Arkansas Backstories • Joe David Rice

Geographical, Statistical and Historical Map of Arkansas Territory [Stephen Long Map]


As early explorers left the Mississippi and slowly navigated their way up the Arkansas River, the first rocky outcrop they encountered after miles and miles of travel was situated on the south bank. Compared to a massive bluff just upstream on the opposite side, the smaller of the two quite logically became known as the “little rock.” To no one’s surprise, the community which sprang up at this location took on the same name. With placement of a United States post office on the site in 1820, Little Rock was officially established.

Land speculators, among them several cohorts of Stephen F. Austin, soon sprang into action, creating a chaotic situation that ultimately went to the Superior Court of the Arkansas Territory. During the confusion, claimants holding New Madrid land certificates boldly seized control of the community. On Feb. 10, 1821, they sent a letter to the Arkansas Gazette which was still published at Arkansas Post. The newspaper’s editor reprinted this extract:

“Arkopolis — formerly Little Rock.Gentlemen — On the 3rd inst. we had a large and respectable meeting of the citizens of this place and its vicinity, for the purpose of giving it a name; and we unanimously adopted the above — a combination of the first syllable of Arkansas and the Greek word polis, or city. Notwithstanding the weather was very unfavorable, the day passed with much cheerfulness and mirth, and it gave me peculiar pleasure to witness the cordial expression of good will, and the wishes of all present, for the improvement of our new seat of government.”

Melodious as Arkopolis must have sounded to its originators, the new name didn’t last long. The court ruled against those holding the New Madrid certificates, and within months, the community was again known as Little Rock. However, several maps published during this era show Arkopolis as the territorial capital.

And the short-lived appellation occasionally showed up in literature of the day. John Melish, a prolific mapmaker and author, included this 1826 entry in A Geographical Description of the United States:

“Chief Towns. – Arkopolis, lately called Little Rock, is the seat of government. It is agreeably situated upon the north (sic) bank of the Arkansas River, and the great road from St. Louis to New Orleans, by the Hot Springs, passes through it. The country is not rich, but the place is healthy, and is increasing… The people are at present pretty well informed, and are represented by travelers as generally civil and hospitable.”

Current adventurers looking for the “little rock” of old won’t find the same geologic outcrop noted by earlier expeditions. When railroad engineers decided to stretch a bridge across the river at this location about a century ago, they opted to use the city’s namesake for the structure’s foundation at the south end. As a result, much of the original “little rock” got blasted away to accommodate train traffic. But in recent years, city leaders spruced up the area, naming it Le Petite Roche Plaza, and what remains of the original “little rock” now provides an apt location for a modest photo opp. The historic bridge has been converted to a handsome bicycle/pedestrian crossing – and it, too, is worth a visit.

I’ll let you decide whether or not Arkopolis has a nice ring to it. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine Marilyn Monroe singing, “I’m just a little girl from Arkopolis.” 

Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.

Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The columns will be collected and published in book form in late 2018 by Butler Center Books. 

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