(This Mississippi County
history first appeared in the
1996 Focus Edition of the
Blytheville Courier News)
What has been one of the greatest assets to Mississippi County and the
one responsible for her name, the great Mississippi River once flowed much
further west of the county and the Ohio River was located on the east.
That was during the Pleistocene geological period. Near the end of this
period the river began to divert eastward until it finally ran through
a narrow pass called Thebes Gap located above Cairo, Ill. It now
forms the eastern boundary line for the county. It was during this time
that human beings first entered the Mississippi Valley.
The only association with Pleistocene animals and humans during the
Paleo-Indian era in the Mississippi Valley comes from Island 35, near Osceola.
Mastodon bones and two artifacts were found there, however interaction
between the two has not been found to be conclusive.
From about 3000 B.C. until 500 B.C. human habitation expanded and intensified
in this area. Regionally called the Poverty Point period, artifact evidence
supports occupation in the county.
Burial mounds, agriculture and pottery first appeared during the Woodland
stage (500 B.C.). Several mounds exist in Mississippi County.
One excavated archaeological site, the Zebree site near Big Lake shows
occupation from several cultural periods including Barnes, Early Mississippi
and Later Mississippi (A.D. 700-1650). Excavations at the site during the
Mississippian period reveal that shell beads using drills from rocks taken
from Crescent quarries nears St. Louis were manufactured here. Hoes and
harpoons used in fishing were recovered. Houses were rectangular with walls
of cane matting and community food was stored in pits, the largest of which
could hold 110 bushels.
Fourteen sites are located on the former Eaker Air Force Base. The
sites discovered in 1973, were named to the National Registry of Historic
Places in 1989. In 1996 the sites were named a national historic
landmark. It is estimated the sites may date to 3000 B.C. One site
that has been excavated produced artifacts dating between 600 to 1500 A.D.,
1350 to 1450 A.D. and 3000 to 500 B.C.
There was a large occupation during the Nodena phase of the Mississippian
era in the county. In the southeastern part of the county at 21 sites have
been identified with the largest being located at Pecan Point. At least
34 sites cluster together along the Pemiscot Bayou in Missouri and Arkansas.
One site at Blytheville is associated with a mound just northeast of town.
A Nodena phase site near Wilson yielded many artifacts after it was excavated
by Dr. James K. Hamspon who spent most of his life studying these early
inhabitants. The area is now home to the Hampson Museum State Park.
The Osage laid claim to northeast Arkansas at the beginning of the eighteenth
century as a hunting territory. In 1808 the Osage ceded much of their
Not much is known of eighteenth century Indian activity in the county.
Two copper wire bracelets were found in the county and appear to be identical
to one found in Michigan and dated between 1670 and 1715.
When settlers came here in the early 1800s Indians occupying the county
included Miamis, Delawares, Shawnees and Chickasaws. Chief among Indians
living in the Big Lake area in 1837 were Corn Meal, John East, John Big
Knife, Moonshine and Chuck-a-lee.
Spanish explorer Ferdinand de Soto entered Mississippi County in 1541 visiting
the Indian town of Pacaha, possibly the Pecan Point site. Expeditions left
this site to explore surrounding areas. Spanish trade goods have been found
at a site north of Blytheville in Missouri.
When the French arrived in the Mississippi Valley 130 years later it was
not as densely populated as it had been. Speculation is that epidemic disease
spread by the Spanish killed a large number of the population.
French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet traveled down
the Mississippi River in 1673.
Rene-Robert de La Salle came down the river in 1682.
In 1815 Lorenzo Dow passed by the county on the river. He claimed the county
was "inhabited by Indians and white people degenerated to their level."
Spain acquired Louisiana in 1762 which encompassed Mississippi County.
The French acquired it back from the Spanish and relinquished immediately
when United States President Thomas Jefferson bought it in 1803. The transaction
was known as the Louisiana Purchase.
The District of New Madrid created in 1805 included all of Arkansas and
Missouri. In 1806 the district was divided and the southern half became
the District of Arkansas.
Emigration to the area was temporarily halted by a display of nature.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone earthquakes occurred between Dec. 16, 1811
and Feb. 7, 1812 as four large earthquakes, estimated at between 7.8 and
8.3 on the Richter Scale, shook the ground in this area with such force
that church bells were said to have rung in the District of Columbia.
The second large quake was centered in Mississippi County. Many smaller
earthquakes and aftershocks, six estimated to be between six and 7 on the
Richter Scale, shook the area for several months.
