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Prairie County

 

Region:

Southeast

County Seats:

Des Arc, DeValls Bluff

Established:

November 25, 1846

Parent Counties:

Monroe, Pulaski

Population:

8,715 (2010 Census)

Area:

647.96 square miles (2010 Census)

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:

 

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

-

-

-

-

2,097

8,854

5,604

8,435

11,374

11,875

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

13,853

17,447

15,187

15,304

13,768

10,515

10,249

10,140

9,518

9,539

2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8,715

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

White

7,529

86.4%

African American

1,064

12.2%

American Indian

26

0.3%

Asian

6

0.1%

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

0

0.0%

Some Other Race

10

0.1%

Two or More Races

80

0.9%

Hispanic Origin (may be of any race)

81

0.9%

Population Density

13.5 people per square mile

Median Household Income (2009)

$34,936

Per Capita Income (2005–2009)

$17,024

Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2009)

18.8%

 

Prairie County, located in central Arkansas, has two county seats, Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. An important agricultural center, Prairie County has a rich history as the state’s throughway for mail routes, steamboats, and trains.

European Exploration and Settlement
European exploration of the area began as early as the late seventeenth century. While the area became intermediately occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. The earliest recorded Euro-American settlement of Prairie County is debatable but can be placed in the late eighteenth century.

French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as “Eau Blanche” and “Riv. Blanche” (“blanche” being the French word for white).

Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
Des Arc was the earliest settlement; creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810. The name “Des Arc” itself is a French term translated to mean “bow,” “bend,” or “curve.” On various early documents, the town of Des Arc is referenced as Des Ark, Francisville, Des Arcs, des Argues, Desarc, des Arques, Desare, McNulty’s Bluff, Des Arcs Bluffs, and Dezark Bluff. It was not until after the Civil War that the name Des Arc was accepted universally.

When Arkansas became a state, the area that is today Prairie County was first a part of Arkansas, Pulaski, Monroe, St. Francis, and White counties. On November 25, 1846, Arkansas governor Thomas S. Drew approved the legislative act creating Prairie County, so named for its dominant characteristic, the Grand Prairie. At the time, the boundaries extended into nearly all of present-day Lonoke County. Brownsville was designated as Prairie County’s first county seat in 1846. A wood frame courthouse was erected, which lasted until a fire destroyed it on September 16, 1852. However, the building was rebuilt, and the seat remained in Brownsville until 1868. In 1873, Lonoke County was carved from Prairie County.

Des Arc was a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis, Tennessee, to Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Thus, the mail and any travelers had to go through Des Arc.

The census of 1850 for Prairie County shows a population of slightly more than 2,300 people, including 273 slaves. In 1860, there were over 2,800 slaves and a total population of over 8,000. There were at least 125 slave owners in Prairie County during the time period leading up to the Civil War, and the most any one person owned was eighty-nine slaves. Cotton is one of the major factors that can be attributed to this significant increase in population, as manual labor had to be imported in large quantities to produce the cotton crop. It would be twenty years before Prairie County regained its pre-war population.

The Presbyterians established the first church in Prairie County, the Wattensas Presbyterian Church, which was organized by 1848 in the String Town community.

Civil War through the Gilded Age
Prairie County’s white residents supported the South wholeheartedly during the Civil War. The city of Des Arc enumerated a population of about 2,000 at the beginning of the war. During the war, the city was largely destroyed -- some of the buildings were burned, and others were moved by the United States army to DeValls Bluff. At war’s end, the population of Des Arc numbered around 400.

At the beginning of the Civil War, DeValls Bluff was home to a store, a dwelling house, and a boat landing. In the fall of 1863, General Frederick Steele moved from Clarendon (Monroe County) and occupied DeValls Bluff. From then until the close of the war, DeValls Bluff was a supply base for the Federal army. War materials were brought from Northern states down the Mississippi and then up the White River and stored in warehouses near the river. At DeValls Bluff, supplies could be shipped to Little Rock (Pulaski County) and other points west on the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad, as the railroad was not contiguous from Little Rock to Memphis on account of Delta swamplands. Large numbers of soldiers were stationed at DeValls Bluff, and many of them fell victim to the “Clarendon shakes” (i.e., malaria), which was prevalent in the area.

