When Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River on a foggy morning, Saturday, June 18, 1541, he and his expedition were the first Europeans to walk the land known today as the State of Arkansas. In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet met the Quapaw Indians (Link to Quapaw Indians) at the mouth of the Arkansas River. When Father Marquette asked for the name of the Indians, his Iroquois guide replied, “Arkansa.” From that, the name of the state was derived…Arkansas. In 1686, Henri de Tonti established a small fort, Arkansas Post, at the mouth of the Arkansas River.
From this humble beginning, the state of Arkansas grew. The early settlers were French and Spanish, but in 1803 America purchased almost all of the Midwest from France in a transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase. This area included what is now known as Arkansas, Jefferson County and Pine Bluff.
French and Spanish settlers intermarried with Quapaw women and some of their descendents still live in Jefferson County. From one of these relationships came Joseph Bonne who was born in 1793 and was baptized by a visiting priest at Arkansas Post. Records dating back to 1801 show that “fifty miles up the Arkansas River on the Bonne Reserve lived Joseph Bonne, Michael Bonne and other taxpayers named Bonne.”
Joseph Bonne was interpreter for the United States government at the signing of the Quapaw Cession at St. Louis, Missouri, August 21, 1818. Due to a great flood in 1819, Bonne and his wife, Mary Imbeau, moved five miles upstream from the Bonne Reserve to the place later named Pine Bluff. This was the first bluff above the mouth of the river and was covered by towering pine trees, the eastern boundary of the coastal plain of South Arkansas.
Bonne built a log cabin with a lean-to which served as his home…as well as a tavern with lodging accommodations for travelers. The settlement was officially named “The Town of Pine Bluff” by the county court on October 16, 1832.
A key factor in the early growth of Pine Bluff was the arrival of the steamboats on the Arkansas River.
During the Civil War, the Battle of Pine Bluff was fought on October 25, 1863, when Confederate General John S. Marmaduke led 2,500 men in an attack on 550 federal troops under the command of Colonel Powell Clayton. Fighting from behind a breastwork of cotton bales erected by 300 former slaves, or freedmen, Clayton warded off the rebel attacks for five hours. Marmaduke withdrew rather than risk heavy losses. A number of stores and other buildings were burned along with the bulk of the federal army’s supplies during the battle.
Reconstruction after the war included a three year period of martial law concluded by the adoption of a new state constitution in 1868. The first public school supported by taxes was begun in 1869. Afro-American private school had been established in 1866 by the American Missionary Society. Those schools were absorbed into the public school system.
With the coming of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s, Pine Bluff grew from 2,081 in 1870 to almost 10,000 people in 1890. An agricultural boom resulted as planters could easily transport their cotton markets in New Orleans and St. Louis. The cotton Belt Railway played an important role in the growth of the city with the building of extensive maintenance and car building facilities.
The turn of the century brought a flourishing lumber industry with the Sawyer-Austin Lumber Company (later Long-Bell) constructing a large lumber manufacturing plant. This was combined with the expansion of Bluff City Lumber Company with mills in Pine Bluff, Kearney (near Redfield, Arkansas) and Clio in South Jefferson County. Pine Bluff’s two major railroads opened lumber markets nationwide.
World War I saw the city making its contribution to the war effort. After a short period of depression, the city once more moved forward until encountering the Great Depression of the 1930s. This economic disaster was brought to a close by World War II. Pine Bluff was the site of a primary flight school at a newly constructed airport called Grider Field. Fledgling pilots were trained by the Pine Bluff School of Aviation, a civilian operation under the guidance of the U.S. Army. The Pine Bluff Arsenal was constructed just prior to World War II and is still operated by the U.S. Army today. The Arsenal’s original mission was to manufacture incendiary bombs for the British. However, that mission changed drastically when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States into global conflict.
The post war period was also witness to continued growth for Pine Bluff with the construction of two paper mills in 1957-1958 by International Paper Company and the Dierks lumber interests. Pine Bluff’s population increased from 20,000 in 1930 to 55,000 today.
Saracen was a chief of the Quaapws during the tragic era when their numbers dwindled and they were moved out of Arkansas through treaties with the U.S. Government. Prior to this, however, the Quapaws helped civilize a wild frontier, later to be known as the State of Arkansas, by keeping the peace in Southeast Arkansas and befriending the early settlers.
The State of Arkansas is named for the Quapaw Indians, although the word, “Arkansa,” was given to Father Jacques Marquette when he asked his Illinoian speaking Indian guides for the name of the friendly people who befriended him at the mouth of the Arkansas River in 1693. Both “Arkansa” and “Quapaw” translate into “the downstream people” and refer to the same people.
The year 1693 was the first recorded mention of the Quapaws and for the following 1331 years, the “downstream people” were protective of and friendly to the early settlers. Quapaw warriors were obviously fierce and aggressive, for they kept the marauding Chickasaw nation at bay. The Chickasaws practically wiped out the lower Mississippi delta of other Indian tribes, but seldom bothered the smaller Quapaw nation located just across the Mississippi River.
