When it comes to Arkansas, practically everyone has the same question: How did it end up with such a strange name? Why isn’t it pronounced “Ar-KAN-zes”? Or conversely, why isn’t its neighbor to the northwest called “kan-SAW”?
In the 1600s, Arkansas’ Quapaw Indians were known to other tribes by a term meaning “south wind,” which to French explorers sounded something like the modern-day pronunciation of Arkansas. There was no standard spelling or pronunciation for the next 200 years. During early statehood days, even Arkansas’ US senators disagreed about the pronunciation: One preferred “AR-kan-SAW;” the other, “Ar-KAN-zes.” Finally, in 1881, Arkansas’ General Assembly standardized the moniker, declaring it should be spelled Arkansas but pronounced “AR-kan-SAW,” an Anglicized version of the original French pronunciation. Meanwhile, Kansas chose to adopt an English pronunciation of its name, which has similar roots.
So Arkansas reflects the state’s American Indian and French heritage. Now that we’ve cleared that up, you can get on with your research. Let us show the way.
When the Spanish and French started exploring what became Arkansas in the 16th and 17th centuries, American Indians—primarily Quapaw, Osage and Caddo—lived there. Cherokee, Choctaw, Shawnee and Delaware arrived after 1790, pushed west by European settlers.
In 1686, Frenchman Henri de Tonti founded Arkansas Post, the state’s first permanent white settlement. France and Spain took turns occupying Arkansas until 1803, when the United States acquired it in the Louisiana Purchase.
Arkansas remained mostly unsettled until 1818, when the cotton boom drew families of Scottish, Scots-Irish and English descent from Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. The settlers brought black slaves and set up plantations in southern and eastern Arkansas. By 1860, slaves were a quarter of the state’s population. Most modern-day Arkansans descend from these Anglo-Saxon and black families who migrated from older Southern states.
As white settlers rushed into Arkansas, American Indians were forced out. By statehood in 1836, Congress had withdrawn land titles from Arkansas’ Indian tribes and pushed them west into Oklahoma. If your ancestors were among these tribes, consult Indian censuses and removal rolls on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Fort Worth, with some records on genealogy websites such as subscription-based Ancestry.
After the Civil War, Arkansas’ fertile farmland attracted European immigrants. Polish families settled in Pulaski County and Italians went to the northwestern part of the state. Immigrants through New Orleans traveled up the Mississippi River to make homes in Arkansas. If you don’t find your family’s origins in another Southern state, look at passenger lists for the port of New Orleans, which you can search on Ancestry and browse on the free FamilySearch. Some of NARA’s research facilities have these records on microfilm.
Censuses Census records can help you determine where in the state your ancestors lived. Find 18th-century French and Spanish records in Arkansas Colonials, 1686-1804 by Morris S. Arnold and Dorothy Jones Core (DeWitt Publishing Co.). An 1830 census of Arkansas Territory is searchable on Ancestry, along with various tax records dating to 1819. US censuses of Arkansas as a state begin in 1840; you’ll find those on major genealogy websites including Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Findmypast.
Arkansas began statewide registration of births and deaths in 1914, marriages in 1917, and divorces in 1923. Find several statewide indexes to births, deaths and marriages at FamilySearch and Ancestry. You can request copies from the Arkansas Department of Health. The agency also has some earlier birth and death records for Little Rock and Fort Smith dating from 1881. Check county courthouses for more vital records that predate state registration.
Courthouses also are your stop for marriage and divorce records (the state just has tear-off “returns” from the bottom of the certificates). The FamilySearch Family History Library (FHL) has microfilmed county marriage records to about the 1920s; you can view these online at FamilySearch.
Federal land offices began distributing Arkansas’ public domain acreage about 1840. The Commissioner of State Lands has records of those initial transfers. You can order copies for a nominal fee, and view digitized images (but not search by name) on the commissioner’s website.
Search for federal land patents and warrants in the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records databases. Clerks of circuit and county courts recorded all subsequent land transfers. Contact the county court where the transfer took place for deed records, or search the FHL catalog for microfilm copies.
If your relatives were among Arkansas’ first white settlers, they may have fought in the War of 1812 and received bounty land from the federal government. The FHL, NARA and the Arkansas History Commission (AHC) have microfilmed bounty-land warrants, which provide the date of the warrant and the soldier’s name, rank and unit. Search an index to warrant applications at FamilySearch and Fold3 (a subscription site, but the bounty land warrant index is free). Use details from the index to determine which microfilm roll you need.
In May 1861, Arkansas seceded from the United States. A few thousand northern Arkansans fought for the Union in the Civil War, but most of the state sided with the Confederacy. Find digitized service records for soldiers on both sides at Fold3. A free index at FamilySearch links to records in Fold3’s subscription collection.
Search an index to petitioners for Union pensions at FamilySearch. The pension records are unmicrofilmed at NARA (except for a handful of widows’ pensions at Fold3); order copies using NARA’s online ordering system. You can search an index to Confederate pension records at the AHC website or on FamilySearch, then go to images of the pension applications at Fold3. Remember that Confederate veterans could apply for a pension from any Southern state where they lived at the time of application, not necessarily the state where they served.
In 1911, a special census was taken of Confederate veterans. The AHC has returns for most Arkansas counties. A majority of these are on microfilm at the FHL; search an index at the AHC website.
The AHC has an extensive collection of military records in addition to those pertaining to the Civil War. Look for more microfilmed military records and indexes at the FHL.
Repositories and special collections
You’ll find many genealogical resources online and on microfilm, but eventually you’ll want to tap the following repositories’ riches (see the Toolkit for contact information):
- Arkansas History Commission: In addition to records already mentioned, the AHC (part of the state archives) has an impressive historical newspaper collection, county records, photographs, maps and more. You can search several databases on the website, including county, military, newspaper and other records. The site’s Digital Collections include history resource guides, old maps, photos and more.
- Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives: This facility has hundreds of family histories, genealogies, photos, cemetery records, pre-1917 marriage records and court records for 12 southwestern counties.
- Butler Center for Arkansas Studies: Find Arkansas history and genealogy tools here, including Sanborn maps, city directories, manuscripts, photos and more.
- University of Arkansas Libraries: The David W. Mullins Library in Fayetteville houses more than 900 manuscript collections, including church, school, business and organization records; diaries; letters; scrapbooks; memoirs; maps; and 100,000-plus pictures. Look for the series of regional biographical encyclopedias, too.
Making the most of these repositories may require a trip to your ancestral state. But you won’t need much convincing given its natural attractions, like its hot springs and the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. You even can impress the locals with your knowledge of “AR-kan-SAW” history.
For more Arkansas resources, visit:
What’s Hot in Arkansas?
Arkansas Fast Facts and Key Resources
From the May/June 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine.