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Poinsett County

Region:

Northeast

County Seat:

Harrisburg

Established:

February 28, 1838

Parent Counties:

Greene, St. Francis

Population:

24,583 (2010 Census)

Area:

758.39 square miles (2010 Census)

  

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

-

-

-

1,320

2,308

3,621

1,720

2,192

4,272

7,025

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

12,791

20,848

29,695

37,670

39,311

30,834

26,843

27,032

24,664

25,614

2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

24,583

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Population Characteristics as per the 2010 U.S. Census:

White

22,089

89.9%

African American

1,775

7.2%

American Indian

59

0.2%

Asian

45

0.2%

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

4

0.0%

Some Other Race

281

1.1%

Two or More Races

330

1.3%

Hispanic Origin (may be of any race)

543

2.2%

Population Density

32.4 people per square mile

Median Household Income (2009)

$31,478

Per Capita Income (2005–2009)

$16,436

Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2009)

26.3%

 

Poinsett County is located in Arkansas’s northeast corner. The St. Francis River travels north to south in the eastern portion of the county, and the L’Anguille River begins at the north boundary and runs south through the center of the county. Crowley’s Ridge, a highland anomaly that begins in southeast Missouri and terminates near Helena (Phillips County), runs through the center of the county. On the eastern side of the ridge is the rich, alluvial land of the Delta, which primarily hosts cotton farming, while on the western side is prairie land used mostly for the cultivation of rice.

European Exploration and Settlement
When the first permanent settlers arrived in what was to become Poinsett County, a few communities of Native Americans were there. Wild game and buffalo roamed throughout the county. The land lying east of Crowley’s Ridge was generally flat, overflow ground during much of the year, the natural drainage being poor. Some of the land lying west of the ridge was prairie with large tracts of open land that provided excellent grazing for the few buffalo in Poinsett County. All of the land west of Crowley’s Ridge was flat and mostly timbered. During the territorial period, many settlements of Cherokee were established in the region, as well as a small settlement of Shawnee and another of Delaware; all these groups had moved west of the Mississippi before the Louisiana Purchase. All of these settlements were farms with permanent dwellings, cornfields, and other improvements. The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811–1812 changed the landscape of Poinsett County, prompting these Indian communities to relocate south and west of the region.


Louisiana Purchase through Reconstruction
The first permanent white settlers in Poinsett County were Charles and Rebekah Shaver. In the fall of 1824, they left Missouri and crossed into Arkansas at a place called Chalk Bluff in what is now Clay County. The Shaver family is said to have followed an old Indian trail down Crowley’s Ridge with two wagons, although a federal mail post road had been built by 1815, linking east Arkansas to St. Genevieve and St. Louis. They found a trapper living in a small cabin on Sugar Creek (now called Bay Village). Shaver bought the trapper’s place and settled his wife, two sons, daughter, son-in-law, and several slaves there.

Poinsett County was established on February 28, 1838. It was named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a statesman, scientist, and botanist. Poinsett was the secretary of war in President Van Buren’s administration. He was also a horticulturist of note and is remembered foremost for his introduction of a new flower, the poinsettia, into the United States. Poinsett never visited Poinsett County.

Although there were a few communities of widely scattered settlers, there were no towns in the area when Poinsett County was created. When Governor James S. Conway signed the act creating Poinsett County, William Harris was named the first county judge. The first terms of the county court and other county business was conducted at his home until a permanent seat could be selected. A site for the new county seat was selected about four miles north of Judge Harris’s home. It was named Bolivar after General Simon Bolivar, a South American revolutionary hero. Joel R. Poinsett, whose name the county bears, had interested himself in Simon Bolivar. Two buildings were built—a courthouse and jail. The first term of court was held in the new courthouse in September 1839. Bolivar was a typical frontier town with a smattering of general stores, blacksmith shops, hotels, law and doctors’ offices, and saloons. Bolivar also boasted one of the best horse-racing tracks in this part of the country. Goods often had to be shipped from New Orleans, Louisiana, up the Mississippi River to Memphis, Tennessee. They were then taken by riverboat, by way of the St. Francis River, to Wittsburg (Cross County) and by wagon up Crowley’s Ridge to Bolivar. Wittsburg, located in what is now Cross County on the east edge of Crowley’s Ridge, was where the St. Francis River met Crowley’s Ridge, providing a natural place to establish a river port. Wittsburg eventually became an important trading port for all of eastern Arkansas that bordered the ridge, though now it no longer exists.

Early settlers had trouble keeping their livestock because there were no fences, and the livestock were allowed to roam free. In the winter months, the horses and cattle ranged far from home. In the spring, settlers tried to round up the strayed livestock, many of which were never found or were found drowned in the lowlands on either side of the ridge.

