The Arkansas Territory, 1819-1836

Arkansas' Road to Statehood




Daniel Cade Allen

Harding University


Edited by Dr.Tom Howard

Harding University


[Notes:   This article is being used by permission of the author for a course assignment.   The article is for READ ONLY purposes and may not be reprinted, copied or published in any form without the written consent of the author.   With the exception of the placement of the footnotes, which must be at the bottom of each page, and lack of a source from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and the Internet, the paper is an excellent example for those writing a paper as a requirement for HIST 536.  See other notes at the end of the paper.]


The Arkansas Territory, 1819-1836: Arkansas' Road to Statehood

            The Arkansas Territorial period led to Arkansas statehood.  The period is also marked by several characteristics which have had a direct impact on Arkansas society and its overall history.  These characteristics ranged from the ever evolving political scene to the demographic makeup of Arkansans.  From 1819 to 1836, Arkansas became a fully functional territory which competed with neighboring states and territories for economic and political advancement.  Until its assimilation into the rapidly expanding United States, Arkansas was much like other territories which went before her.  Arkansas was also a  territory which prompted both respect and ridicule from travelers and would be settlers.  In this paper the author will attempt to identify and discuss some of the most important historical developments during this Arkansas territorial period.  A particular emphasis will be placed on how many of these events were instrumental in the ongoing process by which Arkansas became a state.   It seems clear too that Arkansas would not have achieved statehood as early as 1836 had these developments not unfolded as they did.   The first major historical development discussed is how did future Arkansans get here during this period and why.

           In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase, which nearly doubled to size of the United States, placed Arkansas in the new and welcoming hands of America.  One of the original intentions of the United States was to use Arkansas as an Indian "depository", where Indians could remain autonomous to the degree that the United States allowed.  This Indian "solution" did not cause settlers who might have migrated from east of the Mississippi to have most favorable view of the newly acquired territory.  However, after the Louisiana Purchase settlers did begin to migrate westward and as time passed in increasing numbers.  One of the most important larger migrations began in 1810 and ended by 1820.  During this period more and more settlers began to occupy the Arkansas interior as attractive land became the major draw for most.  This migration was very important to the territory’s future.[1]

             During the early Arkansas territorial period most of the people were a  loose conglomeration of Native Americans. Several groups, such as the Quapaws, had lived in the territory prior to America’s westward expansion.  Other groups, such as the Cherokees, who had been pushed west by the increasing number of Old World and second generation American settlers, had been given lands west of the Mississippi for their lands to the east.  The practice of removing and relocating Indians to the Arkansas territory continued throughout a good portion of its early history.  The Choctaw’s constituted the largest concentration of Indians who lived in the territory.  Their lands ranged from the northwest to nearly the southwest section of the Arkansas territory.  Settlers frequently voiced their frustrations that the lands which these Indians occupied should have been allocated for white American agricultural pursuits instead of the "savage" cut and burn techniques.[2] 

            The tensions, which resulted from Indian and white confrontations over land,  prompted public dismay at the “misuse” of land in several forms.  Of course this dismay was strictly from a white perspective.   Arkansas was often viewed as an untapped source of land which was being misused by and for Native Americans.  As white settlers saw it, the land had many more valuable uses because of its vast potential for agriculture and animals (furs) found in the territory.[3]  William Woodruff, owner of the Arkansas Gazette, vocalized the settler’s frustration and called for a stricter policy on Indian control within the territory.  His sentiment became accepted throughout the territory and resulted in several demands.  By 1823, the territorial government petitioned Congress that the prime agricultural lands, which were inhabited by various Indian groups, should be appropriated for white settlement and more appropriate agricultural pursuits.   However, the growing number of Indians being moved to the territory meant that the lands which were available for legal white settlement grew smaller.[4]

During this period, land was "king".   Although some manufacturing occurred, “land was the basis for [most] economic success”.  Much like the above description of the importance of land, the transfer of ownership between Spain, France, and the United States meant that claims to land were often contested by various parties.  For example, Chilo A. Moultier argued his claim before the governmental hearings on land ownership and indicated that land speculators had laid illegal claims to his land as well.  This type of fraudulent land dealings became a common and lucrative practice for speculators. Land could be bought and sold in a very prosperous exchange of ownership.  However, even as well argued as a valid claim holder might be; credible evidence became highly contested once the territories changed international ownership.[5]

