Photo Left: Jackson Military Road cut exiting Washington, Arkansas, to the North East (2005)
This web site is intended to provide information for students and classrooms that have
interest in the route and history of the Old Southwest Trail in Arkansas.
The Southwest Trail in Prehistoric Times
D. Glen Akridge, Ph. D.
The Southwest Trail, as it has become known, probably originated in prehistoric times as a network of Indian trails that skirted along the edge of the highlands of the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains and the lowlands of the Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coastal Plain. The trail, at its ends, would have connected peoples in the Middle Mississippi River Valley to peoples in what is now Texas. The presence of such a trail was confirmed by naturalist Thomas Nuttall while traveling through Little Rock in 1819:
The great road to the south-west, connected with that of St. Louis, already noticed, passing through this settlement, communicates downwards also with the post of Washita, with the remarkable thermal springs near its sources, about 50 miles distant, and then proceeding 250 miles to the settlement of Mount Prairie on Saline Creek of Red river, and not far from the banks of the latter, continues to Natchitoches (Lottinville 1980:116).
Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin down the existence of the Southwest Trail in prehistoric times, since the trail(s) would have only been traveled by foot and thus did not leave a permanent imprint on the landscape. Archeologists do know that through prehistoric trade among Indians, artifacts originating in northeast Arkansas wound up in southwest Arkansas and vice-versa. However, with most of these artifacts it is difficult to know if they traveled by the Southwest Trail or some other route. Fortunately, we do know of a few cases in which trade artifacts have been found in close association with the Southwest Trail. The circumstances of these finds are described below, and we will add more examples as new finds become known.
The Tom Jones mound group is located in extreme southwest Arkansas (Figure 1, see below) and was inhabited by the Caddo around A.D. 1400-1430. Excavations by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and Arkansas Archeological Society have shown the site once contained at least five mounds with one very large mound (Mound A) likely serving ritual purposes. The other small mounds probably supported houses of important tribal leaders. Interestingly, remnants the Old Military Road (i.e. Southwest Trail) can still be seen as it passed directly through this site less than 200 feet north of Mound A (see Figure 2, see below). During excavations at the site by the Survey and Society, archeologists uncovered a Mound Place Incised bowl near Mound A (Figure 3, see below, is an example of this type of bowl). Mound Place Incised pottery was not made by Caddo Indians, but instead was commonly made by Indians in northeast Arkansas. This bowl was almost certainly carried by traders down to the Tom Jones site along the Southwest Trail (some 250 miles). Numerous other Caddo mound sites exist near the Tom Jones site and someday they too may yield more evidence of a trade network along the Trail.
Although separated by about 50 miles there is evidence of overland trade between people living along the Arkansas River near Little Rock and people along the Little Red River to the northeast. Three sites along the Little Red River (two near Searcy and one upstream near the modern Greers Ferry Dam) have over a dozen pottery vessels (see Figure 4 for an example, see below) that are common on sites near Little Rock but are otherwise completely absent on Native American sites along the Little Red River. Dating to a period of A.D. 1550-1650, these vessels were only found inside burials which signify their importance. The Southwest Trail (as defined by the Old Military Road of the 1820s) crosses the Little Red River a few miles northwest of the sites near Searcy. This may have been close enough for offshoot trails to lead to various Indian villages or the main trail in prehistoric times could have gone directly to these villages (For more information see Akridge and Akridge 2000).
Figure 1. (Text and Box added by author)
Figure 3. (Example of Incised Pottery)
Figure 4. Photo Credit: Akridge and Akridge (2000)
Akridge, Glen and Scott Akridge
2000 Late Mississippian and Protohistoric Occupation of the Little Red River Valley. The Arkansas Archeologist 39: 1-17.
Lottinville, S. (editor)
1980 Thomas Nuttall’s Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory During the Year 1819. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
2001 A Preliminary Report on the 2001 Investigations by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Archeological Society at the Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area, Hempstead County, Southwest Arkansas. Field Notes of the Arkansas Archeological Society 301: 5-11.
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Reserach, 703 Lemay Loop Austin, AR 72007