Little Rock History

A Brief History of Little Rock

Little Rock's rich past spans from pioneer days in the 19th century to presidential elections at the close of the 20th century, covering significant eras in United States history such the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and all that came between or has come since.  Today, in downtown Little Rock, the old and new mix well together. Stately antebellum structures and ornate Victorian buildings neighbor gleaming new glass-facade skyscrapers stretching up into the river city's skyline with scenic, natural surroundings providing the backdrop.

But while Little Rock, a city of vision, charges full-steam ahead into the future, it also clings tightly to its rich and colorful Southern history. Arkansas's first capitol building, the Old State House, covers an entire block of the pioneer city and has been preserved and set aside as a museum since the early 1940s. Fronted by four massive Doric columns, the Greek Revival-style Old State House retains a place of prominence on downtown's major thoroughfare while being juxtaposed with the modern skyscraper housing the headquarters of Stephens, Inc., one of the largest brokerage firms off of Wall Street.

But before the city of Little Rock was even an idea, Native Americans occupied the Arkansas region for thousands of years. The earliest explorer to venture into the Arkansas territory was Hernando de Soto in 1541. Then came Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe who in 1722 led an expedition of fellow Europeans up the Arkansas River beginning at Arkansas Post, a French trading post founded in 1686 near the mouth of the river.

La Harpe, who is believed to have traveled about 50 miles above the present sites of Little Rock and North Little Rock, described the area when writing of the journey. He noted a landmark on the north bank of the Arkansas River, which he referred to as the "French Rock" (now known as "Big Rock"). While he didn't mention it specifically, he may have also seen another smaller outcropping of rock along the riverbanks he would have encountered before the larger one. The first outcropping of rock along the riverbanks above its mouth on the south bank came to be known as the "Little Rock." By 1769, amidst the Quapaw tribe inhabiting the south side and the Osage on the north, a handful of families of mixed French and Indian origin scattered along both sides of the river to form a settlement of sorts in the vicinity of this landmark.

In 1803, the United States made the largest land acquisition in American history. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, France sold an expansive territory to the United States, including what is now known as the State of Arkansas. The Louisiana Purchase marked the beginning of an era of growth and prosperity in Arkansas history that rapidly put Arkansas on the path to statehood.

When an 1808 treaty between the United States and the Osage ended the tribe's claim to a large area north of the river, a few Americans slowly began arriving to settle on the river's north bank. These early settlers were squatters, however, as the land was neither surveyed nor offered for sale until 1815.

In 1812 when Louisiana entered the Union as a state, Arkansas became part of the Missouri Territory. Through an 1818 treaty, the Quapaw ceded the vast majority of their land, including land south of the river and west of the "Little Rock," though they were not swayed until 1824 to forfeit the remaining land east of the "Little Rock." The Territory of Arkansas was created in 1819 and almost immediately land speculators began claiming land of the south bank of the river near the "Little Rock." In 1821, the legislature chose the Little Rock area to become the territorial capital, and the city of Little Rock was both founded and incorporated in 1831.

While Little Rock was an ideal place for a town - it was located nearly in the center of the territory, its river was usually navigable and the bluffs along the banks offered protection from flooding and Little Rock was a stop on the Southwest Trail from Louisiana and Texas. Nevertheless, growth came steadily but slowly because the area was so remote.

In 1819, Little Rock was home to a handful of settlers and just a few crude buildings, including four log "huts" and three larger structures. In the late 1820s, the city consisted of about 400 residents and 60 buildings, only about a fourth of them wood frame or brick; the rest were built of logs.

Despite its rustic frontier appearance and the rough reputation the city attained thanks to some hard-drinking, hard-living, knife-toting rowdy founding fathers, the community still had much to offer for its small size. It had a newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette founded in 1819 and the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi; schools, the first opened in 1823; and churches, the first established the following year.

That same year, Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a road between Little Rock and Memphis and it opened three years later. In 1826, the first stagecoach line in Arkansas was established between Little Rock and Arkansas Post. Leaving Little Rock every other Tuesday and returning the following Monday, it carried both passengers and mail.

In 1836, Arkansas became a state and Little Rock, in turn, the state's capital.

In 1860, 40 years after it was founded, Little Rock's population was just 3,700 and while residents were enjoying gas lighting in their homes and businesses for the first time, the ensuing Civil War brought construction on the railroad line between Little Rock and Memphis to a halt. It wouldn't be completed until 1871. But in the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, the city grew rapidly - by 1870 the population was at 12,380 - and construction surged.

By the end of the 19th century such modern amenities as electric lights, telephones and a public water system were introduced and growth continued, transforming Little Rock from a frontier town to a modern city. When streetcars were introduced, that growth was able to expand westward outside the central city and into what would be come Little Rock's first suburb, Pulaski Heights (now known as Hillcrest).

At the turn of the 20th century Little Rock had nearly 40,000 residents, more than 170 businesses, six rail lines, one seven-story building, a public library with 3,200 books, 75 churches and more than 60 social clubs.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, Little Rock saw several early skyscrapers rising in its skyline and its population grow to nearly 82,000. The Depression slowed Little Rock's growth and most of the major construction during the 1930s and 1940s were Works Progress Administration projects such as Robinson Center, the city's zoo and the city's arts museum.

In the 1940s, city leaders turned their attention to working to bring industry to Little Rock and by the early 1950s an industrial district had been established in the southwestern fringes of the city. Meanwhile, residents moved, in greater number, to suburbs and more and more roads were built to accommodate the ever-increasing automobile traffic.

Little Rock was thrust into the national and international spotlight in September 1957 when Little Rock Central High School became the site of the first important test of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling held racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Nine black students, known as the "Little Rock Nine," made Civil Rights history when, under protection of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army by orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, they entered Little Rock Central High School. Eisenhower's orders came after Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, citing safety concerns, had earlier called out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering.

Today, Little Rock is considered a city of racial and cultural diversity.

Little Rock also garnered considerable global attention when then-Governor Bill Clinton made his initial bid for the presidency in 1992 - and won. The Old State House in Little Rock was the site of his election night victory celebration, which he revisited in 1996 for his second winning campaign bid.

Today, Little Rock boasts a population of about 182,000 and is a thriving metropolis with an expanded convention center and new anchoring hotel, the Little Rock Marriott, the only full-service Marriott hotel in the state. Developments in the city's downtown include a newly developed River Market District, the creation of several loft apartments in renovated historic buildings; new corporate office buildings being constructed downtown; a new $80 million, 18,000 seat multi-purpose arena across the river; a recently expanded 42,000 square-foot Arts Center; and the city's first visitor center which recently opened in a historic antebellum home, Curran Hall, following a $1.4 million restoration.

Future developments include the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park (opening November 2004), Heifer International's global headquarters, several loft apartment developments in renovated historic buildings and the construction of new corporate office buildings.

The city continues to expand its boundaries, and more people are taking note of the wealth of entertainment opportunities Little Rock can provide - just as de Soto and la Harpe discovered centuries ago.

For more information about Little Rock and its amenities and attractions, contact the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau at 501-376-4781 or visit