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Home / Browse / Ouachita County
November 29, 1842
26,120 (2010 Census)
732.78 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)
35.7 people per square mile
Median Household Income (2009)
Per Capita Income (2005–2009)
Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2009)
Ouachita County, the forty-fifth county in Arkansas, was created in 1842 from land taken from the northwest parts of Union County. It was named after the Ouachita River on which the county seat of Camden, incorporated in 1844, sits on a bluff at a horseshoe curve of the river. Ouachita is the French spelling of a Native American word that is pronounced “Washita” and supposedly denoted good hunting or a river of many fish. The land in the county was covered with vast forests of pines and drained by bayous and sloughs running to the Ouachita River. The Ouachita River forms part of the eastern boundary of the county, while Clark, Dallas, Calhoun, Union, Columbia, and Nevada counties border the remaining areas.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
Soon after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, George Hunter and William Dunbar were sent to explore the Ouachita River. As they passed through present-day Ouachita County in 1804, they mentioned an old trading post called Ecore à Fabri but found no settlement there. In 1782, Don Juan Filhiol, a Frenchman who represented the Spanish who then controlled the Louisiana Territory, established a military post on that site, which had long been used as a rendezvous point on the river. In Filhiol’s time, the area was inhabited by the remnants of several Native American tribes and a number of itinerant hunters, trappers, and traders, most of French ancestry. Filhiol hoped to attract settlers to the remote upper Ouachita, but several years later he moved his headquarters downriver to present-day Monroe, Louisiana. When Arkansas became a territory, things began to change. Among the first permanent settlers were the Tate and Nunn families. The first steamboat reached the now-revived post of Ecore à Fabri in the 1820s. These early steamboats played an important role in the commercial growth of what would become Ouachita County.
In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the population of the area consisted of approximately 150 Choctaw, along with white settlers and slaves. As more white settlers came to the area, the French left, returning to New Orleans or moving farther west. A post office was established at Ecore à Fabri by 1830, the first in what was then Union County. Statehood in 1836 provided an incentive for many farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and professional people to come to the area. When the new county of Ouachita was formed in 1842, Ecore à Fabri (Fabre) remained as the county seat but soon was renamed Camden. By 1846, the county boasted four more post offices: Buffalo, Freeo, Foster’s, and Woodlawn. By 1844, Camden was a substantial town with planned streets, lawyers and doctors, a courthouse, schools, and churches. Records indicate that Dr. James H. Ponder was the first physician in the county, and the first newspaper, the Ouachita Herald, was published in 1845 with Joshua Ruth as editor. According to the 1850 census, Ouachita County rivaled Pulaski in population. The county continued to thrive through the 1850s.
Civil War through the Gilded Age
The McCollum-Chidester House, located in Camden, was built in 1847 by the McCollum family and sold to John T. Chidester in 1862 for $10,000 in gold. Chidester was unofficially called Colonel Chidester and assisted the South during the Civil War by letting Confederates censor mail carried by his stagecoach line. Generals from both the North and South headquartered at the house at different times during the war. Union soldiers occupied the house during the Engagement at Poison Spring just west of Camden in April 1864. General Frederick Steele met the Confederates at White Oak Creek (a.k.a. Poison Spring) while headed to Camden. The Confederates slowed the Union troops but did not stop them from making their way to Camden. With no Confederate troops to stop them, Union soldiers burned the cotton supplies and many of the trees, but General Steele liked the town, so he did not burn the structures or homes. He collected supplies and started his return to Little Rock (Pulaski County). After the Civil War, Chidester resumed his stagecoach business, carrying mail and passengers. His house became the central station of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company.
