A brief history of Pocahontas
Pocahontas is located on the east and west sides of the Black River in northeast Arkansas. The east side of the river marks the western edge of the delta of the Mississippi River. The west bank marks the easternmost extension of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. The City is located in a geographical and cultural transition zone between those areas.
From the west bank of the river on into the Ozarks was the hunting ground of the Osage Tribe. The east bank on to the Mississippi River was the historical land of the Quapaw Tribe. In 1750, early French explorers found a trading village of the Michigamea Tribe located along the river in what’s now Pocahontas. This was one of two Michigamea settlements in Arkansas. The Michigamea served as middlemen between the other two tribes for trade purposes.
In approximately 1770, the French (members of the de Tonti Expedition in Arkansas) established a trading post near the Michigamea village along the river in the area that later became the Port of Pocahontas (now black River Overlook Park.)
Pocahontas was located near the entry point of the Old Military Road (Southwest Trail) into Arkansas. Most of the earliest Arkansas settlers after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase traveled through this area—many stayed resulting in the sites of thirteen significant firsts being located here . Arkansas’s second town, Davidsonville, was established 8 miles south of Pocahontas in 1811.
A Frenchman, Louis Demun, established Arkansas’s first grist mill at deMun Mills in what’s now south Pocahontas in 1813. The first U. S. citizens settled in what is now Pocahontas in 1827. A gonghunter’ from the east, George Mansker, established a blockhouse in what’s now north Pocahontas at that time. That same year, a ferryman from Greenville, Mo., came down the Black River looking for a site for a trading post and ferry. He found the ideal spot at Pocahontas–a broad, relatively flat plain above a highbank at a major bend of the river which would become the Port of Pocahontas. The traveler was Ransom S. Bettis, considered the founder of Pocahontas. Above the port area, a limestone bluff rose over 200′, the eastern edge of the Ozarks. This was important as it would allow settlement above the river’s floodplain in an area relatively free of mosquitoes and the malaria and yellow fever they bore. Bettis established a trading post and operatory on the site of the old French trading post and established a river ferry here. In 1827, he built a large home on the bluff above the river. The bluff and the settlement that grew up there became known as Bettis Bluff (the site was originally named Cracked Skull Commons).
Bettis adopted as his protege Thomas S. Drew who married Bettis’ only child, Cinderella Bettis Drew. Drew became Arkansas’s third governor in 1842. In 1835, Drew and Bettis caused what is now Randolph County to be formed from Lawrence County. They also threw a famous (infamous) free bar-b-que accompanied by abundant free liquor the following spring that resulted in Bettis Bluff being voted as the seat of government for the new county. At that time, Drew and Bettis changed the name of the town from Bettis Bluff to Pocahontas. Many theories abound as to why the name was changed, but no record or document exists to explain the change.
The Black river at Pocahontas was the northernmost point of year around navigation in what became Arkansas, first by flat and keel boats, later by steamboats. Pocahontas soon became the leading river port in north Arkansas. The volume of commerce through the Port of Pocahontas made it the leading commercial port in Arkansas from 1840 to the early 1850s. The busy port served a vast hinterland to its west into the Ozarks and north into Missouri. The City was incorporated by the state in 1856.
When Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861, Governor Rector ordered every available soldier in the state (the state militia) to Pocahontas. The obvious invasion route into Arkansas by Union forces from Missouri was along the Military Road (Southwest Trail) to the Port of Pocahontas with river transportation available into central Arkansas. . To the east of Pocahontas, the land was swampy and contained practically no roads. To the west were the Ozarks—very rough terrain, again with few roads. The troops ordered to Pocahontas, organized as the Army of Northern Arkansas under General Hardee, soon fortified the City and ringed it with earthen works. Camp Shaver, the primary basic training camp for Confederate troops in Arkansas was established here. The only Confederate military hospital in the state was established here as well. The Port of Pocahontas became the primary Confederate supply depot in Arkansas. In late 1861, the Confederate Army of Missouri under General Sterling Price was run out of Missouri and established its headquarters in Pocahontas. In early, 1862, the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy was established. The Army of the West was created under Major General Earl Van Dorn and established its headquarters here—headquarters for all Confederate forces west of the Mississippi. The total Confederate forces in Pocahontas at that time exceeded 35,000.
Later in 1862, all Confederate forces in Arkansas were ordered into Tennessee to meet the advancing forces of General U. S. Grant. This left Arkansas totally unprotected from Union forces in Missouri. Pocahontas and its region would soon pay the price for this. In early 1863, Union forces captured Pocahontas and her port. The downtown commercial district and some residential areas were put to the torch by Union forces at that time. Pocahontas would for the remainder of the war suffer greatly from the raids of marauders and bushwhackers lead by the infamous Quanta and others. “Irregular” Union forces in groups of over 350 men made regular raids on the citizens of the City. When regular Union forces returned to the City in 1865 to restore order, they were met in the streets by women of the town crying “halleluiah, we are saved.”
Pocahontas recovered slowly from the devastation of the war. The City gradually recovered its position as the major river port of the region. By the early 1880s through 1910, the City benefited from an influx of Jewish entrepreneurs and financiers and large numbers of skilled German Catholic immigrants who rejuvenated the ruined plantations of the area and rebuilt the City as a commercial center.
With the coming of the railroads to the City in 1897, the river trade once so important to Pocahontas decreased until it was no longer a major factor by 1920. The river served as another important resource from the late 1800s until about 1910. Pearls were found in the abundant fresh water mussels of the Black River. Then began the Great Black River Pearl Rush. A tent city of pearl prospectors from all over the world lined the banks of the river for about 7 years, south into the next county. During the first 7 years of the Great Pearl Rush, the equivalent of $7,000,000 in today’s dollars in pearls was taken from the river. As vast numbers of mussels were being taken from the river, local entrepreneurs soon learned a use for the huge piles of mussel shells piling up locally. Soon seven pearl button factories operated in the City. Button blanks from the shells were sent to New York City to be crafted into fine pearl buttons. This industry flourished here until the 1940s when plastic buttons that would stand the rigors of laundry and ironing were developed.
The recovery of the City from the devastation the Civil War continued until halted once again by the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the 1960s, Pocahontas had become a regional center of light industry and farm supplies—as it is today. The City today has a growing heritage tourism industry and is a leading center for arts and education in the region. Attractions include a 17 block National Historic District, outstanding Victorian architecture, art galleries, and unique shopping and dining opportunities enjoyed by visitors from the world over. Other features include the Civil War River Walk, Arkansas’s first quilt trail, and many examples of public art. The county’s five navigable rivers—beautiful rivers flowing from some of North America’s largest springs– offer some of the region’s most outstanding resorts.