The most famous Quapaw in local lore is Saracen. He was born around 1735 of mixed parentage. His father is believed to be Cadet Francois Sarazin, and the two names are listed side by side on the 1744 Register of Arkansas Post. In the ascendancy of the American Occupation of Arkansas, Saracen was listed as “an old man” when he talked to Father John Odin near Pine Bluff in 1824.
Sometime between 1744 and 1824 there occurred the incident that was the springboard for the legend of Saracen, rescuer of captured children. The popular version of the legend took place at Pine Bluff. A marauding band of Chickasaws allegedly stole two children from a young mother who beseeched Saracen to return her children. He agreed to make the rescue attempt and followed the Chickasaws downriver, overtaking them late at night. The Quapaw warwhoop erupted out of the dark woods, legend has it, echoing repeatedly and drove off the Chickasaws. Saracen then returned the children to their mother.
This version of the legend was used by T.B. Morton in his novel, “Daniel Hovey,” published in 1901. In the novel, Daniel Hovey was one of the children Saracen rescued and whose life was interwoven into the history of Pine Bluff and Arkansas.
In 1824 the Quapaws signed the treaty in which they abandoned all of their lands in Southeast Arkansas and moved to the Caddo country near present day Texarkana. This exodus was led by Antoine Barraque and Saracen. But the relocation did not prove successful and most of the Quapaws quietly moved back to Jefferson County. Consequently, the Quapaws signed a final treaty in 1833, agreeing to move to Oklahoma, just northwest of Fort Smith.
Saracen, however, did not go to Oklahoma. He petitioned the governor of Arkansas to be allowed to spend his remaining days on the river of his youth. His petition was granted and Saracen was given acreage on the river where the Port of Pine Bluff is presently located.
When he died, Saracen was buried in the old town cemetery, located behind the Methodist church at Fourth Avenue and Main Street.
The Saga of Saracen does not end there, though. The body of Saracen was almost stolen from his chosen home and the people of Pine Bluff. In the early 1880s, the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology sent into this area a man named Edward Palmer to collect Quapaw information and artifacts, and to send everything back to Washington, DC. The Bureau man wanted to disinter Saracen’s remain and ship them off to Washington, too. The people of Pine Bluff rebelled, however, and would not reveal to Mr. Palmer the whereabouts of Saracen’s grave.
In 1888, when the old town cemetery was moved to Bellwood, the grave of Saracen was pointed out to Father J.M. Lucy, pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Father Lucy petitioned his bishop to be allowed to reinter Saracen’s remains in the Catholic cemetery. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald agreed and Saracen, the old chief, rests in peace to this day, safe amongst the townspeople who regard him highly still.
1814 – First settlements recorded in what is now Jefferson County
1914 – First concrete road in Arkansas, “The Dollarway,” completed between PB and LR
1927 – Mississippi River and its tributaries flood affecting not only Pine Bluff, but seven states
1941 – Construction of Pine Bluff Arsenal began
1976 – Fire destroyed Jefferson County Courthouse
Historical information courtesy of the Pine Bluff / Jefferson County Historical Museum, located in the old train station, Fourth Avenue and State Street, 201 East Fourth Avenue, Pine Bluff, AR 71601 (541-5402), open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer months and 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the winter. There is no charge for admission and tour groups are always welcome. The Historical Museum is supported by memberships from the general public.
Other Historical Persons Relevant to Pine Bluff:
Wiley Jones (1848 – 1904) – African American entrepreneur in real estate, public transportation, and entertainment; and racetrack owner. By the turn of the 20th century, Wiley Jones had become the richest African-American man in Arkansas and one of richest in the South.
Gilbert Maxwell “Bronco Billy” Anderson (1880 – 1971) – Film actor and producer
Carolyn Blakely (1936 – present) – Educator and the first woman to head a four-year, state university
Wiley Branton (1923 – 1988) – African American attorney and pioneering civil rights activist
Jim Ed Brown (1934 – present) – Country music star; in Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame (at the Pine Bluff Convention Center)
Willie Kavanaugh Hocker (1862 – 1944) – designed the flag of the State of Arkansas
Martha Mitchell (1918 – 1976) – wife of Attorney General John Mitchell during the Richard Nixon presidency, she informed the media of the president’s activities
Bessie Moore was an educator who organized the first county library in Arkansas (1926)
Freeman Harrison Owens (1890 – 1979) – inventor and film technology pioneer with more than 1000 patents to his name, including synchronized sound for film and the Nielson Rating System.
Ben Pearson (1898 – 1971) – mass produced archery equipment pioneer.
Edward Durell Stone (1902 – 1978) – architect; designer of the Pine Bluff Civic Center, Museum of Modern Art at New York City; U.S. Embassy at New Delhi, India; U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair; the Huntington Hartford Museum at New York; Amarillo Fine Arts Museum; University of Alabama Law School; the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at Washington, D.C.; Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula at Carmel, California.
Joyce Warren (1949 – present) – an attorney who became not only the first African American law clerk in Arkansas, but the first African American female judge in Arkansas and the first African American elected to a state-level trial court judgeship