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Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe (1683–1765)

Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe was a French officer, trader, and explorer. He was the first European explorer to record the existence of a large rocky bluff on the north bank of the Arkansas River. This major outcrop of rock is just upstream from a smaller rock, where it was possible to ford the river. It was at this location that the settlement of Little Rock (Pulaski County) subsequently developed.

Jean-Baptiste de La Harpe was the second son of Pierre Besnard, Seigneur de la Harpe, and Jeanne le Breton. He was christened on February 4, 1683, in St. Malo, France, one of the couple’s twelve surviving children. His father’s family had lived in the area for nearly a century and had earned a reputation for commanding the finest ships of the seaport.

In his early career, La Harpe served briefly in Madrid, Spain, as a cavalry officer in the regiment of Philip V of Spain. In 1703, he was an ensign on a trading and exploration mission to South America. While in Peru, he married an older widow, Dona Maria de Rokafull, and the couple returned to France in 1706. His wife died three years later, and La Harpe became involved in lawsuits with her family for her fortune; these lasted until 1715, when he lost all claims.

La Harpe married Jeanne-Françoise Prigent in 1710; she is believed to have died a few years later. Archives in St. Malo suggest they had a son, Guillaume, and later one grandson. By this time, La Harpe had bought the largely honorary titles of governor of the town of Dol and lieutenant-general of the coastguard of Brittany, but these titles were subsequently abolished.

In 1718, as part of Scottish financier John Law’s plans for a colony, La Harpe obtained a concession of land on the banks of the Red River in Louisiana. He sailed from St. Malo in April. Bienville, governor of the colony of Louisiana, sent him from New Orleans in December to establish a settlement for the Compagnie des Indes and to explore the upper course of the Red River. In April 1719, he founded Fort St. Louis de los Cadodaquious (also called Fort Breton) on land bought from the Nassonites Indians near present-day Texarkana, Texas, with the goal of trading with the Spaniards and Indians. French and Spanish rivalries in the area prevented the success of the post, and he continued his exploration of the Red and Sulphur rivers, and possibly a branch of the Canadian River in Oklahoma. He returned to New Orleans in January 1720, and from there, he returned to France.

In August 1721, he was sent on a mission to reclaim for France René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s post on St. Bernard Bay (present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas). He sailed with Beranger, landing by mistake in present-day Galveston Bay, where hostile Indians prevented him from establishing a settlement. He returned to Louisiana, unaware of his error, and although he enthusiastically recommended settlement of the area, this was never undertaken.

The following year, to further France’s goal of developing trade routes with the Spanish and Indians in the south and west, he was commanded by Bienville to explore the Arkansas River. With about twenty-five men, he left New Orleans in December and entered the Arkansas River on February 27, 1722, stopping at Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) for supplies. La Harpe noted in his journal the local Sotoni Indian name for the river, which refers to the reddish color of the water, and stated that it later became clear and excellent to drink. Continuing upstream, the party reached a short range of three steep hills, the first outcropping of rock the party had encountered since entering the Arkansas River. The outcropping was on the right bank of the river, ascending about 160 feet high (fifty meters) and veined with a very hard, marble-like stone; La Harpe also described a large waterfall and several fine slate quarries nearby. According to his journal, he named this point “Le Rocher Français” (“French Rock”) and took possession of it on April 9 by carving the coat of arms of the French king on a tree trunk on its summit.

Although La Harpe made no mention of the smaller rock downstream on the south bank, this point of the river was well known to local Quapaw Indians. It marks the transition from the flat Mississippi Delta to the Ouachita Mountains and the foothills of the Ozarks (Aux Arcs) and later became a crossing point for trails leading to Santa Fe and St. Louis.

The party continued upriver for twenty-five more leagues, close to present-day Morrilton (Conway County), making several expeditions into the interior and noting the beautiful country to the west and the abundance of wild game on land and fish in the rivers. La Harpe was convinced that the river led west to the Spanish territories and the country of Padoucah Indians. However, due to illness and supply problems, he turned back, returning to Biloxi in May 1722.

Later in 1722, La Harpe was sent by Bienville to officiate at the transfer of Pensacola to the Spanish. Having completed this assignment in December, he was discharged by the Compagnie des Indes in 1723 and returned to France.

Throughout his life, La Harpe wrote many accounts of his experiences in the New World, promoting his explorations for financial gain and personal glory. While much in his accounts was considered exaggerated or fictitious by both historians and his peers, they still contain a great deal of significant information about the early exploration and settlement of Louisiana. His name is often associated today with the legend of Emerald Rock, a fabulous jewel-encrusted stone, the search for which was reportedly one of the primary goals of his expedition up the Arkansas River. He himself refuted this claim, which was made over twenty years later by another member of the party. But the legend is commemorated in Emerald Park on the summit of “Big Rock” in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), and his name has been given to the street closest to the river, La Harpe Boulevard, in downtown Little Rock.

La Harpe died in St. Malo on September 26, 1765.

For additional information:
Arnold, Morris S. Colonial Arkansas, 1686–1804: A Social and Cultural History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Hempstead, Fay. A Pictorial History of Arkansas. St. Louis: W. D. Thompson Publishing, 1890.

La Harpe, Bénard de. Journal Historique de l’Etablissement des Français à la Louisiane. B. F. French, 1851.

Villiers du Terrage, Marc de. An Explorer of Louisiana: Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe. Translated, annotated, and edited by Samuel Dorris Dickinson. Arkadelphia, AR: Institute for Regional Studies, Ouachita Baptist University, 1983.

Kate Buck
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 6/1/2009

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