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Home / Browse / Powhatan (Lawrence County)
Latitude and Longitude:
0.1 square miles (2000 Census)
72 (2010 Census)
January 12, 1853
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Powhatan was the Lawrence County seat of government for almost ninety-five years. Founded in the early nineteenth century on the banks of the Black River, the town became the county’s most important port on the Black River. When bypassed by the railroad in the 1880s, the town began a steady decline and is best known today as the site of a historic state park.
Louisiana Purchase through Early StatehoodWhite settlers established themselves in the area at about the same time as the creation of the Missouri Territory county of Lawrence. One of the earliest, John Ficklin, settled on the west bank of the Black River and, by 1820, began operating a ferry. Within a few years, the crossing and landing became an important shipping point with the first steamboat, Laurel, docking there in 1829. Though a small settlement began to develop, no town was platted until John A. Lindsay did so in 1849, approximately six years after the establishment of a post office.
Increased river traffic and area road construction contributed to steady growth. In the 1830s, a road known as the Military Road connected Pocahontas (Randolph County) and Jacksonport (Jackson County). In 1836, Powhatan was connected with this road at Smithville (Lawrence County) with the completion of the Powhatan-Smithville Road. By 1853, what was known as the Old Plank Road, said to be the first improved road in northeast Arkansas, was connected with the town’s main street by the Ficklin Ferry. When the town became the first in the county to incorporate, on January 12, 1853, it boasted a population of approximately 500.
Civil War through ReconstructionWith the approaching Civil War, many area men enlisted in units that eventually were mustered into Confederate service. Just as with many other Arkansas river port towns, the war had a negative impact on the development of Powhatan. A slowly developing zinc industry, which had begun about 1857, had all but disappeared by the outbreak of the war. Commercial traffic on the river almost ceased with the advance of Union forces into Arkansas. Military forces from both sides marched through the area, and the Skirmish at Smithville was fought some four miles to the east on June 17, 1862.
With the return of the river commerce after the war, the town began to make a slow recovery. Soon the businesses that lined both sides of Main Street were once more in operation. An important change came in 1869 when a county commission and subsequent election relocated the seat of government from nearby Clover Bend (Lawrence County) to the better-located Powhatan. Two years later, a building commission purchased land on a rise overlooking the town for the site of a county courthouse. At a cost of $16,723.38, the courthouse was completed on June 17, 1873. That same year, a limestone jail was also constructed.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded AgeIn 1885, the courthouse burned, and a new building was constructed on the same site in 1888. Both the courthouse and jail still stand and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and 1989, respectively.
During its heyday, before the turn of the twentieth century, the town was described as “a profitable center,” especially when court was in session. Among its several businesses were four general stores, a drugstore, a wagon wheel spoke factory, two hotels, and mills for wool, flour, and lumber. The town had a Presbyterian church and a Methodist church, whose members constructed a wood frame meeting house in 1874. Education was available at the Powhatan Male and Female Academy, which was founded in 1854. A telephone exchange, which was established in 1887, remained in operation until about 1902. The restored building, which over the years has been used for various purposes, still stands as of 2011.
The continued location of the county seat at Powhatan was a contentious issue. A county population shift and increasing importance of Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) as a shipping center on the railroad caused many residents to promote the relocation of the county offices. Several relocation measures were defeated by the county electorate. In 1887, the county was divided into two judicial districts, with the second district headquartered in Walnut Ridge. While the county office remained in Powhatan, court sessions would be conducted in both communities. The division was in part designed to appease citizens who lived on the opposite side of the Black River, which flooded regularly each spring. In previous years, the court had even halved the ferry toll in an attempt to defuse tensions.
The division into two judicial districts seems to have been no immediate threat to the decline of the town. A greater concern was the bypassing of the town by the railroad in the early 1880s and the founding of a new town on the tracks, Black Rock (Lawrence County). As rail commerce grew, Powhatan’s importance as a trade center declined.
Early Twentieth Century through the Modern EraThe negative impact of the Great Depression on local farmers and businessmen further threatened the town’s future, as did the closing of the Black River ferry in about 1935. Workers under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) did some work on the courthouse grounds, building a native stone fence around the structure.
The population averaged approximately 129 during the 1940s and 1950s. The construction of U.S. Highway 63, some two miles away, was a major factor in routing travelers away from Powhatan. The town faced additional problems when the swinging bridge was dismantled in 1957.
Still another attempt to remove the county seat was defeated in 1956. However, given the town’s continued isolation, the issue would not go away. On August 27, 1963, the popular vote finally fell in favor of removal of the county seat to Walnut Ridge. Adding to the controversy, citizens who voted in the election had their names entered into a $500 cash prize drawing. By the time of the election, which drew more than 4,500 people to the polls, the town consisted of only a couple dozen buildings, including two businesses.
With the removal of the seat of government, the town lost much of its importance. If not for a restoration movement in the 1960s, the town probably would have disappeared. In cooperation with the Lawrence County Development Council, the Lawrence County Historical Society headed a drive to preserve the courthouse and collection of historic documents stored there. By 1973, a partial restoration of the courthouse was complete. In 1979, the property was transferred to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, creating Powhatan Historic State Park. Other structures restored in the park include the jail, the Powhatan Male and Female Academy, the telephone exchange, and the Ficklin-Imboden Log House. In the spring of 2011, the Arkansas State Archives opened a new facility housing the NorthEast Arkansas Regional Archives, an important repository of many of the earliest documents recording the history of the state.
On the heels of the revitalization of an interest in the history of the area, the town has seventy-two residents as of the 2010 census. The significant role of the town in the state’s history and the restoration of its structures have made the historic town a popular tourist attraction.
For additional information:Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas. Chicago, IL: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.
Donald, Leroy. “Loss of Courthouse Seals Death Notice of Powhatan.” Arkansas Gazette, September 1, 1963, p. 10A.
Lawrence County, Arkansas: 1815–2001. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2001.
Spillman, Brenda. “Powhatan’s Historical Courthouse Gets New Life.” Arkansas Gazette, September 23, 1973, p. 4E.
Mike PolstonEncyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 6/8/2016
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