Polk County Arkansas ...
Established December 30, 1844 (date it was approved by Legislature).
It was in the mid 1830s that white people began to enter the land area we know today as Polk County; to put down roots and raise their families. Once home to the Quapaw and Caddo Indians, and wild animals, now the lure of new frontiers, free land, and a fresh start brought the white people to this new country, wild and untamed.
Remote from any navigable stream, it was settled first by hunters and trappers who found their way here on horseback. They migrated from the southern states, mostly Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri. The names Thomas Griffith, of Illinois; Jacob Miller; George Wiles; James Pirtle, of Tennessee; Walter Scott; Allen Trousdale; Isaac Jones; John B. Stewart; George M. Winter; and Elisha Baker, indicate they were of Angelo-Saxon origin. These earliest of pioneers settled in the beautiful valley beneath the majestic Ouachita Mountains, in what is today known as the Old Dallas and the Bethesda area. Old Dallas became the first county seat of justice.
A little later came Joseph Smith; William Cox; Thomas Edom; William Josling; Isaac A. Morris; and Joshua Cox came to share the level, fertile land to be had for the taking in this land of milk and honey.
It wasn't long until others came. In the fall of 1833, from Missouri, a party headed by Kinnerson Shults, containing the Winton; Quinton; Nobles; Adams and others, started for southwest Texas. The night of November 16, 1833, known as the night the stars fell, they camped at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Headed for a place in the Indian Territory called Doaksville, they met a party of hunters who told them of the great hunting grounds, full of wild game and fine range land. But no, they were headed for the Laynesport Ferry on the Red River, to cross into that wild Indian country now known as Texas. U.S. soldiers awaited them and they were met with resistance. Texas was experiencing an Indian uprising and there was nothing to do but go back. (Order a copy of The Mountain Signal, Nov. 1999 for the story of this wagon train.)
The party traveled north where they heard of a store, owned by a Mr. McKean, (pronounced McKee-n) in what was known as the Oklahoma border town of Paraclifta, (near DeQueen) in Sevier County. McKean had left the same place in Missouri from which they had come, some three years before. After a visit with old friends, they moved on toward the rich hunting grounds of which they had been told. On Christmas Day 1833, the men started out, blazing the road as they went. The women and children came behind driving the wagons and cattle. On New Year's Day 1834, they camped on the creek south of what we know as Potter. After dinner they hooked up to leave, but the older Winton said, "I've gone as far as I'm going, this looks good to me." By sundown they had a log house up for him. The rest of the people moved on to the old Camp Grounds, known today at the Rocky area. And so, began the first settlements in the Hatfield, Potter and Rocky communities.
On the first day of May 1834, the first white child was born, Matilda Jane Shults. (One might argue that it was not the first white child born in Polk County, for at that time the area was still a part of Sevier County.) These new pioneers were in an unplatted territory. There were no names for them to mark their whereabouts so this was among their first tasks. The first creek of any size from the Winton settlement was about two miles, and thus became known as Two Mile Creek. The next settlement was four miles further and it became known as Six Mile Creek. Another was named Buffalo, for the bones found near the creek. Barren Creek was undoubtedly given its name in reference to the lack of water or foliage near it. These people were simple and their needs few– food, shelter, and clothing. Yet, obtaining these few necessities took their entire waking hours.
Polk County was organized November 30,1844, in accordance with the provisions of an act of the General Assembly, and approved December 30, 1844. The temporary seat of justice was established at the house of James Pirtle. Here was also established the first post office, called Panther. A portion of Polk County was used to create Sebastian County in 1851, and Howard County in 1873. The county line with Montgomery County was changed February 7, 1859. Part of Sebastian County was annexed on June 1, 1861, and the county line with Pike County was redefined on April 7, 1873. Sulphur Springs Township was taken in by Howard County.
The United States had a new president, James Knox Polk, and it was from him that the county derived her name. The new county seat chose the name of his vice president, George M. Dallas. The courthouse was burned during the Civil War and most of the records were lost. Another courthouse was erected in 1869, but it, too, was consumed by fire and all county records lost. There is a rumor that this fire was to cover up misdeeds within the treasurer's office. The last courthouse built at Dallas was constructed in 1883, and was a nice two story brick building. This remained the home of county justice until the formation and organization of the new town of Mena, (1896). In 1898 the county seat was moved to Mena by an electoral vote.
The Civil War had little effect on the county and there was very little in the way of scrimmages within her boundaries. One effect the war did have was the awarding of bounty lands to Union Soldiers. One will find, in searching land records in the county courthouse, that many came to claim those lands and soon the county, which originated as a southern people, became a majority from the northern states. The coming of the railroad had much to do with this new path of migration. On the 15th of October 1885, the grand jurors of the county issued a proclamation to F.A. Waters with a resolution giving him free passage by railroad to visit Georgia and East Tennessee for the purpose of conducting emigrants, (mostly German) to this state, “who desired to settle among us.” His free pass was to be in effect from October 15, through December 15, 1885. It was signed by Samuel Fried, B.R. Jacobs, S.B. Wallace, T.J. Jackson, J.G. Rhea, J.V. Heath, and B.S.S. Royston.
The present county seat is at Mena, a town built by and for the Kansas City Pittsburgh & Gulf Railroad (Pee Gee), later called the Kansas City Southern. One would do well to follow the path of this and other railways if they are searching for ancestors coming to Polk County from 1896 to 1910. The KCP&G established Mena as a division point along its line from Kansas City to Port Arthur, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. In doing so it insured the establishment of the town and by the time the railway moved its division point to Heavner, OK, (shortly after the 1910 census was taken) Mena was able to survive on its own. Although the removal of the businesses connected to the railway was to have a great impact upon the area it was not detrimental. This was partly due to the introduction of the automobile in 1905, and the construction of roadways in the county.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive study of the county, but rather an attempt to hit the highlights that would affect the migration into and out of the county. One would do well to obtain a map entitled, "Roads, Old Trails, Traces and Historical Places of Arkansas" published by the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas. The map shows towns and communities by the old names, as well as, the present-day names. The Old Line Road was followed fairly closely when Highway 71 was constructed and one might do well to follow that route if searching for migrating ancestors. (A map of the migration routes appears in the Nov. 1999 Mt. Signal.)
If you have not done so, please read the section on Polk County from Goodspeed, written in 1890. You will find much interesting and valuable reading in this volume. Please remember that there few records left in Polk County from 1844-1882, and that before 1844 you must look in the parent county, (Sevier--De Queen is the County Seat).
We are further hampered by the destruction of the U.S. Census for 1890. Some voter records, tax records and marriage records have been used to help reconstruct this period in Polk County history. We have some tax records dating back to 1846. These records are not indexed and are in poor condition. They are currently housed in the basement of the courthouse, (many records were recently moved to the old hospital annex on Pine Street) and not always easily accessible.
Copyright by Shirley Shewmake Manning