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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.

 

 

 

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Southwest Trail Research

By Scott Akridge, Bradford, AR 
 

A group of volunteers has formed who are researching the Southwest Trail, the nineteenth century trail across Arkansas that crossed diagonally from northeast to southwest. This trail was roughly parallel to present-day State Highway 67 in Northeast Arkansas and Interstate Highway 30 in Southwest Arkansas.  
 

The Southwest Trail is a general term referring to a network of routes connecting the mid-Mississippi Valley (St. Louis/St Genevieve area of Missouri) to the Red River Valley (northeast Texas) during the nineteenth century. The bulk of this trail crossed Arkansas from northeast to southwest entering the state at Hick’s (Hix’s) Ferry (later Pitman’s Ferry) across Current River in Randolph County, and exiting the state at several crossings of the Red River south and west of Washington, Hempstead County. Geographically, it followed the edge of the eastern terminus of the Ozark Escarpment in Northeast Arkansas and the eastern terminus of the Ouachita Mountains in Central and Southwest Arkansas. Travelers on the trail avoided the swamps which plagued much of eastern Arkansas while skirting the foothills of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Thus the trail followed the path of least resistance though many travelers of the period found the trail full of hazards. From Pitman’s Ferry to the Fulton crossing on Red River, the trail traversed 300 miles crossing the heart of Arkansas. 

American Indians likely used the trail long before American purchase in 1803. The Hernando De Soto expedition may have traveled along portions of the route as early as 1541. During the colonial era, the French and Spanish governed Arkansas. Most travel was by river so evidence of travel on the trail is sparse. Arkansas’ population never exceeded 500 Europeans. It is not known when the term “Southwest Trail” was first used. This phrase appears to be largely a twentieth century usage. “Arkansas Road,” “National Road,” U.S. Road,” “Military Road,” “Natchitoches Trace,” and “Red River Road,” are a few of the known nineteenth century terms for this road. 
 

After American purchase in 1803 Americans began to trickle into Arkansas. The route was no more than a foot or horse path until 1819 when Arkansas became a territory. In that year, the St. Louis Republican stated that 100 persons a day passed through St. Charles, Missouri, one third of whom passed southward into Arkansas, distributing themselves as they went all the way to the Red River in the southwest part of the territory. The first wave of American immigration to Texas occurred in the 1820s and wagon trains on the move across the trail were a common sight. In 1826, the traveler Joseph Meetch, upon reaching the Little Red River north of modern Searcy, reported, “Here I passed six wagons and carts loaded with store goods, and movers going on to Big Red River. The store goods was from Kasksky (Kaskaskia, Illinois), and the movers was from the state of Missouri.” By 1830, the population of Arkansas had increased to nearly 30,000. An estimated four-fifths of these new arrivals came after 1817 by the way of the Southwest Trail. 

During Arkansas’ territorial period the only towns on the Southwest Trail were Jackson (one mile north of Imboden) in modern Randolph County; Little Rock in Pulaski County; and Washington in Hempstead County. The town of Davidsonville (then in Lawrence County, now modern Randolph County) was not on the most used route and this contributed to the decline of this early town in Arkansas. When historians today refer to the “Southwest Trail” they are usually making reference to the territorial period road when it was one of the few roads in the future state. 

Travelers on the early trail usually spent the night in a settler’s home, which ranged from a dirt floor log cabin to Jacob Barkman’s brick home near Arkadelphia. Because there were no restaurants or hotels in the modern sense, frontier settlers who lived along the trail often provided travelers room and a meal, as well as feed for livestock for a fee. Typically during the 1830s, this fee ranged from 75 cents to $1.25 for one man with a horse. Accommodations and meal quality varied widely of course. George Featherstonhaugh’s Excursion through the Slave States in 1834 is the single best description of life along the trail at the time. Featherstonhaugh spends much of his book describing geology, society and culture along the Southwest Trail. 
 

The Military Road is a more precise location for the trail. In the 1830s, during the Andrew Jackson administration, Congress attached funding to military appropriations bills that provided for improvements to the road. Improvements were in the form of cutting trees and pulling stumps, building bridges, and in some cases, leveling the road. The Military Road was a single roadbed whereas the Southwest Trail was a network of routes. Benton, in Saline County, and Rockport, in Hot Spring County, were on the Military Road. Batesville, Arkadelphia, and Hot Springs were not on the Military Road although they were stops for some travelers on the Southwest Trail.  

It must be noted that there are several “Military Roads” in Arkansas. The most prominent of these is the Memphis to Little Rock Military Road for which funding began in 1824. Some of the early surveyors, however, did label the Southwest Trail route as “Military Road” on General Land Office maps and several sections of the surviving trail are still referred to as “Old Military Road.” From North Little Rock to the El Paso area of southern White County the road is still referred to as the “Batesville Pike.” 

From the 1840s to the 1870s portions of the route of the trail were shifted to match the growth of local population centers. The rise of steamboat travel allowed some travelers to skip portions of the trail. North of the Arkansas River much of the Military Road roadbed was abandoned and Civil War officers refer to the Military Road as “old.” South of the Arkansas River much of the trail remained in the Military Road roadbed for many decades. 

During the 1870s the St Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad (originally the Cairo & Fulton) was built across Arkansas roughly paralleling the Southwest Trail. Travel and trade increasingly rely on the railroads and the steamboat era gradually comes to an end in the early twentieth century. 

 
The research group is focusing on the territorial period and early statehood, precisely when Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee removal groups were traveling the trail. Because the trail is known by different names to people in different areas and times, the group is calling it the “Road of Many Names” among themselves.

The group includes Glen Akridge, Fayetteville; Scott Akridge, Bradford; George Lankford, Batesville; Bill Leach; Searcy, and Emmett Powers, Lonoke. Powers created a website for the project at www.southwesttrail.com. The website includes maps and a growing bibliography. The web site is intended to be a collection point for materials related to the Southwest Trail as well as a resource for students of the trail. Students wishing to do research on any aspect of the trail are encouraged to contact the group for assistance. The website is in it’s infancy. Suggestions for improvement of the website and all additions are welcome and encouraged.  
 

The group has a five year plan for the project which includes: documenting in detail using GPS mapping as many of the routes of the trail as possible; communicating with local historical societies and other interest groups regarding history and occupation along the trail; nominating surviving sections of the early trail to the National Register of Historic Places; evaluating the impact of the trail on economics, politics, and culture locally, regionally, and nationally; developing plans for marking the trail along its length; producing educational materials for school groups; and publishing one or more books/articles regarding the route and history of the trail. Anyone interested in participation in any aspect of the project is encouraged to contact the group. 

The group desires to have at least one local contact from each of the historical societies along the trail and currently about half of the counties have at least one representative. The group does not currently have an e-newsletter for the project but one is being considered. For more information about the project contact Emmett Powers at arkswroadsurvey@sbcglobal.net.

 

 

Send mail to Southwest Trail Reserach, 703 Lemay Loop Austin, AR  72007
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Last modified: 01/14/13