The Arkansas River

Excerpted from
The Arkansas River Historical Society Museum
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TheRivers and streams of America have had a profound influence on regional growth and development. Where once rampaging waters menaced every valley, America’s waterways are today one of our greatest national assets. This dramatic transformation has resulted from the vision of early statesmen, the dreams of a determined people, and a studied visionary policy. At 1450 miles, the Arkansas is the longest tributary in the Mississippi-Missouri system. From its source near Leadville, Colorado, the river drops 10,000 feet in 125 miles, carving out scenic beauty including the Royal Gorge. It travels through Kansas, where it irrigates wheat fields, then through Northeastern Oklahoma. There it is joined by the Canadian, Cimarron, Neosho-Grand, and Verdigris Rivers. It then crosses the state of Arkansas where it empties into the Mississippi River 600 miles north of New Orleans.


The Arkansas River is discovered by Europeans before the Mississippi. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado crossed the Arkansas near present day Dodge City, Kansas, using a fording place frequented by native peoples and buffalo.

A short time later, Hernando de Soto was on the lower part of the Arkansas. Within a month he discovered the Mississippi. Descending the Mississippi, he reached the Arkansas River near the latter day Arkansas Post, and turned up stream in search of the Indian town of Coliqua which was in the general area of Little Rock.


Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet came down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas.


La Salle claimed the Arkansas in the name of the King of France.

DeTonty is met by friendly Indians at the mouth of the Arkansas.


DeTonty established a fort at the mouth of the Arkansas and called it Poste Aux Arcansas. It is known today as Arkansas Post. This was the first white settlement in Louisiana Territory.


John Law obtained a personal grant 12 miles square on the Arkansas River and planned to establish a personal grand duchy.


La Harpe and soldiers camped at Petit Roche (Little Rock).


Treaty of Paris (ending the French and Indian War) transferred Louisiana Territory from France to Spain.


The Colbert Incident, the only Revolutionary War skirmish occurring west of the Mississippi, occurred at Arkansas Post.


Development of navigable waterways was an early concern of the government of the United States. After the American Revolution tension mounted regarding control of the Trans-Appalachian West. There were fears that Britain, Spain, or even France would step in to claim a part of that territory.

George Washington, concerned about waterway use and internal development, endorsed the Ordinance of 1787. An excerpt from Article IV states:

"The navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence....shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of said territory as to citizens of the United States....without any tax, impost, or duty...."

This act provided the cornerstone for the free waterways policy of the United States during the past two centuries.


Riverboat trade by early French explorers and traders who brought up goods suitable for trading with the Indians for furs and skins. They used bull-boats (constructed by stretching buffalo hides over a framework of tree limbs), pirogues (hollowed-out logs), flatboats and keelboats (designed for one- way use. After cargo was delivered and unloaded, keelboat would be broken up for scrap).

As a result of international tensions and the War of 1812, there is little movement toward legislation for improvement of inland waterways. The war did make evident the need for more reliable internal transportation systems.


Jean Pierre Chouteau establishes the first permanent White settlement along the Arkansas, in what would eventually become Oklahoma.


The United States of America purchases the Louisiana Territory which includes the Arkansas River Basin. This acquisition effectively doubles the size of the young republic. President Jefferson commissions Merriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the region.


Zebulun Pike explored the Arkansas River.


Robert Fulton's steamboat made its historic trip up the Hudson.


The first steamboat on western rivers, the "NEW ORLEANS, arrived at its namesake city.


The ENTERPRISE, the second steamboat on the western rivers, reached New Orleans.


Henry Shreve's steamboat WASHINGTON, launched at Wheeling, West Virginia. Shreve's WASHINGTON was the fastest yet built, making the 1500 mile New Orleans to Louisville run in only 24 days.


Fort Smith established.


During the flurry of nationalism which followed the War of 1812, Congress passed a resolution formally defining its authority.

"Resolved that Congress has power, under the Constitution, to appropriate money for the construction of post roads, military and other roads, and of canals, and for the improvement of water courses." (Annals of Congress, 15th, 1st, 1382-1384.)


1819-1821, Thomas Nuttall, Harvard botanist, travels the "Arkansa" and keeps a record of his observations. "A number of families were now about to settle, or rather take provisionary possession of the land purchased from the Osages, situated along the banks of the Arkansa, from Frog bayou to the falls of the Verdigris..." Nuttall’s travels take him to the mouth of the Verdigris River.

Auguste Chouteau built a boatyard in the Three Forks area (near present day Muskogee), to accommodate the shipping of furs to New Orleans. His boats were 50 to 60 feet long and carried about 50 tons of freight.

Arkansas Post selected as capital of Arkansas Territory.


March 31. The first steamboat on Arkansas was the COMET. She was 154 tons, and was constructed in Cincinnati in 1817. It took eight days for the COMET to reach Arkansas Post from New Orleans.


March 17. On this day the EAGLE became the first steamboat to reach Little Rock. She had been recently built at Cincinnati, and carried supplies for Dwight Mission among the Cherokees.

Within the next 30 days, the ROBERT THOMPSON passed Little Rock, to dock at Fort Smith, with a load of provisions for the garrison.


