Swamp Makes History Personal at Louisiana Purchase State Park

Article follows the photos:
Re-enacting the survey of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase
Re-enacting the survey of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase
Marker point for original survey at La. Purchase State Park
Marker point for original survey at La. Purchase State Park
Living history program at La. Purchase State park
Living history program at La. Purchase State park
La. Purchase State Park
La. Purchase State Park
Living history actors at La. Purchase State Park
Living history actors at La. Purchase State Park
May 14, 2002


Swamp Makes History Personal
At Louisiana Purchase State Park

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By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 18th state park, Louisiana Purchase, is a National Historic Landmark and home to a monument marking the initial point for surveys of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The monument lies within a fascinating headwater swamp and can be viewed via an elevated boardwalk that has wayside exhibits. The park lies at the end of Ark. 362 two miles east from U.S. 49 about 19 miles southeast of Brinkley. It has no camping facilities, restrooms or on-site staff.

Since its creation some 25 years ago, Arkansas's Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park has remained little known, despite the fact it is a National Historic Landmark and its main feature, a 950-foot boardwalk into a swamp, has been designated a National Recreation Trail.

The park will seemingly get its due, however, in 2003 as Arkansas celebrates the bicentennial of the mammoth land deal that brought the state's territory under U.S. ownership. The park is scheduled to be featured on the cover of the state’s official highway map for the year, and U.S. 49, the major highway leading to the park, will become known as the Louisiana Purchase Byway.

While many Arkansas state parks are both historically and environmentally significant, the Louisiana Purchase site combines those elements to give visitors a uniquely personal sense of an important era in American history. Its historical significance derives not so much from the purchase itself, but rather from its connection to pioneer settling of the acquired lands.

On April 30, 1803, the United States committed to pay France $15 million for land that would become all of Arkansas and all or part of 12 other states: Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota. (The U.S. also held that the purchase included the panhandles of Mississippi and Alabama, a claim that was disputed by Spain for nearly two decades.)

The purchase doubled the size of U.S. territory and removed a potent barrier to America's continued westward expansion by ending European control of the continental heartland.

American settlement of the new territory began in earnest following the War of 1812. Land had been promised to the soldiers of the war. In 1815, President James Madison ordered an official survey of the area to establish a system for distributing land to the veterans.

On October 27, 1815, a survey party led by Prospect K. Robbins headed north from the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers to establish a north-south line to be known as the Fifth Principal Meridian. The same day, a party led by Joseph C. Brown departed westward from the junction of the St. Francis River and the Mississippi to establish an east-west line, known as a baseline.

The crossing of the two lines would be the initial point from which future surveys would originate. Robbins's party had traveled north almost 56 miles when they crossed the baseline that had been surveyed by Brown's party. Two gums about 18 inches in diameter were marked as witness trees to delineate the initial point, some 26 miles west of the Mississippi.

Both the meridian and the baseline would later be extended, and land surveys for all or parts of the Louisiana Purchase states west of the Mississippi would subsequently be measured from the point in eastern Arkansas.

The site went unheralded for more than a century. In 1921, two surveyors discovered the witness trees that had been marked by Robbins' party in 1815. Realizing the significance of the find, the L'Anguille Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in nearby Marianna placed a monument on the site in 1926.

The granite marker, at the end of the park boardwalk, reads in part: "This stone marks the base established Nov. 10, 1815, from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers."

Although the Arkansas legislature designated the site for a state park in 1961, it wasn't until 1977 that acquisition of the roughly 37-acre tract was funded by the state Natural Heritage Commission because of its status as one of the state's last remaining headwater swamps. Few were left because such land was easily converted to agricultural use.

Over the years, alternating periods of flooding and drying -- though rarely flooding deeply or drying completely -- have produced an unusually complex plant community in the park. Plants normally associated with swamps, such as swamp tupelo, bald cypress, black willow and button bush, occur in proximity with upland species, such as sweet gum, mulberry, Nuttall's oak and sassafras.

Walking along the boardwalk, park visitors find the woods filled with dark water, its surface rippled by water spiders, feeding minnows and an occasional snake. The drumming of woodpeckers is common. In warm months, skinks can be seen playing on the walkway and mosquitoes are abundant, making insect repellant a necessity for those who want to linger.

Along the route, informational panels relate the story of the Louisiana Purchase, the survey and the swamp.

Shortly, the boardwalk enters an area dominated by buttressed trunks of closely spaced tupelos and cypresses ascending to an almost solid canopy of summer foliage. From late spring to early autumn, one is likely to see a darting Acadian flycatcher or the yellow flash of a prothonotary warbler. Binoculars are helpful for enjoying the area's birds, which are of interest year-round.

The swamp's interior is an eerily beautiful place, but without the boardwalk few would dare to venture there. The 1815 survey parties had no such luxury.

"By standing quietly at this site," one of the panels informs visitors, "one can imagine the vastness and solitude of this land and the strengths of those people who negotiated for its purchase and explored, surveyed and settled it."

For visitors willing to spend time exploring the park's boardwalk into a swamp awaits a profound pay-off: a personal understanding of the depth of human spirit required to confront the territorial wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase.

A major renovation of the boardwalk and the installation of new informational panels are planned for this summer. Special park programs are being scheduled for next year. On first and third Saturdays from March through November, state park interpreters and other presenters will offer programs on the Louisiana Purchase, the park's environment and aspects of Arkansas's colonial and territorial history.

Brochures, which are not available at the park, may be obtained by calling toll-free 1-888-AT-PARKS or by visiting one of the state's 14 Tourist Information Centers. The nearest center is located on U.S. 49 just west of the Mississippi River Bridge.

An informative park web site compiled by Brinkley elementary students can be found at www.lapurchase.org.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"