The first high school building was erected in 1871. The steamboats coming in and out of the Port of Camden before the war returned carrying food, timber, cotton, and people to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and New Orleans. In the 1880s, the railroad came to Ouachita County, including the Reader Railroad, also known as the Possum Trot Line, which was constructed around 1887 near what is now Highway 24. The coming of the railroad also resulted in the creation of new towns and communities. The town of Chidester, located in the northwest part of the county, was laid out by the railroad companies in 1880 and named after John T. Chidester. The Cotton Belt Railroad’s decision to bypass Magnolia (Columbia County) during the construction of the rails to Texarkana (Miller County) created the community of Stephens in 1881; it incorporated as a town in 1889. Bearden was incorporated in 1892 and was named to honor the Ouachita County judge at the time. Bearden was a community of people who owned and worked the timberlands of the county.
Early Twentieth Century
After Reconstruction, the paper industry came to southern Arkansas to take advantage of the timber and the access to the railroad. In 1907, Garland Anthony and his partners laid the foundation of today’s Anthony Timberlands. The company operated mills and acquired land in Ouachita County and throughout southern Arkansas. In 1928, the first kraft, pulp, and paper mill was built in Camden by International Paper Company. Camden was a prime site because kraft paper is made from the loblolly pine tree, which grew abundantly in Ouachita County and throughout the South. The Ouachita River provided water for the plant and transportation for the products. International Paper provided jobs for numerous families in the county until the mill closed in 2001.
In 1926, Benjamin Tyndle Fooks bought a small soft drink bottling plant in Camden for $4,000 and soon created the nationally distributed Grapette soda. Also in 1926, Samuel Jacob “Jack” Carnes founded Camark Pottery, which shipped art pottery across the United States and the world until the company dissolved in 1984. Harvey’s Grocery opened in 1941, three miles west of Camden on Highway 24. It became a popular local meeting place on Saturdays. Politicians regularly visited as well. Dale Bumpers held a rally there in 1981 that attracted 2,000 people and congested the highway. Bill Clinton was a popular visitor as well while holding state offices and still visits if in the area.
The county’s first two courthouses were destroyed by fire, while the third was almost destroyed by a tornado on December 13, 1931. The courthouse was completely rebuilt.
World War II through the Modern Era
The Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot was built in Ouachita and Camden counties in late 1944 and early 1945. More than 24,000 construction workers were involved in the creation of the ammunition depot. When completed, it covered approximately 68,200 acres, including an eight-mile-long rocket testing range. Following the end of World War II, the depot maintained a small staff on standby status, until the facility was determined by the U.S. Navy to be surplus in 1959. Highland Industrial Park was then built on part of the property, providing jobs for workers from Camden and other nearby communities. Billed as the largest industrial park in five states, Highland Industrial Park features manufacturing and warehousing and is also home to Southern Arkansas University Tech.
The present public library was constructed in 1954, replacing the Ingham library, which today is located on the grounds of the McCollum-Chidester House and serves as the headquarters of the Ouachita County Historical Society.
The county is still considered rural, with no metropolitan areas. Almost eighty-four percent of the land is covered with forest, while the remainder is mostly planted with row crops.
Three Arkansas governors came from Ouachita County: George Washington Hays, Benjamin Travis Laney Jr., and David Hampton Pryor. Pryor was the son of Susan Newton Pryor, the first woman in Arkansas to run for county office. David Pryor went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
One famous resident was the subject of an unsolved mystery. On March 2, 1957, Maud Crawford, Camden’s first woman attorney and known as an expert in title and abstract, disappeared from her home without a trace. Because she was a former law partner of U.S. Senator John L. McClellan, who at the time was conducting a high-profile investigation into Mafia activity, her disappearance attracted national attention.
For additional information:
Camden School Writing Project. Patterns—A Social History of Camden. Little Rock: August House, 1986.
Ouachita County Historical Society. www.ouachitacountyhistoricalsociety.org (accessed November 16, 2018).
Ouachita County Historical Quarterly. Camden, AR: Ouachita County Historical Society (1969–).
Researchin’ Ouachita-Calhoun Counties, Ar. Camden, AR: Ouachita-Calhoun Genealogical Society (1981–).
Debbie Fenwick Ponder
Last Updated 2/14/2019
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