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September 30, 1836
Carroll, Newton, and Washington
15,717 (2010 Census)
834.26 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)
18.8 people per square mile
Median Household Income (2009)
Per Capita Income (2005–2009)
Percent of Population below Poverty Line (2009)
Madison County is a beautiful and still largely unspoiled part of the Ozarks. Forests mostly of hardwood trees cover about two-thirds of the county. Rolling hills overlook clear rivers, and open fields and valleys make up the rest of the terrain. Madison County was home to two Arkansas governors: Issac Murphy and Orval E. Faubus.
Pre-European ExplorationArchaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in Madison County spanning the last 10,000 years. Mark R. Harrington, who did research in the area in the 1920s, wrote of “Ozark Bluff Dwellers,” but more recent research has reshaped historians’ views of these cultures. Early inhabitants lived along river and creek bottoms, in upland sites overlooking hollows, and in temporary shelters. Some of the earliest signs of agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn, are found in the Ozarks, as well as shell tempering in pottery and significant relations between humans and animals. By the time of European exploration, Madison County was part of the Osage hunting grounds, although they lived further north.
The state legislature established Madison County at its first session, on September 30, 1836. It was formed from parts of Washington, Carroll, and Newton counties, its northern boundary originally extending to Missouri. The boundaries were changed many times before being finalized in 1885. The odd rectangle that resulted is thirty-eight miles from north to south and twenty-two miles from east to west. The Ozark Mountains, part of the Boston Mountain Range, extend east to west across the southern part of the county.
Future governor Isaac Murphy settled in Huntsville in 1854, was appointed governor in 1864, and served until 1868. He returned to Huntsville at the end of his term and lived there until his death in 1882. He is buried in the Huntsville Cemetery.
Civil War through ReconstructionDuring the Civil War, county residents formed both Union and Confederate companies, and the war divided families and friends. Although only minor skirmishes took place in Madison County, the area was hit hard by the bushwhackers who rode throughout the countryside, stealing and pillaging. They burned homes, stole food and possessions, and left most families with little to live on.
As the county rebuilt after the war, churches and schools were the centers of community life. Early churches included Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. Initially, schools were taught by circuit-riding preachers, and then by traveling teachers, the first district being formed in 1868. There were at one time 125 schools in the county, each having from nine to fifty pupils. School was generally conducted for two or three months of the year.
The small farming community life familiar to the early pioneers continued to be the norm for Madison County well into the twentieth century.
Gilded Age though Early Twentieth CenturyWith the coming of the railroads, the timber industry flourished in Madison County. In the southern part of the county, millions of feet of virgin hardwood trees were harvested to be sawed into lumber, railroad ties, and barrel staves and shipped to other states. On September 4, 1886, the state granted a charter to the Fayetteville and Little Rock Railroad, and within a couple of years, tracks were laid from Fayetteville (Washington County) to Pettigrew so that the timber could be shipped easily.
The railroads also allowed the development of cash crops, including tomatoes and watermelons. There were small commercial canneries in several of the towns.
Many small towns sprang up along the rails, St. Paul being the largest. In 1900, its population was more than 1,000, making it larger than the county seat. The timber harvests lessened, the Great Depression set in, and the railroad ceased operation on July 31, 1937. Most of the boom towns along the railroad tracks quickly declined and became ghost towns.
Madison County was particularly hard hit by the Depression. The methods of the timber industry led to the erosion of topsoil, limiting the productivity of the county’s small farms. Malaria and other diseases plagued the area, and malnutrition was a serious problem.
World War II through the Faubus EraWorld War II led to continued hardship in Madison County, but the county participated in the good times following the war, with electricity coming to most of the area at that time. In 1946, the Lower Whorton Creek School in rural Madison County quietly enrolled a black pupil, Laverne Cook, despite state laws mandating segregation, due in part to the fact that she was the only school-age African-American child in the county, and arranging a segregated learning space would have been costly.
In the 1950s, livestock became a popular income source in the county, especially dairy cattle. Later, beef cattle production increased, and it remains one of the top income sources. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, northwest Arkansas became a major poultry-producing area. Chicken and turkey production became a significant source of income for many residents.
Governor Orval Faubus was born and raised in Madison County and served as governor for six terms, from 1955 to 1967. He died in 1994 and is buried in the Combs Cemetery.
Modern EraMadison County continues to be largely agricultural in character, with family farms and poultry processing providing the main occupations for residents of the county. New roads and industry have brought new residents and made travel through the county easier. While the ethnic makeup of Madison County has remained very homogeneous, about three percent of the population now are Hispanic, while another three percent are Asian, Native American, or African American.
Madison County also now serves as a “bedroom community” for the more populous neighboring Washington County.
AttractionsMadison County’s attractions include the Ozark Natural Science Center and the 786-acre Withrow Springs State Park. Withrow Springs was the original site of an overshot water wheel that operated a gristmill owned by a settler, James Withrow. The park features scenic mountains, bluffs, hiking trails through unspoiled wilderness, and its namesake, Withrow Spring, which comes out of a bluff and travels several miles before dumping into the War Eagle River.
One of the county’s unique features is that four rivers—White, War Eagle, Mulberry, and Kings—originate in the south part of the county, within a few miles of each other near Boston.
For additional information:
Hatfield, Kevin Louis. “The History of Education in Madison County, Arkansas, 1827–1948.” Ed.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 1991.
Sisk, Gloria J. Madison County: Remembrances of the Past. N.p.: 1986.
Whittemore, Carol. Fading Memories: A History of the Lives and Times of Madison County. 3 vols. Huntsville, AR: Madison County Record, 1989, 1992, 1999.
Rebecca HadenFayetteville, Arkansas
Joy RussellMadison County Genealogical and Historical Society
Last Updated 2/5/2019
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