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Historic Davidsonville

Davidsonville in Randolph County was founded in 1815 and is considered one of the most important frontier settlements in northeast Arkansas. Abandoned by the 1830s, Davidsonville was the site of several Arkansas “firsts.” 

  • While a part of Missouri Territory’s Lawrence County, it was the location of the first post office in what would become Arkansas.
  • In 1820, Arkansas Territory’s first federal land office was established there.
  • The first Arkansas courthouse was built in 1822.

 

For approximately fifteen years, the town was an important gathering place for local politics and commerce. Now, Davidsonville Historic State Park preserves the historic site.

The area was first occupied during the Archaic Period (9500–650 BC) and as late as the early 1700s by the Osage, Shawnee, Delaware and other tribes. Modern archaeological evidence confirms that the town was built on a Native American village site. Many of the early European settlers to the area were of French origin, and, by 1804, a small settlement is believed to have existed. In 1811, a road beginning at St. Genevieve, Missouri, and entering present-day northeast Arkansas was built near what would become Davidsonville, creating an increase in immigration to the area.

The political importance of the area changed when, on January 15, 1815, much of present-day northern Arkansas was established as Lawrence County, part of the Missouri Territory. The circuit court was charged with acquiring a site for a county seat. Land was chosen, due to its proximity to the Black, Spring and Current rivers and the lone road through the area, and was soon purchased for $255 from five local French settlers. About 1815, the town site was platted and initially named “Lawrence.” It eventually consisted of approximately 35 acres located on the west bank of the Black River. The area between the town and the river, which contained a blacksmith and the public well, was called “the Commons.” Soon after the town was platted, former Missouri Territory legislator John Davidson, who became an important influence in the town’s development, settled in the area. By 1817, the name of the town had been changed to Davidsonville.

Davidsonville flourished through both trade and travel along the Black River and the Old Military Road from St. Louis to Texas and soon became a center of political activity and local commerce. On June 28, 1817, the first United States post office in what would become Arkansas was established at Davidsonville, yet in 1819, traveler Henry Schoolcraft described it as a place of “little note or importance at the present.”

The town’s importance did increase in 1820, when the federal government established Arkansas Territory’s first land office there. The Black River connected the town to trade routes, and a ferry across the Black River connected the town to the road that led to Memphis. At the time, the commercial center consisted of a few businesses and a cotton gin. In that same year, traveler John Meetch described the town as having about 10 to 15 houses. Once the area’s first courthouse, a two-story brick structure, was built in 1822, the town prospered and a log jail was constructed northwest of the building. Though Davidsonville’s population never numbered more than a few hundred, archaeological evidence proves residents were using goods from as far away as New Orleans and other areas on the East Coast.

The Davidsonville town site and surrounding lands were designated as a state park in 1957 to preserve the historic remnants and natural environment of the area. In order to learn more about the town’s past, the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Archeolgoical Society, in cooperation with Arkansas State Parks, conducted test excavations in the summers of 1979 and 1980. A surveyor’s map of the original town (housed in the archives at Powhatan Courthouse State Park along with other primary source material) was used in locating the remains of homes and businesses at the site. The archeological investigations recovered pieces of plates and cups, crumbled bricks and mortar, plus trash pits, old tools and personal items such as buttons and combs. These material remains, along with available documentary sources such as deeds, birth and death certificates, marriage records and newspaper articles, are continually being used to compile a picture of life at Davidsonville in the early 19th century.

Around 1829, the town began to decline quickly when the county seat was relocated and more favorable trade routes were established, bypassing Davidsonville. Little is known of the town’s history after 1829, other than continued activity on the river. Today there are few remains to be seen above the ground.

Some scholars attribute the town’s sudden decline due to a number of factors. It’s possible an epidemic, perhaps cholera, decimated the population and led to an abandonment of the town. Economic factors were most likely the cause. The rivers, which contributed to the importance of the town, also led to its decline. When the river flooded, the town was isolated. The rerouting of the Southwest Trail, the major road through the area, away from the town and the growth of nearby Pocahontas (Randolph County) and Batesville (Independence County), contributed to the decline. In 1829, the county seat was moved to the new town of Jackson. About the same time, the U.S. land office was moved to Batesville. Having lost its governmental importance, the town slowly died. For a brief period, it retained its role as a commercial center with a ferry maintained by a local family until the 1930s.

LOCATION: From Pocahontas travel two miles west on U.S. Highway 62, then south on State Highway 166. It is nine miles to the park. From U.S. Highway 63 at Black Rock, take State Highway 361, travel five miles after crossing the bridge to the park.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas and Historic Davidsonville State Park