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The region runs along the eastern border of the state next to the Mississippi River from Eudora north to Blytheville and as far west as Little Rock. It is part of the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, itself part of the Mississippi embayment. The flat plain is bisected by Crowley's Ridge, a narrow band of rolling hills rising 250 to 500 feet (76 to 152 m) feet above the flat delta plains. Crowley's Ridge is home to several towns and cities, including Jonesboro. The region's lower western border follows the Arkansas River just outside Little Rock down through Pine Bluff where the border shifts to Bayou Bartholomew stretching south to the Arkansas-Louisiana state line. While the Arkansas Delta shares many geographic similarities with the Mississippi Delta, it is distinguished by its five unique sub-regions including the St. Francis Basin, Crowley's Ridge, the White River Lowlands, the Grand Prairie, and the Arkansas River Lowlands.
The Arkansas Delta includes the entire counties of Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett, and St. Francis. It also includes portions of Jackson, Prairie, Randolph, White, Pulaski, Lincoln, Jefferson, Lonoke and Woodruff counties.
Early history and frontier Arkansas
In the earth's history, after the Gulf of Mexico withdrew from what was Missouri, many floods hit the Mississippi River Delta, building up alluvial deposits. In some places the deposits measure 100 feet (30 m) deep.
Before the arrival of European-American settlers, the region was historically home to Native Americans such as the Quapaw. Varying cultures of indigenous peoples built major earthwork mounds, some dated to, with evidence of mound-building cultures dating back more than 12,000 years. These mounds have been preserved in three main locations: the Nodena Site, Parkin Archaeological State Park, and Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. Around 1800 American settlers first encountered the Arkansas Delta.
Arkansas' recorded history is anchored in the region, with early settlers crossing the Mississippi and settling among the swamps and bayous of east Arkansas. The first settlement in what became the state was the trading center, Arkansas Post. The post was founded by Henri de Tonti while searching for Robert La Salle in 1686. The commerce in the area was not initially cotton but fishing and wild game. The fur trade and lumber later were critical to the economy. Frontier Arkansas was a rough, lawless place infamous for violence and criminals. Settlers, who were mostly French and Spanish colonists engaged in a mutually beneficial give-and-take relationship with the Native Americans, until the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803. Relations deteriorated further after the 1812 New Madrid earthquake, which some Native Americans considered to be a sign of punishment for trading with the European settlers.
The beginning point of all subsequent surveys of the Louisiana Purchase was placed in the Arkansas Delta near Blackton. In 1993 it was named a National Historic Landmark and later a state park named Louisiana Purchase State Park. The point of beginning is marked with a granite marker accessible via a boardwalk through a swamp.
Territorial era through statehood
American settlers drained swamps and cleared forests, leaving much of the land plain.
After achieving territorial status in 1819, Arkansas reneged on an 1818 treaty and began removing the Quapaw from their fertile homeland in the Arkansas delta. The Quapaw had inhabited lands along the Arkansas River and near its mouth at the Mississippi River for centuries.
The invention of the cotton gin had made short-staple cotton profitable, and the Deep South was developed for cotton cultivation. It grew well in fertile delta soils. Settlers took these fertile lands for agriculture and pushed the Quapaw to Louisiana in 1825-1826. The Quapaw returned to southeast Arkansas by 1830, but were permanently relocated to Oklahoma in 1833 under the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress. High cotton prices inclined many farmers to plant cotton on all their land, a crop made more profitable with the use of slave labor. The plantation economy developed in the Arkansas Delta, driving regional politics as well.
Many African Americans were brought into the Delta throughout the early-to-mid-19th century to work as slaves on plantations. Counties maintaining the largest populations of slaves by 1860 included Phillips (8,941), Chicot (7,512), and Jefferson (7,146). Prior to the U.S. Civil War, some Delta counties had higher numbers of blacks than whites, because of the thousands of persons enslaved. Because of Arkansas' later settlement, successful planters had not constructed as many elaborate plantation mansions as in other parts of the Deep South. The U.S. Civil War ended that prosperous antebellum period.
The Civil War had resulted in destruction to the river levees and other property damage that took generations to recover from. The region's continued reliance on agriculture kept wages low, and the cotton market did not recover. Many freedmen turned to sharecropping and tenant farming as a way of life.
20th century, through Civil Rights era
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Like other states of the former Confederacy, Arkansas passed a new constitution and legislative provisions creating barriers to voter registration that effectively disfranchised black voters. Whites kept most blacks off the rolls and out of electoral politics until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s to enforce constitutional rights of citizens.
Unlike other mass riots of Red Summer 1919, when racial unrest erupted in numerous northern and midwestern cities because of labor and social competition, the Elaine Race Riot or the "Elaine Massacre" was the result of rural forces. It occurred near Elaine, Arkansas in the Delta, where local planters were trying to discourage the formation of an agricultural union among blacks.
In the 1940s the mechanized cotton picker was introduced into regional agriculture. This led to a significant decline in demand for manual labor. A second wave of the Great Migration of African Americans to the Midwest and West industrial cities resulted in a population decrease in the Delta. Charles Bowden of National Geographic wrote, "By 1970 the sharecropping world was already disappearing, and the landscape of today—huge fields, giant machines, battered towns, few people—beginning to emerge."
The Arkansas Delta, a land of vastly rich soil, is equally known for its rich musical heritage. While defined primarily by its deep blues/gospel roots, it is distinguished somewhat from its Mississippi Delta counterpart by more intricately interwoven country music and R&B elements. Arkansas blues musicians have defined every genre of blues from its inception, including ragtime, hokum, country blues, Delta blues, boogie-woogie, jump blues, Chicago blues, and blues-rock. Eastern Arkansas' predominantly African American population in cities like Helena, West Memphis, Pine Bluff, Brinkley, Cotton Plant, Forrest City and others has provided a fertile backdrop of juke joints, clubs and dance halls which have so completely nurtured this music. Many of the nation's blues pioneers were either born in the Arkansas Delta or lived in the region highlighting their craft. As a result, the region hosts several blues events throughout the year culminating in the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Fest. The festival averages about 85,000 people per day over its three day run and is rated in the top 10 music events in the nation by festivals.com.
Gospel music, the mother of Delta Blues, is enshrined in the lives and social fabric of residents. Many popular Delta artists in all other genres had their start singing or playing in church choirs and quartets. Given the historic racism and entrenched segregation in the Delta, the African American church and, by extension, its music, have taken on an even greater role in the lives of residents. Hence, African American gospel music's roots are deep in the Delta. Unlike blues, which has been historically dominated by men throughout the Delta, women have established a pioneering role in gospel music. From the quartet traditions which dominate south Arkansas to the classic and contemporary solo artists which have found national prominence in the east, gospel music in the Delta has made and continues to make a significant mark on the cultural landscape.
Additionally, the Arkansas Delta's country music roots have depth with legendary performers coming from the area. While more geographically dispersed throughout the region, these artists, nonetheless, represent the very best in country genres including bluegrass, rockabilly, folk music, and alternative country. This music underscores the long standing relationship between blues and country as one can often hear the influences of one in the other. As young country musicians continue to develop in the Delta, they continue to help the genre grow and evolve.
R&B music has also had a presence as an outgrowth of the strong blues and gospel traditions. Ostensibly, the East Central Delta area has produced a small number of talented and influential R&B artists.
Arkansas Blues Influence, sharing the blues heritage with Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, Arkansas was home to numerous blues masters that are now held in high esteem by newer generations learning blues history. Arkansas blues artists influenced decades of pop culture music by such artists as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rolling Stones & John Meyers. Some of the most notable Arkansas artists include: Albert King, Big Bill Broonzy, Bobby Rush, Eb Davis, Frank Frost, George Harmonica Smith, Hollis Gillmore, Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Slumlin, James Cotton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Johnny Shines, Junior Walker, Junior Wells, Larry Davis, Louis Jordan, Luther Allison, Memphis Minnie, Michael Burks, Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Nighthawk, Sam Carr, Scott Joplin, Sonny Boy Williamson and William Bunch.
The Arkansas Delta economy is still dominated by agriculture. The main cash crop is cotton and other crops include rice and soybeans. Catfish farming continues to generate major revenue for Arkansas Delta farmers along with poultry production.
