The city of Little Rock, Arkansas’ state capital, is located on the south bank of the Arkansas River, in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains near a rocky outcrop naturally formed by the water flow of the river. The rock formation is the first visible on the river when ascended from the Mississippi. It would be hard to miss the rock, since it’s the first outcropping of any size on an 118-mile (190 km) stretch of the Arkansas River which was known to early French explorers as “Rivière des arcs”.
In the downtown area, at the end of South Rock Street, near the pillar supporting the pedestrian Junction Bridge (an old railway bridge), is the historic “Little Rock”. A bronze memorial plaque was permanently fastened to a piece of rock for symbolizing the origin of the city. Prior to its founding in the 1820s travelers referred to the place as “The Little Rock.” The name was so enshrined as a famous landmark in early American history that it became fixed to the city’s incorporation in 1831. But, why a little rock? Going back to 1722 is key!
An area first mapped by the French
In the first quarter of the 18th century, officer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe, born in Saint-Malo, France, was charged by the then governor of Colonial Louisiana to explore the Arkansas River with a view to establishing trade relations with local Native American tribes upstream and the Spanish. On Friday February 27, 1722, La Harpe entered the river at its mouth into what was then the territory of the Quapaw people who grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, and tobacco in fields near their villages. Further up the river, he made a stop at the “Poste des Arkansas” (now Arkansas Post) to refuel. Afterwards, he continued his journey until he arrived, on April 9th, at a big rocky bluff he called “La Roche des Français” (now called ‘Big Rock’ in North Little Rock). Previously, he most likely noticed in the vicinity, but without naming it right away, a smaller rock formation on the south riverbank, which La Harpe later named “La petite roche” (The Little Rock). With this simple naming, history was made. In the late 1700s, the name appeared on French maps of Colonial Louisiana, giving its location a strategic importance.
At “The Little Rock”, where it is possible to ford the Arkansas River, the old Southwest Trail crossed the waterway. This ancient Native American trail was used by the French in the 18th century between St. Louis, Missouri, and Santa Fe via the Red River Valley country. In the 19th-century it became a pioneer route that was the primary passageway for American settlers bound for Texas. The colonization of the site began in the spring of 1820, near The Little Rock, where the post office had already taken the name of Little Rock.