Arkansas - The Natural State

Ancient Native American mounds built and abandoned by the Woodland Culture more than 600 years ago.
The Chrome Sun Mounds of the
pre-Columbian Woodland Culture

Arkansas is in the south central United States. The eastern boundary is mostly defined by the Mississippi River (except that part in the northeastern corner of the state against the St. Francis River and the Missouri "boot heel," and in a few places where the Mississippi has deviated from its former surveyed channel). The state rises westward from there to the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.

Arkansas is host to a number of geological formations: the Ozark Plateau, many limestone caverns and, of course, Hot Springs National Park. Arkansas is also one of the very few places in the United States where you can dig raw diamonds out of the ground.

The Ozark Plateau is what remains of an island arc that accreted to the southern edge of the Laurentia craton about 1.4 billion years ago during the Proterozoic Eon Remains of that original terrane stretch from western Oklahoma east to Ohio and the underlying plate it existed on still forms the basement of the central United States. Above that base is a relatively thin layer of Paleozoic sedimentary rock. In late Precambrian times, much of the Ozark Plateau was above sea level and experienced significant vulcanism. During the late Cambrian the sea rose and previous significant sandstone and carbonate deposition in the area rose with it, only to have the sea withdraw again during the mid-Ordovician. Sea level rose again in the very late Ordovician and carbonate deposition continued until the Ouachita Orogeny finally pushed the Ozark Plateau up.

Map of North America in the late Pennsylvanian
North America
300 million years ago

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350 million years ago the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico extended across central Arkansas. Then the South American plate drifted northward, overriding the continental crust of the North American plate and eventually colliding with the surface of the Laurentia craton itself. That collision folded Arkansas and pushed up the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozark Plateau in the Ouachita Orogeny. At their height, the Ouachitas were about as high as today's Rocky Mountains. What we see of the Ouachitas today is the basement rock of the former range as much of the upper layers of the land mass have been eroded away in the time since. Because the collision came from the south, the folded mountains and ridges run in an east-west direction, contrary to most mountain ranges in North America. That same collision with South America pushed southern and central Arkansas up from the deep ocean basin they had formerly occupied and Arkansas found itself in a central portion of the Pangaea supercontinent.

As the Ouachitas rose, most drainage systems that developed in the area flowed to the west and much of the erosional debris ended up scattered across eastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas. 100 million years later, the mountains had been severely reduced in size and a significant area of the former mountains became buried beneath Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments brought south through what is now the Mississippi River Valley. Still, the Ozark Plateau and the Ouachita Mountains are what comprise today's US Interior Highlands Province.

Looking down on the Buffalo River in the Ozark Mountains
The Buffalo River in the Ozark Mountains

The first Europeans to come to Arkansas were with Hernando de Soto on his famous expedition that began near Tampa Bay, Florida in 1539. Three years after that landing found him searching high and low in Arkansas, looking for gold and a passage to China. As much as he was a veteran of the Pizarro conquest of Peru and the Incan Empire, it was Arkansas that finally finished him off, near Lake Village on the Mississippi River in 1542. But that was well after he and his men had spread European diseases around the countryside that decimated the indigenous inhabitants. By the time serious settlers began arriving 150 years later, they were moving into almost uninhabited countryside.

The early years of the United States saw the State of Arkansas allowed into the Union as a slave state in 1836. Political and financial scandals marked those early years but when most of the confederacy was formed, Arkansas voted to stay with the Union. Then President Lincoln ordered Arkansas troops to go to South Carolina and defend Fort Sumter. The legislature immediately voted to secede... Due to its boundary along the Mississippi River, Arkansas saw significant fighting during the war and after the Union succeeded in taking most of the state, guerilla warfare erupted behind Union lines. That guerilla warfare destroyed much of what was left in the state and that legacy of damage and destruction took many years to recover from.

Arkansas was allowed back into the Union in 1868 but rule by Republican carpetbaggers hindered development until the mid-1870's when a war developed between factions in the party and allowed the Democrats to rise and assume power. The Democrats then controlled much government in the state until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed everything, except for a few things like the Ku Klux Klan. Prior to the Civil Rights Act, Arkansas had enacted many legislative measures designed to keep power among a small group of the white elite and disenfranchise all blacks and many lower class whites. The KKK is still a powerful force in Arkansas but the number of lynchings and other acts of violence have reduced considerably. However, that long history still serves to keep Arkansas well down in the ratings of states by education, economics and development potential. While Arkansas is home to 6 of the Fortune 500 (including Walmart, the world's #1 retailer), the three-year household median income during 2009-2011 was $39,806, ranking 49th in the nation. In 2014 Arkansas was ranked the #1 most affordable place to live, meaning the general cost of living was as low as the general wages were.

Looking out over hills and forest from Cedar Lake Vista along the Talimena Scenic Drive
Cedar Lake Vista view, along the Talimena Scenic Drive

Fast Facts about Arkansas

Capital: Little Rock
Largest City: Little Rock
Became a State: June 15, 1836 : 25th
Area: 53,179 square miles : 29th
Highest Point: Mount Magazine : 2,753'
Lowest Point: Ouachita River : 55'

2010 Arkansas Population Demographics

Total Population
Population by Age
Under 18
18 & over
65 & over
Population by Ethnicity
Hispanic or Latino
Non Hispanic or Latino
Population by Race
Native American
Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Two or more
Map of Arkansas