In 1856, the county seat was moved to a new city named Harrisburg, named after Benjamin Harris, who was the son of the first county judge and who gave the land on which the new courthouse was built; there had been much agitation for moving the seat of the county government to the center of the county, and a hotly contested election resulted in the decision to move the seat south to Harrisburg. Poinsett County was much larger than it is today. The county’s size has been reduced twice since its creation. In 1858, Craighead County was created, taking much of the north part of the county. In 1862, the Confederate legislature created Cross County, which consumed much of the southern portion of the county. Some land was added, however, to the county to the east. The area where the cities of Marked Tree, Lepanto, and Tyronza are located were not part of Poinsett County until the creation of Craighead County in 1859 and the creation of Cross County in 1862. The eastern boundary of Poinsett County was established in two stages when these two counties were established. During the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811–1812, a large tract of land in the eastern portion of the county sunk beneath the level surface and became known as “the sunken lands.”

Settlers slowly came to the county, some coming down the ridge from Chalk Bluff on the Missouri border, some coming up the St. Francis River to Wittsburg and then up Crowley’s Ridge, and some even coming overland from east of the Mississippi River. A few brought slaves, but Poinsett County never had a large slave population. There were only approximately forty slaves in the county when the Civil War began. That may be one of the reasons that the Poinsett County delegation voted not to secede from the Union when the first convention was held in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to decide the issue. Like many counties in Arkansas, the Civil War devastated what little commerce there was in Poinsett County. The population dropped from 3,621 in 1860 to 1,721 in 1870. Part of this population loss can be attributed to the creation of Cross County in 1862. Much of the territory of Cross County was taken from Poinsett County. The politicians that took over the county government after the Civil War almost bankrupted the county.

Post-Reconstruction through Early Twentieth Century
The coming of the railroads in the early 1880s drastically affected the economy of Poinsett County. The growth of the county had been stalled by the inability to get products to market. The county contained vast natural resources but had no practical way to market them. The only river that was used for commerce was the St. Francis, located in the eastern part of the county. Some people opposed the railroad, especially hunters who thought the trains scared the animals, but it came nonetheless. In 1881, the Texas and St. Louis Railway Company began laying the county’s first track through the towns of Weiner and Fisher. The track, a narrow gauge, was finished the next year. In 1882, the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway (Union Pacific) came through the center of the county and serviced Whitehall, Harrisburg, and Greenfield. In 1883, the Kansas City, Ft. Scott, and Gulf Railway (Burlington Northern) came through Tyronza and Marked Tree on the east side of the county. The cities along the tracks grew rapidly. More sawmills came to the county, and the harvest of the vast timberland began in earnest. The timber industry expanded rapidly because the timber could now be more easily moved to market. The railroads connected the wilderness of Poinsett County to the large industrial centers. The trains took thousands of furs out of the county, shipped cattle to market in St. Louis, Missouri, and carried cotton and lumber to the mills.

Poinsett County was harder hit during the Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. Though residents were able to relocate their livestock to the high ground of Crowley’s Ridge, over 200,000 acres were under water at the worst phase of the flooding, and thousands of sharecroppers and their families were rendered homeless. Many historians believe that this flood and its impact upon poor sharecroppers played a role in the creation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, one of the few interracial unions in its day, which was founded in Tyronza to advocate for the rights of sharecroppers and tenant farmers to earn a reasonable living, in contrast to the abuse and poor payment they often received from plantation owners.

The last lynching in Arkansas occurred in Poinsett County on April 29, 1936, when Willie Kees, a black man who had been accused of rape, was taken from police custody in Lepanto and killed by a group of masked men.

World War II through the Faubus Era
Poinsett County participated in a unique chapter in American history. During World War II, many Germans were captured in North Africa and sent to German prisoner-of-war camps in the United States. Poinsett County housed two of these camps, one in Marked Tree and one in Harrisburg. The German prisoners assisted in manual labor and were especially helpful to the farmers, who had first call on their services because of the national need for food and fiber—rice and cotton—during the war. The prisoners were returned to their homeland after the war. There are no memorials of this time in the area.

Like much of eastern Arkansas, the population of rural Poinsett County began to shrink with the mechanization of agriculture. Small schools and small rural churches found it more and more difficult to survive. The small rural schools were consolidated into the larger town schools, especially in 1948. Many sharecropper homes were destroyed and the land planted to crops.

Modern Era
Modern-day Poinsett County is mainly rural, with farming being the principal industry. It is one of the highest producers of rice in the nation and also grows much cotton and soybeans. Although Arkansas County is known as the hub of rice production in Arkansas, Poinsett County has the most acreage devoted to rice production than any county in the state. Shoe factories, clothing makers, piano manufacturers, and small auto parts suppliers are located in the larger towns in the county.

Incorporated cities and towns in the county are: Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher, and Waldenburg.

A number of structures in Poinsett County are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the county courthouse and the office building of the Modern News newspaper in Harrisburg, the old Singer Community Building in Trumann, the Bacon Hotel in Whitehall, and the Marked Tree Lock and Siphons.

For additional information:
Hartness, Richard L. Wittsburg, Arkansas: Crowley’s Ridge Steamboat Riverport, 1848–1890. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1978.

Poinsett County, Arkansas: History and Families. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1998.

Whayne, Jeannie M. A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.

Williams, Harry Lee. The History of Craighead County. Little Rock: Parke-Harper, 1930.

Clyde Ford
Poinsett County Historical Society

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Naming our Counties (Grades 2-8)

Last Updated 7/26/2014

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