The History of Little Rock

By Meghan Sever, Communications Specialist, Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts

Little Rock, capital of Arkansas and site of the 2013 National Association for State Judicial Educators (NASJE) conference, is a city with a rich and colorful past, full of Southern charm and hospitality. Many culturally and historically significant events have happened here, and these occasions have helped shape it into the diverse metropolis that it is today. Little Rock is a city that has moved forward into the 21st century, while embracing its past and the roots that made it famous.

Central Arkansas, which included what would later become Little Rock, was originally occupied by Native Americans. For thousands of years, the tribes of Caddo, Quapaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Osage were the only inhabitants of the area. Then in 1541, Hernando de Soto became the first explorer to venture into central Arkansas. He was followed by Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe, a French explorer, who first led Europeans through the area in 1722. La Harpe named the area after a small rock formation on the south bank of the Arkansas River. He called it la Petite Roche, which in French means “the little rock,” and used it to mark the transition from the flat Mississippi Delta region to the Ouachita Mountains.

In 1803, the land became property of the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, which is still referred to as the greatest real estate deal in history. This marked the beginning of a period of great growth for the region. In 1812, Arkansas became part of the Missouri Territory. The territory of Arkansas was later created in 1819. That year also saw the creation of the Arkansas Gazette, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi. In 1821, Little Rock was chosen as the territorial capital and became a stop on the Southwest Trail, but growth was slow until 1823, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a road between Little Rock and Memphis. On June 15, 1836, Arkansas became the twenty-fifth state and following the Civil War, construction surged in the capital city. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were electric lights, telephones and a public water system. Little Rock had transitioned from a frontier town to a modern city.

Little Rock has been home to many significant events during its 177 years as a state. Perhaps the most widely-known is the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Commonly referred to as the Crisis at Central High, it was the first major test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which found racial segregation to be unconstitutional. In 1957, under protection from the U.S. Army and by order of President Eisenhower, nine African-American students enrolled and entered Little Rock Central High School. The students endured verbal and physical harassment as a result of this resistance to social change. Today, Little Rock Central High School is a National Historic site with a Visitor’s Center, which features exhibits on the school’s role in desegregation.

William Jefferson Clinton, the forty-second president of the United States, was born and raised in Arkansas. Prior to his presidency, he was elected attorney general in 1976 and served as governor of Arkansas from 1979-1981 and again from 1983-1992. During his time as governor, Clinton overhauled the state’s education system and served as the chair of the National Governors Association. Clinton made his first bid for presidency in 1992 and won. As the first United States president from Arkansas, he very appropriately gave his election night victory speech at the Old State House, Arkansas’s first capitol building.

Today the Little Rock metropolitan area is considered a city of racial and cultural diversity with a population of more than 893,610 unique individuals. The city continues to expand its boundaries, with each section of the city providing a distinct atmosphere. As the capital city of the Natural State, Little Rock offers numerous opportunities for outdoor activities, including cycling on the Big Dam Bridge, the world’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge. As Little Rock continues to grow, it remembers and embraces its past as it moves forward.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture website