Across Cross County

FIFTH IN A SERIES

We cross into Cross County as the trip west across Arkansas continues on U.S. Highway 64.

“Created during the Civil War, the county was largely shaped by railroad development during the Gilded Age, with small industry and tourism becoming more of a focus in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” Richard Hartness writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Geologically, the county is divided roughly into thirds. Crowley’s Ridge, a glacial age erosional remnant covered with a unique topsoil, traverses the county north to south, rising 75 to 100 feet above ancient alluvial floodplains on either side.

“The eastern third of the county is drained primarily by the St. Francis River, while the western portion drains into the L’Anguille River. … The county’s lowlands are devoted to rice, soybeans and cotton while the ridge accommodates apple, peach and pecan orchards as well as herds of goats and cattle. Over time, the area has been home to black bear, bison and deer. … Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the sparse population of the area consisted of French hunters, Cherokee and a few English frontiersmen, some claiming ownership of Spanish land grants.”

The Native Americans were removed on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

“Settlers from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri moved in, making their homes in the area,” Hartness writes. “The new landowners brought slaves with them to work on the plantations and farms established in the county. Early settlements in the region included Vanndale, named for its first postmaster J.M. Vann, and Wittsburg, an important landing on the St. Francis River.”

I make my way into Parkin and stop at Parkin Archeological State Park, which interprets a Mississippian-era village that existed from about 1000 to 1550.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “European-made trade items from the era of Hernando de Soto’s expedition recovered at the park and written descriptions of the village support theories that the Spanish visited the Parkin site in 1541. Many archaeologists believe the site may be Casqui, mentioned prominently in the de Soto journals. Remnants of Indian villages similar to the Parkin site were once numerous in eastern Arkansas, but soil erosion, careless digging and farming destroyed virtually all of them during the 19th century.

“The prehistoric village on the eastern bank of the St. Francis River covered 17 acres and was enclosed by the river on the west and a soggy moat on three sides. Archaeological studies have determined a wooden palisade also surrounded the village. A large platform earthen mound, built by the natives, still overlooks the river today. It’s believed to be the most intact (that is, undisturbed by looters) native village of its time period remaining in northeast Arkansas.”

After the town of Parkin was established in the late 1800s, cotton farmers discovered it was difficult to cultivate across the wide ditch that had served as the village’s protective moat. A sawmill and homes were constructed instead. The lack of row-crop agriculture on the site actually helped protect it.

Charles R. McGinsey III conducted a field school for the University of Arkansas at the site in 1965. In 1966, the Arkansas Archaeological Society held its annual training program here.

According to the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “The reason for both was to determine if there were enough intact deposits to warrant turning the site into a state park. The idea for a park came about in the early 1960s when local residents and elected officials worked to get the idea off the ground. The Coldren family donated the mound within the larger village site to the city of Parkin in 1964. The Legislature authorized land acquisition for the larger site in 1965, but the village site land wasn’t acquired until 1975.

“Several homes and a church occupied the village site. Individual land parcels were purchased in phases over a period of years. Initial park development started in 1991, and the new visitors’ center was dedicated in October 1994. Since its beginning, the park has operated under a partnership with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. A research station is located in the visitors’ center. Visitors can watch research in progress and see firsthand the results of excavations and laboratory analysis.

“While finding conclusive evidence that de Soto visited Parkin would be an important discovery, the archaeologists are more focused on learning about the residents of the ancient village, including how they lived and why they ceased occupation of the area sometime after the Spaniards departed. Along with the initial survey work done in the 1960s, additional investigation were carried out by Phyllis Morse in the 1970s and Jeffrey Mitchem in the 1990s.”

The state park also features the restored Northern Ohio School, which was used in the early 1900s by the children of employees of the sawmill located there.

So just who was Casqui?

Mitchem writes in the book “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives”: “Casqui was a Native American chief who ruled over a province in northeast Arkansas in the 1500s. He was the first Indian leader in Arkansas whose 1541 dealings with de Soto are recorded in detail in accounts of the expedition. Casqui was thus the earliest Arkansan about whom we have written historical information. In the Spanish writings, his name was variously recorded as Casqui, Casquin or Icasqui. The explorers used his name to refer to him, the town in which we resided and the area over which he ruled.

“Knowledge of Casqui is limited, but the narratives provide interesting details about his people and the territory under his control, as well as some of the events that occurred when the expedition traveled through the region. Archaeological, geographical and historical evidence indicate that the town where Casqui lived was the Parkin site. The Spanish accounts describe Casqui’s town as fortified and next to a river, with the chief’s house upon a manmade mound next to the river.”

De Soto’s expedition crossed the Mississippi River into what’s now Arkansas in the summer of 1541.

“The explorers soon heard of two powerful chiefs in what’s now northeast Arkansas, Casqui and Pacaha,” Mitchem writes. “As the expedition headed north, it entered land under Casqui’s control. Word was sent to Casqui from residents of his outlying towns that strangers were approaching. Along with a large number of his people, Casqui walked some distance from his town, bearing gifts of food, clothing and animal hides to welcome de Soto and members of his expedition. This was in marked contrast to most initial encounters between Indians and the de Soto expedition, which were violent.

“The Spanish accounts indicate that there were probably two reasons for the peaceful reception. First, a prolonged drought had afflicted the region for several years, causing a failure of the crops upon which Casqui’s people depended. Second, Casqui was at war with the neighboring chief Pacaha. According to de Soto expedition chronicles, Casqui believed that the de Soto entourage had come from heaven. He asked de Soto to intervene with heaven to end the drought and brought two blind men to be healed. De Soto had 12 Catholic priests accompanying the expedition, and he tried to explain his Christian beliefs to Casqui through interpreters.”

