Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park, a small lesser-known park in the eastern part of Arkansas near Brinkley, protects the initial survey point for all lands acquired in the United States’ Louisiana Purchase. The park also provides you access to see a granite monument marking the location on an elevated boardwalk in a headwater swamp. This special site is not only a state park: It is also listed as a National Historic Landmark and is on the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission’s Registry of Natural Areas.
Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is a sliver of land that time forgot in a sea of 200 years of change across the Delta. A short hike here not only takes you to the monument, but also gives a glimpse into what the Mississippi River Delta was like in 1815.
This article will introduce some of the natural wonders of this special place that make it worthy of these designations.
Monument Marking Initial Point
A hike here not only takes you to the Louisiana Purchase monument, but also gives a glimpse into what the Delta was like in 1815, when crews led by Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown were establishing the initial land survey point. Your view will show what the Delta looked like before it was largely drained and cleared of forests for agricultural use over the last 200 years. Back then, a trip here was one of thick swamps and towering forests. The park you see today is a sliver of land largely untouched by 200 years of change.
Even before arriving at the parking area and boardwalk, one can feel the change. As you turn off the highway and approach the park the landscape starts to transform and is like going through a tunnel back to 1815. Pretty soon you will be bordered by water and trees on both sides of the road.
Tunnel Back to 1815
In a few moments of travel, the transformation is completed when you arrive at the end of the road, at the trailhead.
If you visit the park in the winter or spring it may just seem like a seasonally flooded forest (like in the photo below), but there is more to the story.
A Winter Visit
You are actually now in a headwater swamp. Like a shallow bowl, they were carved from melting glacier waters and were once common across the Mississippi River Delta. The area you see at Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is one of the few remaining examples of these, as they have nearly all been drained for agriculture. Prospect Robbins distinctly described the land around the initial point with references like “Southern edge of a Cypress swamp” and “Balance low and wet."
Imagine what it would be like to find your way around the swamp if there was no boardwalk, and no features on the landscape to help you find your direction.
Just Trees and Water
Joseph Brown also described the area as being “very low and swampy with cypress” and you may find that you agree with his statement “Cannot well say what is the bearing of this swamp or its width.” Bald-cypress trees like those described by the surveyors still thrive within the sanctuary of the park. This species is known for being long-lived, and it is very possible some of the ones standing today were growing in 1815.
A benefit of growing in a headwater swamp is that the still water provides insurance against being washed away in a flood; that is a hazard for trees growing on riverbanks. Cypress trees take root in this protected place and literally brace themselves for hundreds of years of growth by sending up what look like wooden knees from their roots. These knees serve like anchors protecting the trees from countless windstorms that could topple them in the soggy soil they sprang up from.
Cypress wood is very valuable and has been harvested extensively. This harvesting, along with wetlands being drained, means cypress are not as widespread and common as they once were. The park’s protection of trees here allows us to experience them, much as those surveyors did in 1815.
Another tree at home here is water tupelo (pictured below). In fact, their presence is the result of a biological “race” that took place at least decades ago. Water tupelo grows faster in wet conditions than many other trees. When these trees were small, they would have grown faster than competing species. Eventually they would have pulled ahead and shaded out the others. On drier land, water tupelo no longer has the advantage and often lags behind and gets shaded out. The park is one of the few places where water tupelo has the advantage and thus, they grow quickly and tall. The challenge of other trees vs. tupelo you see here is similar to what the surveyors would have witnessed.
Water Tupelo Buttress
Water tupelo, like bald-cypress, need to be able to brace themselves against winds and floods, and so they often feature a buttress or widened trunk that stabilizes them in soggy soil.
Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is a sliver of land protected from over 200 years of change and is your entrance into the Delta as it was similarly experienced by the 1815 surveyors. I encourage you to visit the park and make your own notes or observations like the 1815 surveyors. If you like, share your experiences on social media and tag us at #ARStateParks.
The park is open daily, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free and parking is available at the Trailhead. A barrier-free 3/8-mile (round trip) boardwalk features interpretive wayside exhibits. Drinking water is not available so you will want to bring your own. Pit toilets are located near the Trailhead. Guided tours are scheduled throughout the year - watch our online calendar of events. Organized groups such as scouts, schools, and interested groups are encouraged to schedule tours also. Please contact park staff about availability and details.
A free patch award is also available; completing the patch program takes you deeper into your exploration of Arkansas. Download the patch requirements, a free poster, and other brochures on the park page by clicking on Brochures/Maps.
Sources / For further reading:
Burns, R.M. (1983). Silviculture of the Major Forest Types of the United States. Agriculture Handbook 445., U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
Fleming, J. (1972). The Louisiana Purchase from Wilderness to Empire. Gallinule Society Publishing Company.
Gill, J.P. (2004). Journal of the Louisiana Purchase 2002 Base Line Expedition. Louisiana-Purchase Bicentennial Committee of Arkansas.
Langdon, O.D., DeBell, D.S., & Hook, D.D. (1978). Fifth North American Forest Biology Workshop Proceedings University of Florida Gainesville.