The Delta has some of the lowest population densities in the American South, sometimes less than 1 person per square mile. Despite the migration of many African Americans from the area, the region still has a large African-American population. Eastern Arkansas has the highest percentage of cities in the state with predominately African-American populations. Urbanization and the shift to mechanization of farm technology during the past 60 years has sharply reduced jobs in the Delta. People have followed jobs out of the region, leading to a declining tax base, which hampers efforts to support education, infrastructure development, community health and other vital aspects of growth. The region's people suffer from unemployment, extreme poverty, and illiteracy.
The Delta Cultural Center in Helena seeks to preserve and interpret the culture of the Arkansas Delta along with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's University and Cultural Museum. The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff is charged with highlighting and promoting works of Delta artists.
- West Memphis
- Forrest City
- Helena-West Helena
- Pine Bluff
- Arkansas State University
- East Arkansas Community College
- Southeast Arkansas College
- Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas
- University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
- University of Arkansas at Monticello
- Interstate 40 - From Brinkley to West Memphis
- Interstate 55 - From West Memphis to Blytheville
- U.S. Highway 278
- U.S. Highway 49
- U.S. Highway 61
- U.S. Highway 62
- U.S. Highway 63
- U.S. Highway 64
- U.S. Highway 65
- U.S. Highway 165
- U.S. Highway 67
- U.S. Highway 70
- U.S. Highway 79
- U.S. Highway 82
- Williard B. Gatewood Jr. and Jeannie M. Whayne, eds. (1996). The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox. University of Arkansas Press. p. 3.
- Gatewood and Whayne 1993, p. 3.
- Smith, Richard M. (1989). The Atlas of Arkansas. The University of Arkansas Press. p. 19. ISBN 1557280479.
- "The Arkansas Delta - The Region". Arkansas Delta Byways. Retrieved July 31, 2012.
- Gatewood and Whayne 1993, N.Pag..
- Bowden, Charles. "Return to the Arkansas Delta". (Archive) National Geographic. November 2012. Retrieved on June 3, 2013.
- Early, Ann M. (November 5, 2011). "Indian Mounds". Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The Butler Center. Retrieved July 31, 2012.
- Smith, Darlene (Spring 1954). "Arkansas Post". Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Arkansas Historical Association) 13: 120.
- Mattison, Ray H. (Summer 1957). "Arkansas Post: Its Human Aspects". Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Arkansas Historical Association) 16: 119.
- Gatewood and Whayne 1993, pp. 8-9.
- Gatewood and Whayne 1993, pp. 9-10.
- Arnold et al 2002, p. 78.
- Arnold et al 2002, p. 89.
- Baker, William D. (September 16, 1991). National Historic Landmark Nomination: Louisiana Purchase Survey Marker / Louisiana Purchase Initial Point Site (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved July 31, 2012.
- White, Lonnie J. (Autumn 1962). "Arkansas Territorial Indian Affairs". Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Arkansas Historical Association) 21: 197.
- Arnold, Morris S.; DeBlack, Thomas A.; Sabo III, George; Whayne, Jeannie M. (2002). Arkansas: A narrative history (1st ed.). Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-724-4. OCLC 49029558.
- Gatewood, Willard B; Whayne, Jeannie (1993). The Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-287-0.
- Dollins, Mike. Blues Guitar News: A listing of Arkansas Blues Legends and Blues Highway 49 History.
- Arkansas Blues Festival in Helena
- Delta Rivers Nature Center in Pine Bluff
- Rural Development Heritage Initiative-Preservation
- Lakeport Plantation--Arkansas's only Antebellum Plantation Home on the Mississippi River
- Cultural Museum of the Arkansas Delta in Helena, Arkansas
- UAPB Museum devoted to the History of the University and the Delta
- Arkansas Blues and Country Legends website featuring Delta artists
- Delta Regional Authority-Economic Development Initiative in the Delta
- Association promoting products made exclusively in the Arkansas Delta
- Delta Networking Website
- Arkansas Blues
- Arkansas Blues Hall of Fame
- Arkansas River Blues Sociey
- Unknown Legends Musicians Relief Fund-supporting Arkansas musicians
- Ozark Blues Society in NW Arkansas, supporting Blues in the Natural State - Supporting Arkansas Musicians, and encouraging education in music
- Spa City Blues, Hot Springs Arkansas Blues Society
- Buffalo River Blues Society
- Delta Boogie - On Line Delta Blues Web Network - Blues Festivals - Musicians Network