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Home / Browse / Lawrence County
January 15, 1815
New Madrid, Missouri
17,415 (2010 Census)
587.61 square miles (2010 Census)
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Population Characteristics as per the 2010 U.S. Census:
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
Some Other Race
Two or More Races
Hispanic Origin (may be of any race)
29.7 people per square mile
Median Household Income (2009)
Per Capita Income (2005–2009)
Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2005)
The “Mother of Counties,” Lawrence County once covered a majority of north Arkansas, an enormous stretch of land ultimately forming thirty-one counties. Present-day Lawrence County straddles the Black River, a natural boundary separating the lowlands of the Mississippi Delta from the foothills of the Ozark Plateau. Long dominated by cotton production, this agricultural county now produces rice, soybeans, corn, and sorghum.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
The Osage Indians hunted in what would become Lawrence County, although they had no settlements there. The eastern portion of the county may have been visited in 1541 during a side trip of the expedition of Hernando de Soto. Arkansas became United States territory with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Named for War of 1812 naval hero Captain James Lawrence, the county was created in 1815 as part of Missouri Territory and was the second of five large counties in what became Arkansas Territory in 1819, preceding the creation of Arkansas Territory by four years.
White settlers first inhabited the county’s western regions, traveling on the Black River or, after 1811, over the Military Road. This route, along with the swampy conditions of the east, explains the early settlement concentration in the county’s hilly western half.
The earliest important settlement was at Davidsonville along the Black River. Named for territorial legislator John Davidson, the town served as the first county seat in 1816. Exaggerated tradition claims 3,000 Davidsonville residents before yellow fever ended the settlement. In 1829, the county seat moved to Jackson on the Military Road, and Davidsonville as a community ceased to exist.
Another major settlement was at Smithville near the county’s present western border. Named for businessman Robert Smith, the town became the county seat in 1837, a year after Arkansas attained statehood. In 1838, Smithville witnessed the Trail of Tears as a band of 1,200 Cherokee with “measles and whooping cough among them” passed through the town. Smithville also served as a staging area for local volunteers during the Mexican War (1846–1848). Located at an intersection on the Military Road, Smithville prospered before declining with the loss of its status as the county seat in 1868. Although zinc mining offered hope in the 1890s, the enterprise ultimately failed.
Civil War through Reconstruction
During the Civil War, Lawrence County escaped damage while experiencing only a few minor skirmishes near Smithville and Powhatan. Home guards of men incapable of regular service opposed raiding jayhawkers, the area’s only serious threat. Although some residents joined Federal forces, sentiment ran with the Confederacy, and more than seventeen units were organized, most serving in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.
During Reconstruction, Lawrence County’s western region became Sharp County, prompting the county seat to be moved from Smithville to the isolated but centrally located Clover Bend in 1868. When Democrats gained control of the county one year later, the seat moved again, this time to the rising commercial center at Powhatan.
Post Reconstruction through the Early Twentieth Century
People were living in the area that is now Powhatan as early as 1816, though it was not platted until 1849. Eventually, the town experienced explosive growth and soon sported mills, shops, and hotels. Because of this growth, it became the county seat in 1869. The first courthouse was built in 1873 and burned in 1885. A Victorian-style replacement was constructed in 1888, using many of the bricks salvaged from the first courthouse in the interior side of the outer walls. Although the county seat until 1963, this once-bustling port began its long decline when bypassed by the railroad and a new bridge at nearby Black Rock, a one-time boomtown of lumber, pearls, and buttons. Today, Powhatan attracts tourists as Powhatan Historic State Park.
Completion of the Iron Mountain Railroad through Walnut Ridge in the 1870s and the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad through the adjacent town of Hoxie a decade later shifted the county’s population and economic gravity to the largely uninhabited east. By 1870, legislators divided Lawrence County into eastern and western districts as county phone service first linked the two sections. Walnut Ridge became the eastern seat, while the county seat proper remained at Powhatan. The introduction of screens, pipe wells, and other conveniences coincided with widespread lumbering and agriculture. Timber mill boomtowns sprang up across the east while Walnut Ridge–Hoxie emerged as the county’s economic and population center.
Served by local newspapers since the 1850s, Lawrence County has been home to the Walnut Ridge–based Times Dispatch since its acquisition by James Bland in 1921. Literary notoriety came to the county when nationally acclaimed author Alice French (My Name is Masak and The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach), who sometimes wrote under the pen name Octave Thanet, made Clover Bend her winter residence from 1881 to 1909.
As elsewhere, the twentieth century brought to Lawrence County automobiles, planes, radio, and, after World War I, a greater awareness of the world. With cotton leading the way, the county enjoyed economic growth before prices collapsed in the Great Depression. New Deal programs resulted in new bridges and school buildings, and, near Clover Bend, the sale of more than 5,000 acres to the U.S. government for distribution to landless farmers under the Resettlement Administration.
World War II through Modern Era
Perhaps no single event had an impact on Lawrence County as much as the construction and operation of the Walnut Ridge Army Airfield during World War II. This basic army flying school trained thousands of army and marine pilots while transforming the economic landscape of the Depression-blighted area. After the war, a massive warplane salvage facility operated at the site, and in 1947, Southern Baptist College moved to the base from Pocahontas (Randolph County). Today, the site serves as the Walnut Ridge airport and hosts several industries, while Southern, now called Williams Baptist College, thrives as a four-year liberal arts institution on a dramatically transformed campus.
In the 1950s, Lawrence County made national news when Hoxie Public Schools willingly desegregated in the face of enormous resistance. The county also drew attention in the 1960 gubernatorial race when Southern Baptist College president Hubert E. Williams challenged popular incumbent Orval Faubus, whose campaign manager owned the Times Dispatch. A local radio station, a state park, and a new hospital, library, courthouse, and new highway bypasses mark recent progress.
Lawrence County in the twenty-first century mirrors much of the country, with chain stores, school consolidation, and communications technology, while fewer farmers farm larger tracts of land. Yet many restoration projects, most notably the courthouse, jail, school, and telephone exchange at Powhatan, link the present with the Mother of Counties of the past.
For additional information:
Johnson, B. H. Harold, ed. History of the Walnut Ridge Army Airfield. Walnut Ridge, AR: Walnut Ridge Army Flying School Museum, 2005.
Lawrence County Historical Journal. Imboden, AR: Lawrence County Historical Society (1996–).
Lawrence County Historical Quarterly. Imboden, AR: Lawrence County Historical Society (1978–1992).
Lawrence County, Arkansas: 1815–2001. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2001.
Linkpendium Lawrence County. http://www.linkpendium.com/genealogy/USA/AR/Lawrence/ (accessed February 15, 2016).
McLeod, Walter. Centennial Memorial History of Lawrence County. Walnut Ridge, AR: Lawrence County Historical Society, 1980.
Perkins, Blake. “Race Relations in Western Lawrence County, Arkansas.” Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley 9, no. 1 (2009): 7–21.
Perkins, J. Blake. “Women and American Settlement in Territorial Lawrence County.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Summer 2016): 111–136.
John G. Jacobsen
Williams Baptist College
Last Updated 11/21/2017
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