One of the most important points related to the colonization and success of the Arkansas Territory was agriculture.  In Arkansas: A Narrative History, the authors argued that nearly twenty-five percent of the Arkansas population in 1820 was engaged in some sort of farming.  This percentage was considered small  relative to the numbers of whites who actually lived in Arkansas prior to statehood.  Furthermore, the authors argue that some of the problems which hindered the spread of agriculture were that there could be several claims to the same piece of land and the newly issued relocation certificates of those who suffered from the New Madrid earthquake.[6]

During the Arkansas territorial period, most settlers made a subsistence living from hunting and agriculture.  At the time, Arkansas was also seen as the edge of the frontier while most of the economic development was in the Atlantic states.  Despite the distance which separated Arkansas from much of the rest of the United States, vast waterways gave the territory access to manufactured goods from the east and also for shipment of things Arkansas settlers had to sell.  Some of these early economic enterprises were selling pelts to eastern economies.  Although the possibility of commercial farming was present during this period, the large amount of labor required meant that commercial farming was not fully realized until after Arkansas became a state.[7]

By this time, throughout the American south slavery  had become a common institution.  However, the image which has emerged in popular thought of a field with hundreds of slaves toiling under the hot sun is actually incorrect, especially in Arkansas.   Although the institution of slavery was evident during the Arkansas territorial period, it never became as common as some current equal rights activists have argued.  Slaves first appeared in Arkansas as a result of French exploitation of Arkansas’ river systems, but in very small numbers.   The migration of white settlers from east of the Mississippi and the southern migration from the Missouri territory consisted mainly small family farmers.  Their economic holdings were unlikely to include the luxury of slaves.  Those who were able to possess slaves had relatively few.  However, even in its infancy as a territory, slavery was a part of the economic development of the future state.  Slave labor was primarily concentrated on the agricultural exploits and development of land in east Arkansas which would eventually become suitable for large agricultural production.[8]

The issue of slavery was a debate topic in Arkansas political circles in the territorial period.  According to Bolton, early attempts to outlaw slavery in the territory failed partly because of Arkansas' geographic location which ultimately allowed Arkansas to make its own laws on the issue of slavery.  The growing significance and importance of slavery became apparent with the growth and rapid colonization of the Arkansas territory which would in turn intensify the push for statehood.  Slaves provided a source of labor which could be bought and sold as needed.  However, slaves were never a majority of the population in Arkansas, even at the time slavery was abolished.[9]

            Establishing a capitol was another important development on the road to statehood. By 1821, the capitol of the Arkansas Territory was Little Rock, which was strategically located on the Arkansas River.    It became the focal point for all political and land interests, both of which were ultimately tied to the economic interests of the territory.  Speculators and political hopefuls flocked to the newly established capitol in order to advance their own interests.  However, Little Rock’s importance only increased even under the pressures from political struggles that would occur throughout the history of the state.[10]

            Communication of developments and influencing attitudes was also important in the transformation of the territory.   In the early 19th century, newspapers were the major source of news and were very influential in affecting political attitudes.  During the early territorial period of Arkansas, a newspaper began to circulate throughout the territory.  The first Arkansas Gazette publication was on November 20, 1819.  The creator and editor, William E. Woodruff, brought the news to a large portion of the territory's white citizens.  His residence at Arkansas Post, also the locale for printing the newspaper, was a local gathering place where no doubt ideas of statehood and other major issues of the day were discussed.  Citizens found Woodruff’s printing machines interesting,  but were more likely interested in the current news.  One of Woodruff’s chief contributions to the Arkansas territory  was the widespread communication that the Arkansas Gazette provided in the very important transitional period.[11]

            Woodruff’s newspaper also covered the political scene in the territory.  Despite his early promises to remain neutral, Woodruff frequently interjected his own political ideologies and often found himself on the editorial defensive.  Ashmore refers to a specific Arkansas Gazette entry in which Woodruff publicly acknowledged some of the accusations against him.  These political debates became commonplace  in the Arkansas Gazette and much more prominent during times of political and economical strife in the territory.[12]

            Some political tensions often resulted in violence in the United States and were also a common characteristic in Arkansas territorial politics.  For example, duels became a common practice, not only in the political disagreements, but in among the non-political circles of society as well.  This frontier style “justice” often resulted in the wounding and death of political officials.  Politics were not always the cause of duels.  Personal disagreements were often ended in violence too.  For example, Judges Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden dueled over an infraction in keeping score of a card game.  Scott subsequently killed Selden with a single shot.  This type of violence was often a part of the territory’s politics and social practices and demonstrates that Arkansas was not in many ways unlike other areas of the United States.[13]