The next county seat was located in DeValls Bluff from 1868 through 1875. In 1875, the county seat was moved to Des Arc. Then, in 1885, the county was divided into northern and southern districts with courthouses in both Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. This division was due to the frequent flooding along the White River, which divided the county and made it impossible for citizens in the southern half of the county to pay their taxes on time.

Prairie County then began rebuilding. The Memphis and Little Rock Railroad was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. That same year, a rail line was laid through what is now Brasfield, which grew up around it. The railroad caused DeValls Bluff to lose its importance as a shipping center, and its population declined dramatically. Industries in the county after the war included fishing, timber, steamboat trade, railroading, and farming. Eventually, industries setting up shop in the county included button factories (using mussel shells from the White River), a boat oar factory, a cannery, stave mills, hay production, cotton gins, a flour mill, a nursery, an ice factory, and dairies. In 1882, the Wattensas Farmers’ Club was organized at the McBee home. The club worked toward the betterment of farmers throughout the county. Though ineffective at the time, the club quickly grew into a farming movement known as the Agricultural Wheel, which greatly impacted farming and politics in all of Arkansas.

The town of Slovak was created in November 1894 when Peter V. Rovnianek, F. J. Pucher, and members of forty other families formed the Slovak Colonization Company and bought 3,600 acres of land from P. R. Peterson. The settlers hoped to recreate the European homeland communities they remembered. The families, for the most part from Slovakia, unable to speak English, scratched out a 160-acre town amid head-high prairie grasses.

Early Twentieth Century
In 1903, William H. Fuller brought the rice industry to the Grand Prairie. Slowly, rice has become one of the major grains grown in this county. The silty loam soil proved itself to be excellent rice-growing ground.

In 1911, the Northern District courthouse in Des Arc once again burned, but the records were saved. The current courthouse was constructed in 1914.

During the Great Depression, many rural families relied upon the rivers and woods to provide food for their tables. Bartering became a way of life for local residents.

After the Flood of 1927, dams were established along the White River in northern Arkansas to help control the flood waters along the lower section of the river. Ferries were in use locally until about 1927, when a massive suspension bridge was built. This suspension bridge was operational until the early 1970s, when the state of Arkansas built an entirely new structure.

World War II through the Modern Era
During World War II, many Prairie County citizens were called to fight, and the population noticeably declined. After the war, many citizens remained farmers.

In 1969, the state legislature passed an act giving funding to the county to open up a museum in Des Arc. Today, this museum is known as the Lower White River Museum State Park. It documents a rich history of the town and the importance of the White River. During the first week of June, Des Arc hosts the annual Steamboat Days Festival.

Today, agriculture is still as important to Prairie County as it was in the nineteenth century. Much of the existing industry in the area remains farm related, especially rice, soybeans, and cotton.

The newest problem in the region stems from the exhaustion of the water supply. Both the Alluvial and Sparta aquifers have diminished through years of use, and plans have been put into place that may alleviate this problem by 2015.

For additional information:
Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Eastern Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1890.

Central Delta Historical Journal. Brinkley, AR: Central Delta Historical Society (1997–).

Sayger, Bill. A DeValls Bluff Remembrancer. N.p.: 1994.

———. An Eastern Arkansas Remembrancer. Parts 2, 4. N.p.: 2001, 2002.

———. A Grand Prairie Remembrancer. N.p.: 2000.

Sayger, Bill. Prairie County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.

Sickel, Marilyn Hambrick. Prairie County, Arkansas: Pioneer Family Interviews by W.P.A.–Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–37. DeValls Bluff, AR: Grand Prairie Research, 1989.

Marilyn Hambrick Sickel
DeValls Bluff, Arkansas

 Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Last Updated 11/12/2014

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