Statehood for Arkansas

Arkansas was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and became a territory in 1819. It became a state in 1836, seceded from the Union in the run up to the Civil War, and was readmitted as a state after the war.

Arkansas was a colony of Spain… and France… and then Spain again for a while. It was never a colony of England, but the last battle of the American Revolution took place in Arkansas in 1783. Some seriously lost British soldiers who didn’t know that the war had ended attacked the fort at Arkansas Post with a band of Chickasaw fighters. The Spanish commander of the fort, along with the mostly-French inhabitants and some Quapaw residents, fought off the British.

It was an example of just how confusing it was to live in Arkansas at the time.

Arkansas had changing ownership that lessened loyalty.

Arkansas Post didn’t get the word that the ownership of the territory had changed its colonial masters until years after it happened. Many residents were under as many as five different flags during their lifetimes… but Arkansas didn’t usually get new flags, since it was not high on any nation’s list of priorities. Nor did it hear about the Louisiana Purchase, which took place in 1803, until an American representative showed up in 1804. After it became part of the District of Louisiana, it was administered from Indiana, and then became part of the Territory of Missouri, until in 1819 it became the Arkansas Territory.

Missouri was trying to become a state at the time, and it set its borders above what was then Arkansas County in the Missouri Territory. Arkansas was a wild and lawless place with a small population, and Missouri might have felt that it had a better chance of gaining statehood without Arkansas.

Arkansas had also been the site of an enormous earthquake in the winter of 1811-1812, and much of the inhabited land had disappeared as the Mississippi changed course. On the other hand, many of the river pirates who lived on islands in the Mississippi were washed away in the earthquake. Still, Arkansas was largely uninhabited, Native American tribes were fighting over the land as agricultural people from the Southeast were forced into the traditional hunting grounds of the Plains people, and early settlers from Spain, France, and the United States — as well as Germany — were setting up small and separate communities.

It would have been hard for a visitor to Arkansas Territory to imagine that Arkansas was on a path to statehood.

The Wild West

By 1830, Arkansas had made treaties with a number of Native American tribes within its borders, and the population had swelled to more than 30,000 people — more than half the number required for statehood at the time. Arkansas was still a dangerous place, and duels were a regular part of political life. Conflict arose between the planters in the South of the territory and the small farmers in the Northern part, because their economic needs were quite different. 10% of the families in Arkansas held 70% of the property, and the wealthy families included “The Family,” the political powerhouse descended from a Missouri Territory governor who had put his five sons into positions of power in Arkansas Territory.

As the Southern Delta grew in power, the Northern part of the state remained wild. The Shawnee had control over the northeast, and much of the land was uninhabitable swampland after the great earthquake. The Northwest was the site of continuing conflict between the Osage and the Cherokee, overseen by the U.S. Army in Ft. Smith. The Wild West character of the territory was obvious in the Ft. Smith courthouse and jail known as “Hell on the Border.” There famous outlaws came up against equally famous lawmen.

The territorial legislation was full of nepotism, corruption, and violence, but they were able to communicate with Congress. Most of the government supported statehood. The statehood supporters (correctly) believed that statehood would bring new people to Arkansas, and that the State of Arkansas would be able to control the violence Arkansas suffered as a border territory.

The fight for statehood

The people of Arkansas were not united, by any means, and many Arkansans believed that Arkansas should wait until they were more developed before becoming a state. Arkansas at this time had few roads, mail delivery was spotty since it often involved swimming across creeks to reach isolated communities, and most of the state was still uninhabited. Arkansas was also in debt, and some worried that they would lose federal funds if they became a state.

In 1834, however, Territorial Representative Ambrose Sevier  saw his chance. The Arkansas territorial government wanted statehood. Michigan was also trying for statehood. Under the Missouri Compromise, any state that didn’t allow slavery, such as Michigan, had to join the Union with a state which did allow slavery. Two “slave states” were under consideration as partners for Michigan: Florida and Arkansas. Both had some serious problems. What’s more, some in Congress worried that all these states would come in with support for the Whig Party — the alternative to the Democratic Party of the time.

Sevier seized his opportunity when Florida’s representative was away from Washington, and proposed Arkansas as the sister state for Michigan. Congress required that Arkansas have a census (in which it was determined that Arkansas’s population of 52,000 people was large enough), a vote (in which statehood won), and a constitution.

Some in Congress argued that Arkansas had done all these things before an enabling act was passed, and questioned whether this was legal. Some in Washington agreed with the anti-statehood faction in Arkansas that Arkansas was simply too poor to be a state, and needed greater economic development first. There was also a great deal of argument in Congress about slavery; the Missouri Compromise had not solved the deep division on the subject among the American people.

Congress argued for 25 hours straight before finally admitting Arkansas as a state.

It was not easy for Arkansas to become a state, but it was a good decision. The new state saw increased settlement, doubling their population between 1850 and 1860. Prosperity followed statehood, and Arkansas was #16 in wealth among the states of the time.

What Puerto Rico can learn from Arkansas

Puerto Rico faces debt and economic woes, just as Arkansas Territory did. There are also still some holdouts who hope for an “enhanced commonwealth” which the federal government has repeatedly rejected — and Arkansas also was plagued by political divisions. Puerto Rico is now coping with the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster, just as Arkansas was affected by a dreadful earthquake before it became a state.

Some people think that a territory must be in a strong position which will make it desirable for Congress to give it statehood. History shows that this just isn’t true. Territories often are in a difficult situation before they become states. Invariably, statehood has led to peace and prosperity for territories.

Puerto Rico can gain admission as a state, just as 32 territories have done so far in U.S. history. Sign the petition now, and tell your legislators that you support Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood.

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