Some of the first non-Indian settlers William Kellums and a man named
Carson, both hunters, came here as early as 1812. Carson Lake Township
and Kellums Ridge took their names from these men. In addition to hunting
and trapping, early settlers chopped and sold cordwood to steamboats on
Other early settlers included John C. Bowen and Charles Bowen, second and
third county sheriffs, James Williams, Elijah Buford and Peter Reeves arrived
in the county before 1828.
The first county judge was Edwin Jones, the first county sheriff was E.
F. Lloyd and the first county surveyor was. C.C. Barfield.
Before the Civil War settlements were made on the Mississippi River at
Huffman and Barfield. The Crawford family settled in what was called North Sawba in the 1830s. They told of the friendliness of the local Chickasaw
Indians and their chief, Chickasawba.
The boot heel of Missouri was formed because settlers had to to go to land
offices in either New Madrid or Helena to obtain land grants and patents
after the Louisiana Purchase. By 1836 the area around Caruthersville was
settled and cleared by pioneers who had obtained their grants from New
Madrid office. If the boundary line had run eastward to the river the settlers
would have had to transfer their land records to Helena. Their petition
to have the boundary line moved to the 36 parallel was granted.
The county was part of the newly formed Arkansas County in 1813. Next it
was a part of Phillips County and then of Crittenden County. Arkansas
became a territory in 1819. The county was formed into a separate county
by the Territorial legislature on Nov. 1, 1833.
The first county seat when Arkansas was a territory was the plantation
home of Peter Reeds. In 1836, a commission selected Osceola, one of the
earliest settlements in the county, to be the county seat.
Thomas Mills was the county's first representative. John Troy an early
pioneer served as county judge from 1836 to 1838.
In 1840 the population was 1,410.
log cabin near Luxora was the county's first house of worship as 15 families
who lived along the river from Osceola to Rosa would gather there for service
beginning in 1841. An itinerant preacher, Tom Rodgers conducted the
services. In 1850 the county's first "camp meeting" was held in a large
shed built near Osceola.
Residents in the Blytheville area had church services as early as 1853
in what was known as the Sycamore school house. The building stood on the
northwest corner of the old Sawyer cemetery (located at Ruddle and Sawyer
streets today.) The first resident pastor in the county was the Rev.
Francis C. Morris, a Presbyterian minister who was sent to Osceola in 1857.
He built the county's first church.
In 1860 the population was 3,895. In 1870 the population was 3,633.
During the Civil War, Mississippi County furnished three companies of soldiers.
The first newspaper in the county, The Osceola Times, was published in
1870. It was founded by Circuit Clerk James Best, attorney John Blackwood
and printer Leon Roussan. Roussan's widow said in 1925 that the endeavor
"was not a literary venture, but to meet a need" because of the time it
took to get a legal or business publication to Helena or Little Rock.
In 1879 Congress created the Mississippi River Commission. Levee work started
in 1882. The first levee in the county was built in 1887 from Bear Bayou
to Craighead Point, a distance of 20 miles.
In 1893 the Legislature passed an act creating the St. Francis Levee District
with a task to control flooding of the Mississippi River. The district
encompassed nine counties in Eastern Arkansas.
In a few years a levee was built along the Mississippi River. Building
the levee paved the way for drainage. In 1902 Robert E.L. Wilson and others
filed a petition in county court to organize a drainage district
to construct a ditch from west of Osceola to Tyronza River. This
was followed in a couple of years by a petition to dig a canal from Grassy
Lake to Tyronza bayou. This was followed by several other drainage
projects eventually draining the county and opening the way for better
roads and more farming.
In 1890 county population was 11,635. In 1900 county population was 16,384.
As a direct result of the levee work, several large lumber companies soon
saw the potential of the vast area of hardwood trees and moved or opened
operations into Mississippi County. The great Chicago fire of 1871 had
created a large demand for lumber as the city began to rebuild.
Although the land at that time was practically worthless swamp land, the
need for lumber made it extremely valuable. The swamp lands which brought
a price of around $2.50 an acre before being drained, rose sharply to around
$15 by the end of the century.
Among the largest lumber operations in the area was the Chicago Mill and
Lumber Company, who began operations in the early 1900's. They owned about
one hundred thousand acres of timbered land around the area.<B> <B>The
Three States Lumber Company owned about 35,000 acres, Wilson & Beall
had approximately 18,000 acres and Moore and McFerren had about 22,000
As the lumber industry grew and sawmills were set up in the forests, short
line railroads were built to the river. These became so numerous that in
1900 businessmen and lumbermen conceived the idea of connecting the lines
with the trunk lines on the west. The Jonesboro, Lake City and Eastern
road (J.L.C. and E. Railroad) was built and operated.