The priests celebrated mass. De Soto had a large cross made from a tree and erected it atop the mound where Casqui’s house was located. There’s no evidence that any of the Native Americans converted to Christianity.

“Casqui’s war with Pacaha had probably been going on for years, maybe even for generations,” Mitchem writes. “All of Casqui’s settlements were fortified by defensive moat-like ditches and palisade walls. Pacaha’s towns were similarly fortified, suggesting that warfare had been a fact of life in northeast Arkansas for a long time. By the 1540s, the conflict probably consisted of small skirmishes and ambushes in which a few enemy people were either captured and made slaves or killed. Casqui hoped that de Soto and his soldiers, with their formidable weapons and horses, would help defeat Pacaha. To Casqui’s disappointment, de Soto made a tenuous peace between the two chiefs before moving on to other parts of Arkansas.

“The accounts of the de Soto expedition offer some details of events that occurred during their stay in northeast Arkansas, including the sacking of Pacaha’s main town by Casqui’s people and subsequent efforts by de Soto to make peace between the two. Unfortunately, they tell us little about Casqui himself. One of the accounts indicates he was about 50 years old in 1541. The narratives suggest that he was the aggressor in the ongoing warfare. When the de Soto expedition moved farther west after about a month in the area, Casqui’s name disappeared from the written record. There exists no other information about him or his ultimate fate.”

The Parkin site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.

The site is about a mile below where the Tyronza River empties into the St. Francis. The soil here is well suited to growing crops.

“The Indians planted their fields along the river,” Mitchem writes. “Excavations have revealed that corn was the main crop, supplemented by beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. The Indians also stored many wild plants from the area, including pecans, persimmons and various seeds and fruits. Their primary source of meat was deer, which were abundant in the forests that covered the region. In addition to many smaller mammals, fish and turtles from the rivers provided food.

“Their success at farming and the area’s natural abundance supported population growth over hundreds of years. Other Indian groups in the region were also prospering and expanding, and competition for prime farmland and the desire of chiefs to expand their domains eventually led to warfare. By the time Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, chiefs were ruling over provinces consisting of 10 to 20 small villages. … The Parkin site is a prime example of one of these fortified Mississippian villages. A defensive ditch surrounded the settlement on three sides with the St. Francis on the fourth. Archaeologists excavated remains of a stockade wall of upright wood posts on the inside of the ditch.”

Parkin was a capital with about 20 villages around it.

“Similarity of pottery styles and other archaeological remains support the conclusion that the residents were part of a single culture,” Mitchem writes. “Archaeologists have found what may be part of de Soto’s cross at the Parkin site, though it’s impossible to prove beyond doubt. Spanish artifacts — including a glass bead, a brass bell, bell fragments and two lead shot — provide strong evidence for contacts between the residents of Parkin and the de Soto expedition.”

The current town of Parkin has seen its population fall from 2,035 in the 1980 census to 962 in the 2020 census.

Settlers Reuben and Smash Rodgers moved to a community known as Smithdale in 1852. It was about two miles from present-day Parkin.

Dr. John Stoner moved to the area in 1871 and built a large plantation. Further development came after the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its tracks in 1887. William Parkin of Memphis was in charge of railroad construction in the area, and the town was named for him.

Soon, because of access provided by the railroad, people were coming to clear the vast tracts of virgin hardwood timber. The Fee brothers from Pennsylvania established a lumber mill in 1890. George and Jake Mattox started a sawmill the same year. The Fee operation became Lansing Wheelbarrow Co., and the Mattox company eventually became Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co.

“Another major sawmill was established in 1902 by Henry Clay Coldren as the Parkin Cooperage Co.,” Kimberly Seabaugh writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Coldren’s company and Northern Ohio Lumber Co. merged in 1906 to form Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co. Lansing Wheelbarrow and Northern Ohio established the Northern Ohio School in 1910. This was a school for African-American children of the two companies’ workers. This school served children up to the eighth grade. In 1911, the main Parkin Elementary School for white children was built. Additional units were added in 1924.

“Parkin was incorporated as a town in 1912. That same year, a woman came to town to run one of its main industries. Agnes Hamill Park moved to Parkin from Michigan to manage Lansing Wheelbarrow, becoming the town’s first woman to hold such a position. Park was active in supporting local schools as well as assisting others in buying stock to organize First State Bank in 1925.”

Parkin sustained damage from major floods in 1912, 1913, 1927 and 1937. Residents often had to travel to government tent camps on Crowley’s Ridge. A tornado did considerable damage in 1928. The Great Depression began in 1929, and the Great Drought of 1930-31 followed.

“In 1938, Falls Equipment Co. was established, changing the area by introducing International Harvester farm machinery,” Seabaugh writes. “This would cause a change from the lumber industry to row-crop agriculture. By 1946, Northern Ohio had closed. Lansing Wheelbarrow also closed in the 1940s.”

A new high school for white students was constructed in 1951. In 2005, the Parkin School District was consolidated with the Wynne School District as the population losses increased.

“Parkin was once a hotspot for musicians from Memphis to perform,” Seabaugh writes. “Every weekend, residents were entertained. B.B. King frequently played in Parkin before his rise to fame. Chester Arthur ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett learned to play the harmonica while living in Parkin. Carl Perkins said it was after a show in Parkin that he overheard someone on the dance floor warning his date to stay away from his new blue suede shoes. He wrote down those words and recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in December 1955.”

Continuing west on U.S. 64, I cross the St. Francis River and head toward Wynne.

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