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October 22, 1825
50,902 (2010 Census)
609.76 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)
83.4 people per square mile
Median Household Income (2009)
Per Capita Income (2005–2009)
Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2009)
Crittenden County is located in east-central Arkansas. Its eastern and southern boundaries are the Mississippi River. To its west are Lee, St. Francis, and Cross counties. Mississippi County and Poinsett County form its northern borders. According to historian Margaret Woolfolk, “Crittenden is entirely on the bottom land of the Mississippi River….Total thickness of the sediment exceeds 100 feet.” Because of its astonishing fertility, the area became an obvious location for agricultural development. In the modern era, it has also become a major transportation thoroughfare.
European Exploration and SettlementArtifacts found in Crittenden County—including effigy pipes, stone ear plugs, and ornaments—testify to a long habitation of the area by Native Americans. Some archaeologists place the location of Pacaha, visited by the expedition of Hernando de Soto, within the present borders of the county. Crittenden County was later settled by Spanish grantees. Its first resident of note was a Spanish sergeant named Augustine Grande, who was the commander of Fort Esperanza, built by the Spanish in 1795 on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Title to the land was passed to France in 1801. When the title passed to the United States in 1803, Grande decided to remain in the area, where he held power of attorney for numerous Spanish grantees and was said to be active in numerous land transactions. His will, probated in 1828, gave to his wife the “negroes, herds, horses and cattle.”
Louisiana Purchase through Early StatehoodNamed for Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory, Crittenden County, the twelfth to be created, came into being on October 22, 1825. Marion was selected as the county seat and inaugurated the first session of the county court on April 12, 1836. West Memphis, Crittenden County’s largest city, was formerly called Garvey. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River south of the community of Hopefield, West Memphis was named by General George Nettleton, an official of the Kansas City and Fort Scott Railroad; however, it was not until 1893 that postal authorities recognized the name. Smaller communities formed early in the county’s history include Crawfordsville, Horseshoe Lake, Gilmore, Jericho, Edmundsville, Jenette, Sunset, and Turrell.
Civil War through ReconstructionThough apparently no battles were fought in Crittenden County, government activities virtually ceased during the Civil War. With a county electorate after the war that was now sixty-seven percent African American—because many supporters of the Confederacy had been declared ineligible to vote in 1867 as a result of the Reconstruction Acts—racial difficulties within the county during this time period became the rule rather than the exception. As a terrorist organization that refused to accept the new Republican order, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was extremely active in Crittenden County. Throughout parts of Arkansas, the Klan intimidated, threatened, and murdered African Americans, as well as whites who supported the Republican Party. The response of the Republican governor, Powell Clayton, was to declare martial law in fourteen counties, including Crittenden County. To implement his decision, Clayton prevailed upon the legislature to create a state militia that included African Americans. A number of fierce skirmishes ensued. Only the intervention of William Monks, who commanded 600 troops from Missouri, saved a detachment of black militiamen from being slaughtered at the county courthouse in Marion. In the late 1860s, hundreds of black citizens in Crittenden County periodically sought protection from plantation owner E. M. Main, who was a Freedmen’s Bureau official succeeding his murdered predecessor.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded AgeBy 1874, Reconstruction in Arkansas had ended, and the Democrats returned to power. With its heavily black populations now empowered with the right to vote for adult males (due to the Fifteenth Amendment), the eastern part of the state presented a major problem for powerful whites trying to keep black workers satisfied enough to stay in Arkansas and provide the essential labor force that kept the plantation system going. The political solution in most of these counties, including Crittenden, was known as “fusion.” Each election cycle, white and black residents agreed in advance upon a division of county offices and representation in the legislature. Though whites invariably retained most of the important offices (even as of 2008 there has been only one black county judge in the state), fusion worked after a while. Indeed, by 1888, African Americans occupied the following major offices in Crittenden County: judge, county clerk, assessor, and a representative in the state legislature. Woolfolk writes that “a group of about 80 whites assembled at Marion about 10 a.m. July 13, 1888, and marched to the courthouse where David Ferguson [the county clerk] was forced to resign at the muzzle of a Winchester rifle….Other blacks were taken by wagon to the Mississippi River, then by boat to Memphis, and released.” Despite the fact that Crittenden County was overwhelmingly black in 1888, no African Americans were afterward elected to a county office for the next 100 years.
Because of the county’s location, levees and drainage districts have been essential to its development. An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of approximately 8,600,000 acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible. By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It was not until 1893, however, that major flood control efforts resulted in the Arkansas legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line into Crittenden County in 1897 when spring floods turned the county into a “perfect Venice.”
The third-largest city in Crittenden County is Earle in the western part of the county in Tyronza Township, a mile east of the Crittenden–Cross County line. Named for Confederate officer Josiah Francis Earle and later active Ku Klux Klan leader, Earle received its first postmaster in 1890 and prospered in the early days of the county because of the lumber industry. At one time, it was the largest city in Crittenden County.
Early Twentieth CenturyThough there have been no Mississippi River levee breaks since 1927, the floods of 1927 and 1937 rendered hundreds of families in Crittenden County homeless because of backwaters from the St. Francis River. Because natural drains were blocked by the levee, Crittenden County landowners have been forced to rely on the creation of drainage districts. Since 1899, bonds have been issued to raise money for drainage districts throughout the county. Completion of the ditches eliminating swamps and brakes have allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.
Between 1900 and 1936, six black men were lynched in the county. It may well have been more. With the Great Depression, Crittenden County exhibited some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. In 1936, a gang of white riding bosses and planters entered the Providence Methodist Church outside of Earle where 450 black sharecroppers were gathered for a meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and began beating them with ax handles and pistol butts. That same year, Paul D. Peacher, a deputy sheriff of Crittenden County who had his own farming operation on the side, was revealed to be engaging in peonage. “Slavery in Arkansas” ran a headline in Time magazine on December 7, 1936.
Historian Michael Dougan has written that the town of Crawfordsville spent fifty-seven dollars on white education for every dollar spent on education for African Americans. According to Woolfolk, Marion, the county seat, “never had a school building for the sole purpose of Negroes’ education.” It was not until 1925 that an elementary school for black children was built outside of Marion in the all-black community of Sunset. Though some high school courses were available after 1935, people wanting higher education were forced to go to schools in Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis, and elsewhere. Even the high school courses that were available at Phelix High School in Sunset were not free to black students. Though buses were provided for white students, buses for black students were not used until the fall of 1946.
In addition to facilities for railroads, the first industry to be located in West Memphis was Bragg Mill, which in the 1920s used 200 mules and 200 oxen. Taylor Bragg owned 3,000 acres of land. The Federal Compress & Warehouse Company opened in 1923 and at one time had a capacity of 165,000 bales, making it the state’s largest compress. It was demolished in 1980.
World War II through the Faubus EraThe state of black education continued to draw national attention to Crittenden County. In the March 21, 1949, issue of Life magazine, an article with accompanying photographs dealt with the conditions of black education in West Memphis, which spent an average of $144.51 for each white child’s education and $19.51 for the education of each black child. Photographs revealed the crowded conditions in the black school, which had been partially destroyed by fire. Some 310 students and their five teachers were squeezed into five rooms of the gutted building, and 370 more were packed into a one-room church. On September 27, 1949, a bond issue for a new black school was defeated. Meanwhile, a new $300,000 facility for 900 white children had just opened. Not until 1971 did the first black students graduate from Marion High School.
Modern EraBecause it was not as affected as the rest of the county during the Depression, West Memphis continued to grow from a population of 895 in 1930 to 3,369 in 1940. It more than doubled in size during the war years and, by 1950, had a population of 9,112. By 1990, it had a population of 28,259; in that year, an estimated 2,000 people were employed in a variety of jobs by West Memphis processing and manufacturing industries, turning out products such as truck tires, Christmas ornaments, laminated materials, water treatment chemicals, and welding fittings. According to Woolfolk, West Memphis’s growth could be attributed to the city’s location, its development as the county’s financial center, and its industrial and business developments. Though population growth has been stagnant in recent years, due in part to “white flight,” the city’s prime location at the crossroads of Interstates 40 and 55 and major rail routes has enabled it to maintain its economic base as a major transportation center. Though agriculture is still a crucial aspect of the economy, King Cotton has been dethroned by the soybean, and with the enormous costs inherent in food production, there is no room for the small farmer. The average size of farms in the county is 1,284 acres.
With the shooting fatality of twelve-year-old De Aunta Farrow by a West Memphis police officer in 2007, racial tensions have continued, in some ways, to define West Memphis, the largest city in the county. Like other towns in the Arkansas Delta, West Memphis experiences political battles divided along racial lines. At the same time, Marion, the county seat, has experienced dramatic growth in the twenty-first century as it became known as a bedroom community for Memphis and has attracted white West Memphis residents to its school system.
For additional information:Claiborne, Taylor, ed. West Memphis, 1927–1976. West Memphis, AR: Printing Crafts Inc., 1976.
The Crittenden County Rambler: Guide to Historic Places. West Memphis, AR: Crittenden County Historical Society, 1983.
Jones, Krista Michelle. “‘It was awful, but it was politics’: Crittenden County and the Demise of African American Political Participation.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2012.
Woolfolk, Margaret Elizabeth. A History of Crittenden County, Arkansas. Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1993.
Grif StockleyLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 2/26/2016
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