The Rosetta Stone, the Blarney Stone, Plymouth Rock, and Little Rock

Little Rock is named for a specific little rock and this is it. Most of it, anyway. This rock used to be much more prominent. A big chunk was dynamited away during the construction of this railroad bridge, one end of which is built right on top of the rock. History and progress collided and for once there was a compromise. Progress only destroyed part of the historical landmark. Still, at the turn of the century when the railroad bridge was built here, historical preservation was not the priority it is now.

Ah, well. History ain't what it used to be.

The rock, known by frontiersmen in frontier times as la petit roche and by the natives as "The Point of Rock," can be reached from Riverfront Park, downtown. A marker gives the history of the site, which I pretty much reiterate here.

The rock was a landmark used by bargemen, traders and trappers and was called the "little rock" to distinguish it from the "big rock" bluffs just upstream, pictured here. These 150-foot bluffs overlook the river on the north bank about a dozen miles upstream from the little rock in the top picture.

The history of Arkansas often seems like a catalog of real estate scandals, and the story of the origins of Little Rock belongs on the cover of that catalog. The first white settler at the little rock was a trader/trapper named William Lewis who started camping at the point of rocks in 1819 and laid legal claim to a big swath of it the next year based on rules governing claiming land within the Louisianna Purchase. A St. Louis land speculator named William Russell got some partners together and they bought Lewis out.

However, about seven years earlier and two hundred miles to the northeast in New Madrid, MO, there had been a devastating series of earthquakes (estimated strength 8.7) which changed the course of the Mississippi River; and land belonging to lots of settlers was completely ruined if it wasn't swallowed up altogether. As earthquake relief, the U.S. government issued to the earthquake victims certificates good for free land in the Missourri Territory's "public domain," and that included Arkansas. These certificates were bought up by another land speculator, also from St. Louis and also named William. Last name O'Hara.

O'Hara and Russell were eager to purchase those claims because Arkansas was about to become a territory and the seat of government was likely to be moved from Arkansas Post to the more centrally located little rock. Trouble was those claims overlapped. Now that the land was valuable the fur started to fly both inside the courtroom and in the back alleys.

The dispute, known as the New Madrid Land War, culminated one bizarre April night in 1821 when O'Hara's people discovered they had inadvertently built their town on land indisputably owned by Russell. An eyewitness accounted, "...Then about one hundred men, painted, masked, and disguised in almost every conceivable manner engaged in removing the town. These men with ropes and chains, would march off a frame house on wheels and logs, place it about three or four hundred yards from its former site and then return and move off another in the same manner...." Now that's so damn peculiar I wonder why it hasn't been turned into a colorful annual festival. I can imagine every town in the state putting together a team of their beefiest to compete in the annual "200-yard cabin drag" celebrating the nocturnal migration of Little Rock from about Scott Street to about Center Street. I also imagine a granny in army boots clinching a corncob pipe in her teeth, rocking back and forth on the porch, firing a shotgun into the air and hollering, "Mush!"

The matter was eventually decided by legislation dividing the disputed land equally between Russell and O'Hara. O'Hara's people then moved to change the name from Little Rock to one more important sounding, more grand, more befitting that of a great capitol. Arkopolis! I read in Arkansas Roadsides by Bill Earngey that Arkopolis does exist on a few early maps even though the name was never officially adopted.

The dispute, although officially decided, was not genuinely settled as far as Russell and O'Hara were concerned. Appeals dragged on for years until a federal court declared to-hell-with-it, invoked a provision in the preemption law of 1830, and cleared all original claims on the disputed land. Russell and O'Hara were both stripped of their claims. The only ones to make any money on the original plat of Little Rock were Lewis and a small army of lawyers.

RTJ-4/13/98


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