Desha County Historical Society

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   Early History of Desha County

  When the Spanish Explorer, Hernando de Soto, crossed the Mississippi River in 1541 into what would become Arkansas, he found alluvial soil growing massive hardwood forests, swamps, and Native Americans, which characterized all of eastern Arkansas.  In 1673, the Louis Joilet and Father Jacques Marquette expedition left Canada searching for a great river (the Mississippi) in hopes that it would lead westward to the Pacific Ocean.  The expedition stopped near the mouth of the Arkansas River in what would become Desha County and learned from the Quapaw that the Mississippi flowed south instead of west.  They returned to Canada.

     A fur trader with a grand vision for a New France in the new land, Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle's expedition stopped at the mouth of the White River located in Desha County.  They discovered the confluence of the White and Arkansas Rivers into the Mississippi.  Henri De Tonti, a lieutenant recruited by LaSalle, was granted 500 acres on which Jean Couture and five other explorers established a trading post in 1686 at the Quapaw village of Osotouy on the Arkansas River.  Thus, the first European settlement west of the Mississippi River was built.  The settlement came to be called "Arkansas Post" which over the years would be moved four times due to flooding.  It was last moved to Arkansas County near Gillett.

     Progress and heavy settlement in Desha County, and indeed all of Arkansas, did not occur until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  The land granted De Tonti was acquired by General William Montgomery, who built a hotel/casino, mercantile store, and warehouses called Montgomery's Point.  The trading post, founded in 1810, was a regular docking point for steamboats unloading freight and passengers going up the Arkansas and White Rivers.  Another early entrepreneur, frenchman Frederick Notrebe, arrived in 1811, serving as an agent for New Orleans companies.  He purchased farm land and encouraged the growing of cotton.  About 1820, he built warehouses at the mouth of the Arkansas River which he later named Napoleon.  Napoleon was designated county seat in 1843.  A federal $55,000 U. S. Marine hospital was built there in 1855.

     Desha County was created by legislative act on December 12, 1838, detaching it from Arkansas and Chicot Counties.  State representative Stephen Ryan led legislative efforts after south Arkansas County (present Desha County) citizens filed petitions declaring their area isolated by the Arkansas and White Rivers.  The county was named for Captain Benjamin Desha, a War of 1812 hero. 

     The Desha County Courthouse was moved to Watson in 1874 when Napoleon crumbled into the Mississippi River and finally to Arkansas City in 1881, at the time a thriving river port.  A permanent courthouse was completed in 1900 at a cost of $23,269.  The principal cities of Dumas and McGehee were incorporated in 1904 and 1906 respectively.  Also incorporated were Arkansas City, Watson, Mitchellville, and Reed. 

     Desha County's greatest tragedy came in the spring of 1927, when a flood inundated 478,000 acres after levee breaks occurred on the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers.  Many of the county's 26,684 citizens were forced to flee to higher land in adjoining counties or to live on second floors, in tent cities on the levees, and in boxcars.  Damage in Desha County exceeded $2,000,000.  Flood waters did not recede for more than a month with most farmers having to forego planting.

     In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast to a 17,000 acre compound constructed at Rohwer near McGehee.  There were 8,400 internees housed there.  Rohwer Relocation Center became the county's largest city until it was closed in 1945.  Rohwer Relocation Center's cemetery is now a national monument. 

     For in-depth information on Desha County history please refer to the publications on the "Publications" page and to where the above information is published.

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       Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur   de La Salle


Link to 1759 Map of New France

Click on map to enlarge


Link to 1862 Map of Ports on Ark. and Miss. Rivers


Current day map of
Desha County

  Archives of
Desha County History
(Click Underlined for Article)
A Moment in History-1927 Flood

History Repeats

Death Comes for Napoleon

John Harold Jefferson
Honored in US Stamp