The History of Mississippi County

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By SHEILA McCALL
(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.

Indian occupation
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 land.

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.
 

Early explorers
 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."
 

Louisiana Purchase
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.
 

New Madrid earthquakes
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.
 

Early settlers
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 the river.

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.
 

Arkansas territory
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.
 

Early churches
An 18-foot 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.
 

First newspaper
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.
 

Levees
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.
 

Drainage
 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.
 

Timber industry
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 acres.
 

First railroad
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.
 

Crops
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.
 

Two districts
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.
 

Floods
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 Base
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 was closed.

 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.
 

I-55
Interstate 55 which runs from the north end of the county to the south end was completed in the early 70s.
 

Mississippi County Community College
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.
 

Industry grows
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 Mississippi 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 A.D.