            In a natural evolution the development of a political system was important.  During the period territorial politics often gave way to the importance of national politics.  Although the position of territorial governor allowed him to lead the territory by presidential direction, the majority of the governors used their territorial positions as a catalyst for national recognition and political advancement.  Often the political goals of the governors was not in the best interest of the territory, but may have given some impetus to the end result, which was statehood.  Bolton argues that these temporary political officials were often younger men who saw the territory as a means of attaining political prestige at the political level [14]  

            According to Bolton, the territorial legislature played a minor role in the public affairs to Arkansas, but it was important in the transition to statehood. However limited their visible role was, the money that was appropriated for the territory provided the funding for a number of projects which helped  increase the attractiveness of the territory to settlers and ultimately facilitated Arkansas’ assimilation into the growing United States. One very important role that the territorial legislature did play, especially in the 1820’s, was correspondence with the United States Congress.  The constant contact between the territorial and United States governments helped the territory to get more funding which they used to change the structure of the territorial government and society and established even greater "connections" with the federal government.[15]

            One major issue the legislature addressed was the number of Native Americans living in the territory and which would result in larger and larger numbers of white settlers coming to the territory.  As will be pointed out later, the number of citizens is one of the most important criteria to obtaining statehood.  With the help of a large number of white citizens, the territorial government portrayed the Native Americans as a hindrance to cultural and economical advancement on the national level and this contention often resulted in the United States government's approval for Indian relocation even further west to Oklahoma.  During the 1820’s thousands of Native Americans were forced give up the lands which had been given to them for their original homelands.  This second Indian relocation supported by the legislature meant that the white population would become a majority in Arkansas and receive most of the public funds appropriated for the territory as well.  [16]

            Other characteristics of the territorial politics are also important.  Factionalism remained a prominent part of the political process in both  Arkansas territory and the United States.  However, national politics had a direct impact on territorial politics.  A major political party emerged during the territorial period which helped in the statehood process. A unified group of land speculators with specific ties to the Jacksonian Democratic Party called the “Dynasty” was able to place specific candidates in positions of power in order to acquire the political power they sought for themselves.  "The Dynasty" which wielded control of the territorial political scene had extended influence even after Arkansas became a state. [17]

            Despite all the issues and developments leading to statehood, statehood itself  was the most important issue in territorial history of Arkansas.  All of the factors described thus far played critical roles in the territory’s decision for statehood.  In 1830 the issue was first voiced in the Arkansas Advocate, the second territorial newspaper.  Part of the appeal of statehood for many white citizens in the territory was that the contemporary argument for statehood would ensure that they could be freed from Indians.  This “political shield” might provide the new state with an opportunity to avoid the United States government’s appropriation of “public land” for use as Indian reservations.  However, this single argument was just one of the many that were associated with advancing the idea of statehood.[18]

            Another important milestone which helped Arkansas secure statehood was the results of the1836 census.  Despite many who did not agree, the Arkansas territory surpassed the required minimum statehood population of forty thousand.  According to the census,  more than fifty-two thousand people lived in the territory, which meant Arkansas met a major requirement for being one of the new states.[19]

            In Territorial Ambition, Bolton describes the official road to statehood as a “rocky one”.  The factional politics of the territory remained a major concern for the opposition of the Dynasty.  The common political belief in Arkansas was that the Dynasty would side with Jacksonian Democrats in the larger scheme of things and prove to be a hindrance to the territory rather than a help to statehood.  However, before Arkansas could become a state, a succession of political leaders and offices had to be solidified.[20]

            Early in 1836, serious debates within the territorial legislature concluded with the function and roles of the future state government and completed the first state constitution on January 38, 1836.  Much like the territorial deliberations, factional politics were a factor in the arguments for and against adopting the Arkansas territory as a state.  As a slave state, Arkansas would have further increased the power of the national Democratic Party within the United States.  However, despite serious oppositions that the territory faced, which cannot be discussed here, the bill adopting Arkansas as a state was passed by Congress on June 13, 1836.[21]

            Soon after statehood, Arkansas state political offices were filled and held by the Dynasty.  This stranglehold on the politics of infant state was firmly held by the Dynasty and the Democratic Party for nearly thirty years.  Although they were eventually taken from political power by rivals (the Crittenden faction), the Dynasty’s association with statehood is still an important topic when studying Arkansas’ territorial period and its adoption as a state.[22]

            The transition from the territory to statehood was a part of chain of events which took nearly twenty years.  Events during the territorial period  had powerful effects which eventually led to statehood.  These social, economic, and political factors , which helped to shape the future of Arkansas during the period such the attractive land, Indian displacement, slavery, evolution of the political system, communication developments and others, all helped provide a firm basis for Arkansas' adoption as a state.  Furthermore, these factors and others also shaped the cultural affairs for  thousands of residents, especially Indians and blacks, which have remained  topics of discontent demanding social and cultural reform across the United States.    Only by studying its territorial history can one understand Arkansas' place in the larger scheme of American history and subsequent issues in its modern history.


[Notes:  One of the most serious errors made by the student who wrote this paper was the failure to include at least one article from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and there are many articles on this topic.  He was also required to include one article from the internet, which he did not do. The footnotes are supposed to be at the bottom each page where cited and NOT listed at the end of the paper.  Please review the requirements carefully when you do your paper. 

Dr. Howard]




Ashmore, Harry S. Arkansas: A Bicentennial History. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1978.


Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas: 1800-1860. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.


Bolton, S. Charles. Territorial Ambition: Land and Society in Arkansas, 1800-1840. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.


Ferguson, John L. “William E. Woodruff and the Territory of Arkansas, 1819-1838.”  PhD diss., Tulane University, 1960.


McNutt, Walter. A History of Arkansas From the Earliest Times to the Present. Democrat Printing and Lithographic Company: Little Rock, 1932.


Pope, William F. Early Days in Arkansas: Being For the Most Part the Recollections of an Old Settler. F.W. Allsopp: Little Rock, 1855.


Trover, Ellen L., and William F. Swindler. Chronology and Documentary Handbook of the State of Arkansas. Oceana Publications: New York, 1972.


Whayne, Jeannie M., Thomas Deblack, George Sabo III, Morris Arnold. Arkansas: A Narrative History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.


Williams, C. Fred, S. Charles Bolton, Carl H. Moneyhon, LeRoy T. Williams. A Documentary History of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press,    1984.


Woodruff, William E. Wilderness to Statehood with William E. Woodruff. Times-Echo Press: Eureka Springs, 1961.




                [1] Charles Bolton, Territorial Ambition Land and Society in Arkansas, 1800-1840 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993), 20.

[2] Ibid, 26

[3] Trover, Ellen L., and William F. Swindler,Chronology and Documentary Handbook of     the State of Arkansas, (Oceana Publications: New York, 1972), 62-65.

[4] Bolton, S. Charles, Territorial Arkansas: 1800-1860, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998), 71.

[5] Fred C. Williams, and others, A Documentary History of Arkansas. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1984), 29-30; Harry S. Ashmore, Arkansas: A

     Bicentennial History, (W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1978), 24

 [6] Jeannie M. Whayne and others, Arkansas: A Narrative History, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002), 93.

[7] Bolton, Arkansas, 49-50.

[8] Ibid, 126-127.

[9] Ibid, 126.

[10] Ashmore,  23.

[11] John L. Ferguson, “William E. Woodruff and the Territory of Arkansas, 1819-1838” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 1960), 17-19; William E. Woodruff,

        Wilderness to Statehood with William E. Woodruff, (Times-Echo Press: Eureka Springs, 1961), 24.

                 [12] Ashmore, 44; Ferguson, 18.

[13] Williams, 41; William F. Pope, Early Days in Arkansas: Being For the Most Part the Recollections of an Old Settler, (F.W. Allsopp: Little Rock, 1855), 33-54.

[14] Bolton, Territorial, 109-110.

[15] Ibid, 113; Walter McNutt, A History of Arkansas from the Earliest Times to the Present, (Democrat Printing and Lithographic Company: Little Rock, 1932), 95.

[16] Bolton, Territorial, 113-114.

[17] Asmore, A Bicentennial History, 42-47.

[18] Bolton, Arkansas: 1800-1860, 167-168.

[19] Arkansas: A Narrative History, 106-107.

[20] Territorial Ambition, 118-119.

[21] Whayne, 107-108.

                [22] Ibid, 109.