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Arkansas 200 Years Ago: What Did Early Settlers See?

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Over 200 years have passed since Arkansas became a territory of the United States. As we celebrate this bicentennial year, you may wonder what Arkansas looked like in 1810. What did the early settlers of the new Arkansas territory see when they arrived?

When European explorers and early settlers first came to what is now Arkansas, they encountered not an unbroken forest, but a diverse patchwork of dense forests, open woodlands, and treeless grasslands. Historical records indicate that there were as many as 2 million acres of naturally open grassland habitat in Arkansas in the 1800s.

How do we know about Arkansas’s historic landscape?

We know about Arkansas’s historic landscape from primary source records like journals, letters, General Land Office (GLO) survey notes, and other descriptive historical accounts.

What are GLO survey notes?

The GLO was a federal agency established in 1812 and originally tasked with the surveying, plotting, and selling of government-owned lands. Its function evolved over time and it was eventually merged with another agency to form the Bureau of Land Management. Although a federal agency, the bulk of GLO work was coordinated through territorial and later, state offices. Upon the creation of the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands Office in 1868, the GLO archive of books, papers, titles, plats, and maps were transferred to the state office. Land surveys of the Louisiana Purchase (also called the Louisiana Territory) were initiated in 1815. The starting point for the surveys is now commemorated by a historical marker within the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park/Louisiana Purchase Natural Area at the corner of Lee, Monroe, and Phillips counties, Arkansas. The surveys continued for decades throughout portions of the original Louisiana Purchase, including throughout all of present-day Arkansas.

What can we learn from GLO notes?

As surveying crews in the early to mid-1800s laid out mile-by-mile grids with chains, they would record relevant information in notebooks. At the very least, they recorded distances of the lines and distances of landmarks, natural and manmade features, obstacles, and blazed “witness” and “line” trees. They also took note of the terrain, soil, and land cover.

If surveying through wooded areas, the surveyors would note the dominant timber trees and undergrowth. Some surveyors were more detailed and descriptive in their notes than others, with some documenting personal elements of their work and lives, those of their hired hands, and locals they came into contact with.

Yet, it is the notes on land cover and vegetation that have proven invaluable for giving contemporary land managers an idea of what existed prior to extensive European-American settlement. The notes can indicate where grasslands and wetlands occurred, how dense forests and woodlands were, which species of trees and shrubs were present and dominant, how open the understory was, and whether fire was a historic component of a particular ecosystem.

Does any part of Arkansas look like its historic territorial landscape?

Settlement and land use have changed Arkansas’s landscape throughout time. However, some of the best, and last, remaining examples of the state’s original natural landscape can be found within the statewide System of Natural Areas. These natural areas are managed to preserve, and sometimes restore, habitat that has become rare. They also help us to understand how Arkansas’s diverse ecosystems originally functioned.

“The prairies, which commence at the distance of a mile west of this river, are the most extensive, rich, and beautiful, of any which I have ever seen west of the Mississippi River. They are covered by a coarse wild grass, which attains so great a height that it completely hides a man on horseback riding through it. The deer and elk abound in this quarter, and the buffalo is occasionally seen in droves upon the prairie and in the open high-land woods.” – Monday, January 4, 1819, Henry R. Schoolcraft, Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas, London: 1821.








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