Arkansas has a long and storied history, and that history lives in its towns and cities. We scoured the state looking for the oldest of the old communities; communities that still value and protect the history lived there. Here’s what we found:
1. Arkansas Post
Arkansas Post was first settled in 1686, but was dissolved in the years following the Civil War. Arkansas Post was the capital of Arkansas Territory from 1819 until 1821, when Little Rock took that honor. So no, this one is not still a town, but its history is still being preserved. Today’s visitors to Arkansas Post will find the Arkansas Post National Memorial, a 757-acre protected area with a museum that’s been a state park since 1929.
Overlooking the totally gorgeous White River, Georgetown is a tiny town with a population of only 126. It is also the oldest continuously settled community in Arkansas. It was founded in 1789 in White County, though it was not actually incorporated until 1986.
Batesville had two names before it was called Batesville: Napoleon and Poke Bayou. It was first settled in 1810. In 1819, there was a ferry across the White River and about a dozen houses. The town plan was laid out in 1821 and 1822 gave the town a post office. It is currently the home of Lyon College, formerly called Arkansas College, and contains three separate National Register Historic Districts.
Pocahontas is just downstream from another, older community called Davidsonville. In 1835, however, Pocahontas was given its name. Local legend holds that when it was time to vote for community that would become the county seat of Randolph County, the delegates from Pocahontas did some trickery. They showed up with more booze than anyone and shared it with their fellow delegates. When it came time to vote, the Pocahontas delegation was the only one not passed out from the drinking.
5. Fort Smith
Fort Smith is the second largest city in Arkansas. It was founded as a military outpost in 1817, and became a proper incorporated city in 1842. During perhaps its most interesting period, hanging Judge Isaac C. Parker and a plucky contingent of U.S. Marshalls, tasked with bringing law to the lawless Indian Territory, were based in Fort Smith. To this date, the Fort Smith Visitor Center is housed in a former brothel. Yes, you read that right. Fort Smith maintains its wild border city reputation by housing its Visitor’s Center in a former brothel. A brothel that was operating as late as 1948.
6. Eureka Springs
Native Americans called Basin Spring a Great Healing Spring, and European explorers found that spring as early as 1856. The entire city of Eureka Springs is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was incorporated as a city in 1880, but had a long history of stories about the healing properties of Basin Spring. It continues to be a draw for those in need of relaxation and restoration.
7. Hot Springs
In 1832, the US Congress voted to protect the hot springs in the center of Arkansas, which had been drawing Native American populations since before anyone could remember and European settlers visited as early as 1541. The land became Hot Springs Reservation, our country’s oldest federal preserve. The reservation is now called Hot Springs National Park, and a thriving spa town grew up around it. It was incorporated as the Hot Springs we know and love today in 1851.
8. Van Buren
Van Buren was first settled in 1818, first known as Phillips Landing. The first post office was built in 1831 and called Van Buren after the then-Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. The town was incorporated under that name in 1842. Just across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, one of the town’s founding fathers, John Drennon, founded an important ferry in what is now Van Buren. His house is now a museum called the Drennon-Scott Historic Site. The old downtown area maintains its gorgeous Victorian appearance and houses many unique shops and restaurants.
9. Little Rock
Little Rock became a settlement in 1819. In 1836, when Arkansas became a state, Little Rock was named its capital because of its position on the Arkansas River, central location, and reputation as a growing population center. Before there was even a school in Little Rock, there was a newspaper. The Arkansas Gazette, now the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was established in 1819 and is the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi. The Old Mill, pictured above, is actually located in North Little Rock. Built in the 1880s, it was featured in the beginning of the classic movie, Gone with the Wind.
Settled in 1828 and known as Washington until 1829, Fayetteville was renamed after Fayetteville, Tennessee, where most of its settlers came from. It was incorporated in 1836. The telegraph arrived in 1860 along Military Road, which ran from Jefferson City, Missouri to Little Rock. There is a Civil War museum housed in the home that served as the Union headquarters during the “action at Fayetteville.” The University of Arkansas was established in Fayetteville in 1871, and Fayetteville remains a quirky college town set against the gorgeous Ozarks
Washington, in Hempstead County, was founded in 1826. Because of its proximity to both Texas and the Indian Territory, Washington saw thousands of Choctaws headed for the Indian Territory and American troops headed for the War with Mexico. That’s right, James Bowie, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett stayed in Washington before they headed for the Alamo. It is said that the legendary Bowie knife was invented there, by a blacksmith named James Black. You’re welcome, America.
12. Pine Bluff
Pine Bluff was named for its tall pine trees set on a high bank of the Arkansas River. In 1819 a fur trader named Joseph Bonne, of French and Quapaw ancestry, settled in what would become Pine Bluff. Many European settlers joined Bonne by 1824. Pine Bluff was chosen to serve as the county seat for Jefferson County in 1832, but it wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1839.
So go forth, and visit these storied towns. And how about your community? How old is your town?