With swamps drained and timber cleared the door was wide open for cultivation.
In 1936 over half of the 500,000 acres in this county were in cultivation.
From 149 bales of cotton and 1973 sacks of seed produced in 1875, the
county had prospered in cotton production producing enough cotton in 1960
to rank as the largest rain grown cotton growing county in the nation.
In 1955 at total of 4,150,00 bushels of soybeans were produced which
was said to be the largest in the nation.
In 1901 the legislature divided the county into two districts, making Blytheville
the county seat of the Chickasawba District.
S.E. Simonsen in an article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly describes
the county in 1902 as a very sparsely settled area, "about 90 percent of
which was called a hopeless malaria ridden swamp." It was then a hunters
and fishermen's paradise, he said, teeming with deer, bear and a variety
of fur bearing animals. Alligator Gar were said to have been up to six
feet long and weighing two hundred pounds and more. Predatory animals included
bear, panthers, bobcats and large timber wolves. Describing the "millions
and millions of mosquitoes," he told of how he had to at times "carry burning
punk close to my face or a hand full of vigorously waved bushes to fight
the mosquitoes away from my nostrils so that I could breathe."
In 1910 county population was 30,468. In 1940 population in
the county was 80,217.
Notable Mississippi River floods occurred in 1897-98, 1903, 1907,1912,
1927 and 1937. Damages for the 1927 flood were estimated at $236,000,000.
Eaker Air Force
In 1942 an area of 2,640 acres northwest of Blytheville was developed into
an Army Air Force Base. The base was officially opened on June 10, 1942
as an advanced flying school in the Southeastern Training Command's Pilot
Program. The goal of this program was to train combat pilots until World
War II ended.
After the war ended, the Southeast Flying Training Command abandoned the
field. Shortly after that the Troop Carrier Command took over the installation
and it was used as a processing point for personnel being discharged. In
1947 the base was declared surplus by the War Assets Administration and
The city of Blytheville received all of the runways and airport facilities,
including 12,000 acres in an outright grant.
In December of 1950, there was talk of reactivating the facility due to
the worsening condition in Korea. A resolution was adopted by the City
Council asking for the permanent reactivation of the base on January 26,
1951. After more than two years of construction, the 461st Bomb Wing, a
part of the Tactical Air Command, relocated to Blytheville from Hill Air
Force Base, Utah. By 1956, the base was fully operational, complete with
three squadrons of B-57 bombers.
During the 1970's the fate of the base hinged on the whims of the base
closure committee. For four years the base was an alternate to closure.
On May 26, 1988, the name of the base was officially changed to Eaker Air
Force Base in honor of the first commander of the 8th Air Force during
World War II.
The threats of closure remained hanging over the base and on April 12,
1991, the base was included on the closure list. This time it was not as
an alternate but as a primary closure site. Despite the efforts of the
city of Blytheville, the order was signed by President George Bush and
the closure process was completed when the House of Representatives voted
to accept the list.
On Dec. 15, 1992 the base was closed.
Interstate 55 which runs from the north end of the county to the south
end was completed in the early 70s.
After a three-mill tax and the establishment of a college district was
approved by county voters in 1974, classes of the Mississippi County Community
College began. Land was purchased in1976 and the campus located on Hwy.
61 was completed by 1980.
Nucor Yamato Steel Company, a joint Japanese and American steel venture,
opened in the county in 1988 adding a boost to the local economy. A second
Nucor plant opened in 1992. As a result several other satellite plants
have opened in the vicinity. The county is now one of the top steel producers
in the country.
County history supported
Several Museums and the
County Historical and Genealogical Society support the history of the
county. The society publishes The Delta Historical Review which presents
historical articles about the county.
Main Street Blytheville's Heritage Museum located in downtown Blytheville
contains agricultural, Eaker Air Force Base and local memorabilia. The
museum is open by appointment.
The Mississippi County Historical Center was dedicated Nov. 21, 1993 in
Osceola. The center is housed in the former Patterson buildings on Hale
Avenue across from the courthouse. The 1902 and 1904 buildings were donated
to the society by Miss Lonetta Patterson. The 1904 building remains much
the same as it was in 1904 featuring walnut counters and shelves and fixed
stools along the counters for customers' convenience. The buildings
were place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Hampson Museum State Park at Wilson houses an educational exhibit of the
Nodena people who lived along the Mississippi River from 1350 until 1700