The steamboat Florence, 60 tons, brought up 100 recruits for the new military post at Fort Gibson.

Congress authorized Federal public works in the first river improvement bill and the first harbor improvement bill.

April 24, the General Survey Act authorizes the President to use Army engineers to survey road and canal routes "of national importance, in a commercial or military point of view."

The establishment of Fort Gibson brought heavier river traffic. As supplies for delivery along tributaries of the Arkansas came in at Fort Smith, they were unloaded and reshipped by keelboats and ox wagons to their destination.


Congress adopted the first of what were to be a long series of "Rivers and Harbors" bills. Support for internal improvements grew out of the pressing need to provide improved transportation facilities and low-cost access for agricultural products from the Ohio River Valley.


The FACILITY, 117 tons, became the first steamboat to ascend the Verdigris. It brought Creek emigrants; departed with 500 barrels of pecans.


The JAMES O’HARA--at 200 tons--the biggest recorded steamboat to have plied the Arkansas, brought recruits and 100 Cherokee emigrants to Fort Gibson.

Sam Houston arrived at Three Forks (near present day Muskogee).

First River Act authorizes work on Arkansas River, to maintain a channel to the mouth of the Grand (Neosho) River, granting $15,000 for that work. Snag boats are necessary to clear debris from the river.


Seventeen boats docked at Fort Gibson regularly.

Record Arkansas River Flood at Little Rock, AR.


The Chickasaws came up the Arkansas River and landed at Fort Coffee on the way to their new homes in the western Choctaw lands.


The Cherokee on the "Trail of Tears," as the Creeks before them, come up the Arkansas on flatboats.


Greatest flood of record on Arkansas River at Pine Bluff, AR.


Eighteen steamers made 115 roundtrips between Napolean (trading post on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Arkansas) and Little Rock.

However, no boat reached Fort Gibson from Little Rock this year because of low water. Boats aground at Webbers Falls were the ROLLA, WABASH VALLEY, FRANKLIN, and BEN FRANKLIN.


The KNOW NOTHING (named for the Constitutional Union party whose members answered "I know nothing" when queried about their views) was launched at Little Rock. It drew only three inches of water with an empty hull, six inches when outfitted, and just two feet when fully loaded.


The ROCK CITY, a steamboat of 250 tons, 127 feet long, 28 foot beam, with 16 staterooms, was launched at Little Rock. It drew only 10 inches.


Confederate troops constructed an earthen fortification known as Fort Hindman, located on a peninsula bordered by the Arkansas River and two backwaters.


In January, Union troops destroyed Fort Hindman and the adjacent river port town, ensuring control of the Arkansas River.


River traffic in the Indian Territory and the lower Arkansas began to decline.


Twenty steamboats, averaging 300 tons of cargo, plied between Fort Gibson, Fort Smith, Little Rock, and New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.


With government assistance the Railroad industry grew to dominate interstate transportation in the United States. Railroads used the advantage of government subsidies to systematically reduce freight charges. The effect this had on waterway transportation was to either lower prices and compete, or suspend operations. This challenge combined with the already fickle nature of the river served to eliminate commercial traffic on the Arkansas.

The federal government would ultimately take action against the railroads for taking undue advantage of competitors, but this came too late to revive steamboat service on the Arkansas River.

December 25. First Katy locomotive to cross the Arkansas River.


The Arkansas Gazette published an incomplete list of 117 steamboats that had been lost on the Arkansas.


The AUNT SALLY, 85 feet long and 18 feet wide, left Little Rock on June 18, and arrived in Arkansas City, Kansas, on June 30. Great rejoicing in Kansas!


From 1880-1905, twelve irrigation canals constructed to divert water from the Arkansas River between the Colorado state line and Great Bend. These twelve canals were intended to irrigate from 5,000 to 100,000 acres.


The Army Corps of Engineers established an office at Little Rock.


"The bottom too near the top." So said an owner of the KANSAS MILLER in July, 1885, when 2000 pounds of flour from Arkansas City, consigned to the Kaw Agency, had to be unloaded and hauled overland the last few miles because the river was too low.


20,818 acres of land in Kansas are irrigated by Arkansas River water.


From 1900-1910, irrigation wells began to be constructed in the Arkansas valley. This development occurred because of the rapid expansion of irrigation in Colorado. This expansion in Colorado caused the flow in the Arkansas River to cease during July and August when water was so sorely needed by Kansas irrigators. Well water could be obtained at depths of 6 to 20 feet. These early wells were constructed to supplement the river flows, not to replace river water.


Two years before Oklahoma statehood, the Muskogee Commercial Club organized the Arkansas Navigation Company. The reasoning was that river navigation could take advantage of the oil boom in Indian Territory. The "MARY D.," was purchased and a commercial run was established between Fort Smith and Muskogee. The Commercial Club raised $15,000, and contracted the building of a 125 foot long packet. When delivered in July, 1908, she was dubbed "CITY OF MUSKOGEE." Banners on the boat boasted "Bound for Oklahoma."


Flooding along the Arkansas in Tulsa. The railroads are hit hard.


For all practical purposes, steamboats were driven into retirement.

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