eleven Point river, across Spring river at the place later known as Miller's rFord, on south through Lawrence and Independence counties by the present day places of Denton, Lynn, Military Ford on Strawberry river and near Saffell in Lawrence county, and by Walnut Grove and near Sulphur Rock to its crossing on White River eight miles down the river from Batesville. It did not go by Smithville and Batesville, as has been erroneously stated by writers. The road can easily be traced in places, and stretches of it are still in use. in northeast Randolph county several miles of it have been converted into a graveled highway.
Before 1835 there was not a town in the present limits of Lawrence county, but there was a settlement called the "settlement of Strawberry", in the first records of the county, made in 1815. The settlement was on a branch of the Military road, which will be mentioned later. The region had settlements all over it, so in 1815 the legislature of Missouri cut it off from New Madrid county in that territory and made of it Lawrence county in that territory, and im- migrants continued to pour over the Military road. Some of them went on farther south, but some of them remained to help build the old county. The road Spring 1978 29
continued to feed immigrants into the state until after the Civil War. It was the first mail route ( 1817) in the state, from St. Louis to Arkansas Post and Monroe, Louisiana. About 1835 it was a stage route for a while. Columbia was a station on the route where teams were kept and fed and changed and passengers provided for.
The three roads I have described were through trunk lines from which other roads branched off or connected. The first court held in Lawrence county, in 1815, provided for the opening of two branches of the Military road. One if or- dered laid off "from the town of Lawrence in the direction of the Post of Arkansas to the line of Arkansas county". This road is not shown on the map referred to, but it was opened part of the way at least. The other road was "from the town of I,awrence to the mouth of Northfork river". The roads, in fact, did not begin at the town of Lawrence, because it was not practical to begin there. The court which made the order knew but little about the country thereabout. The former of these roads branched off from the Military road a short distance south of where it crossed Spring river and went southwest to Shields Ferry, five miles up the river from Batesville and connected again with the main road farther south. It was a cut off the main road. It became very important and largely took the place of the main road on Lawrence and Independence counties, which has led many to think it was the main Military road, which crossed White river eight miles below Batesville. From Jackson to Shield's Ferry there were four stations on the road where travelers might stop and be provided for. The stations were Jackson, Dogwood Spring, three or four miles north of the present town of Smithville; Big Creek (or whatever it was called) near the present community of Calamine; and Shield'a Ferry. Henry Schoolcraft in describing his journey through the country in 1819, mentions the Big Creek settlement as having fifteen houses scattered along the bank of the stream, including a grist mill turned by water, a whiskey distiliery, a blacksmith shop, and a tavern. Joad Hardin was licensed in 1818 to keep an "inn" at Shield's Ferry. Schoolcraft does not mention that place, but Poke Bayou (Batesville) instead.
The other branch of the Military road extended westward from Jackson to Northfork and on to Batesville and Ft. Smith. This was a road used ln the removal ot the Indians to the west, and by immigrants into Northwest Arkansas. It is another road called the Military road, though it was only a branch of the main road, What a wondertul story these old roads could tell if they could speak. It would be a story of silent, sorrowful Indians as they treked their way to a land they knew not, and of thousands of hope- tul immigrants as they wended their way in canvas covered, ox drawn wa- gons, on horseback and on foot to make new homes in the south and west. The roads described were great immigrant routes, particularly in northeast Arkansas; but there were several others a little later which were important in the settlement and development of this section of the state. Soon after 1836 a road was opened from Izard county eastward through Lawrence County, (then including Sharp) to Greene county, This road went by the new towns of Smithville and Powhatan, where there was a fine ferry across Black River. Smithville was and is situated on this road where it intersected the branch of the Military mentioned above, and its favorable location accounts for its continuance to this day as one of the best off railroad towns in the country, The two roads are now graveled highways.
In the late 1830's, the old north-south trail between Pocahontas and Jacksonport along the low ridge east of the floodplain of Black River was converted into a public road. It was the first north-south road opened be- tween Black and Cache Rivers. It was an easy road to travel and very im- portant until after the Civil war. It went by the steamboat landing places at Elgin, Clover Bend, Lauratown, and near Powhatan, It intersected the Izard county-Greene county road at the settlement then called Cross Roads about a mile south of the present town of Portia. The villages of Strangers Home and Kenyon were on that road. Until the completion ot the Iron Moun- tain railroad in 1873, this was an important route of travel through the country east of Black River. It is paralled by highway No, 67 and has lost it’s importance, except as a local road.
One more early road ran from Pocahontas east through the bottoms to Crowley's Ridge. It had to cross Cache river swamps and could be used only in the dry season. Over the roads in the dry season of the year canvas covered, ox drawn wagons could be seen wending their way to some part of the country. Immigrants coming in over the Military road, could turn off north of Pocahontas and cross Black river there and reach the fertile lands of Randolph, Lawrence, and Jackson counties. Another way they might come to part of the country was by keel boats or later by steamboats up Black River.
Prior to the Civil war, the military road and its branches were a through route of travel from the North and East to the South, which has been replaced by the Missouri Pacific railroad and highway No, 67, both of which parallel the old road clear through the state, Many notables are said to have passed over some part of the road, Some of them were John Davidson, for whom the first town in Northeast Arkansas was named; Judge Richard S. Thomas of Missouri territory, who came over it to hold the first regular court in Arkansas, in 1815; Daniel Boone of Kentucky, for whom Boone county and Booneville are named; Richard Searcy and the Hardins of Kentucky, who were prominent in establishing the early govern- ment of Lawrence and other counties; the legislative representatives of Lawrence and other counties as they traveled to St. Louis to attend the sessions of the legislature of Missouri territory, from 1815 to 1819; Rob- ert Crittenden on his journey from Kentucky to Arkansas Post to become the first Secretary of Arkansas territory, in 1819; James Woodson Bates, for whom Batesville waa named; James S. Conway and Archibald Yell, governors; Sam Houston, David Crockett, Moses Austin and his Stephen, of Texas fame; Gen. Sterling Price, Gen, Joe Shelby, President Grant, and others.
© 2002 by Jeri Helms Fultz. All rights reserved. This information may be used by libraries and genealogical societies, however, commercial use of this information is strictly prohibited without prior permission. If copied, this copyright notice must appear with the information.
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