Our Historical City
Benard de la Harpe, a Frenchman leading an exploration party up the Arkansas River on April 9, 1722, noted the first outcropping of the rock he had seen along the banks since leaving New Orleans. He reportedly called it 'la petite roche' or 'the little rock,' to distinguish it from a larger cliff across the river.
The area was largely wilderness, inhabited by the Quapaw or Arkansa Indians, and had been explored by Spanish gold hunters and by itinerant hunter-trappers. The country became a part of the Territory of Louisiana, which was governed by France, Spain and then France again, from which it was purchased by the United States in 1803.
As early as 1806, settlers from the east coast started coming to what is now Central Arkansas. In 1812, William Lewis, a hunter-trapper, came up the Arkansas River becoming the first white settler; he stayed for three (3) months.
On August 24, 1818, the Quapaw Line was drawn. Starting at La Petite Roche and heading due south, this line formed the boundary between the Quapaw tribe lands and public lands available for settlement. Though by 1824, the Quapaw were forced to give up all of their lands, the line continued to serve as an important marker. The 1818 Treaty referred to La Petite Roche as the Little Rock, and some have speculated that this is the first official use in a government document of the name “Little Rock” to designate the area.
Little Rock had become a well-known crossing when the Arkansas Territory was established in 1819. The permanent settlement of Little Rock began in the spring of 1820, and the first building has been described as a cabin, or shanty, and was built on the bank of the river near La Petite Roche. In March 1820, a Post Office was established with the name Little Rock; Amos Wheeler was appointed as the Postmaster of the new community.
On October 18, 1820, Territorial Governor James Miller signed legislation designating Little Rock as the new capital for Arkansas, a mere ten (10) months after the first permanent settlement was established in Little Rock. The Act provided that after June 1, 1821, the sessions of the Legislature and the Superior Court would be held at Little Rock.
By 1825, the settlement known as Little Rock was little more than a loosely defined group of structures. On October 27, 1825, Territorial Governor George Izard signed legislation that created a framework for Little Rock to start self-governance. The legislation established that Little Rock citizens could elect a Board of Trustees to decide matters, and those Trustees would choose one of their own to be a presiding officer. Though Little Rock would not be officially incorporated until 1831, this was the first step towards incorporation.
On November 7, 1831, Little Rock was officially chartered as a town. The first Mayor was Dr. Matthew Cunningham who took office in January 1832. On November 2, 1835, Little Rock became a City, and eight (8) months later, on June 15, 1836, Arkansas became a State.
The first steamboat to reach Little Rock was the Eagle, which arrived on March 16, 1822. From that time onward, Little Rock’s role as a commercial center of Arkansas increased. From 1836 to 1840, Little Rock experienced rapid growth during this time, which ceased after the effects of the financial panic of 1837 were felt. A spurt of growth occurred again in the 1850's and again after the Civil War during the 1870's when an influx of immigrants and former Union soldiers came to settle permanently. The 1850s and early 1860s also saw the first “free” public school, the creation of the Little Rock Gas Plant and the first telegraph line.
On May 8, 1861, Arkansas seceded from the Union. On September 10, 1863, the Battle of Little Rock took place outside of the City limits, and eleven (11) days later, the City Government ceased operation and did not resume until January 1, 1866. The Little Rock Police Department was established in 1866, and mail service was restored to Little Rock in 1867. A new Little Rock City Hall was completed in 1867 and in February 1869, the Little Rock School District was established.
In conjunction with a new State Constitution, on March 8, 1875, Little Rock was re-chartered as Arkansas’ first City of a First-Class. The 1870s saw many improvements in Little Rock, including the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873; the first permanent bridge across the Arkansas River in Little Rock. Public transportation was introduced in the 1870s, first with mule drawn cars and later with streetcars. As the decade ended, the first telephone exchange was introduced in Little Rock.
Progress continued in the 1880s. A water system was created in 1884, and two (2) years later, electric service was introduced. Streets were first paved with cobblestones in 1887, and the next year, the first sewer pipes were laid and first concrete sidewalks were installed. Steam and electric public transit were introduced by 1889. The Little Rock Fire Department was created in 1892. Also that year, the former US Military Arsenal land became the City’s first park – City Park. In March 1942, the park was renamed MacArthur Park, in honor of General Douglas MacArthur, who was born there.
As the 20th Century dawned, the town of Pulaski Heights was incorporated in 1903. That same year, the City’s Eighth Ward, located on the north side of the Arkansas River separated and formed North Little Rock. In 1908, a new Little Rock City Hall opened at the corner of Markham and Broadway Streets; the building still serves as City Hall.
Little Rock annexed Pulaski Heights in January 1916, which set the tone for the City’s annexation policies. Instead of being surrounded by a series of small incorporated towns, Little Rock has grown by annexing additional lands.
In the 1920s, the Broadway Bridge and Main Street Bridge were completed. The fourteen (14)-story Donaghey Building became Little Rock’s first skyscraper when it opened in 1926. Also that year, the City’s first radio station opened. The Little Rock Zoo was founded in 1926 when an abandoned bear and wolf were left in Little Rock after a circus left. In 1927, the new Little Rock Senior High School opened on Park Street.
While the 1920s did not necessarily roar for Little Rock, the City also did not suffer as much in the Great Depression as other municipalities. Various New Deal Programs did enhance Little Rock’s landscape through construction of buildings such as the Museum of Fine Art, Robinson Auditorium and the Little Rock Zoo, as well as Boyle Park.
The City purchased the governmental airfield and some additional land for a Municipal Airport, and with the help of the WPA, a terminal building was built. In 1941, the airfield was named Adams Field for Captain George Geyer Adams, a former Little Rock Alderman who served in the 154th Observation Squadron, Arkansas National Guard, and was killed in an accident at the field.
In September 1957, the eyes of the world were on Little Rock as nine (9) African-American students tried to integrate Little Rock Central High. Governor Orval Faubus attempted to delay the start by deploying the National Guard. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and replaced them with members of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army. On September 25, 1957, the nine (9) African-American students entered the school and began their school year.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Little Rock took efforts to attract more businesses to the area. During this period, the Little Rock Air Force Base and Little Rock Port Authority were established. As the City continued to grow westward, commercial and residential developments were created. From the 1960s through the 1980s, successive modern skyscrapers vied for the title of tallest building in Arkansas.
The 1960s through the 1990s saw the expansion of cultural life in Little Rock with the opening of the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts), Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Ballet Arkansas, Wildwood Park for the Arts, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and the relocation of the Museum of Discovery to the River Market.
In the 1990s, the City of Little Rock engaged community-wide goal-setting programs. Future Little Rock led to the creation of many initiatives including the establishment of innovative Prevention, Intervention & Treatment Programs; Neighborhood Resource Centers; and the River Market District. In addition, the City worked to expand citizen engagement through enhanced participation in neighborhood associations.
As the 2000s dawned, Little Rock welcomed thousands of visitors for the opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park. President Clinton was a keynote speaker at the 1997 40th Anniversary, the 2007 50th Anniversary and the 2017 Anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High, which also brought thousands of visitors to the City.
In 1820, Little Rock’s population was less than thirty (30), and the area was only a few square-miles.
Little Rock’s 2015 U.S. Census Bureau population was estimated at 197,992 with approximately 123 square-miles.