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
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
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
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.
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
www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net where the above
information is published.