Image by Henry Wellge & Co., Beck & Pauli for Gazette Printing Co. (1887). Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Image by Henry Wellge & Co., Beck & Pauli for Gazette Printing Co. (1887). Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The history of Arkansas turned at a bend in the river.

On April 9, 1722, an expedition led by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe was making its way up the Arkansas River from the point where it empties into the Mississippi. The group laid eyes on a rock outcrop jutting into the river from the southern side, and the formation was markedly different from the sand and silt that to that point had defined the river’s banks.

According to the Arkansas Geological Survey, the outcrop would have been the first exposure of solid rock seen by explorers like La Harpe or those making the longer journey upriver from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Imagine seeing The Heights area from the river as you kind of make your way around the bend. The topography has completely changed from what he had seen early on,” says Denver Peacock, chair of the La Petite Roche Tricentennial Task Force and founder of communications firm The Peacock Group.

But La Harpe probably wasn’t the one to name the outcrop “la petite roche” or “the little rock.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, La Harpe wrote of “rocks sticking out of the ground,” but he was more interested in “le Rocher Francais,” the French Rock, which he described as the “the bluff of mountainous rock” up the bend and north of the river. It is the location now known as Big Rock.

Nevertheless, the French began calling the smaller outcrop “la petite roche,” and the name first appeared on a map in 1799.

The little rock marked a natural harbor in the river, and in that strategic spot people began to make homes and conduct business. Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the settlement became a crossing point on the river and a jumping off point for the thousands who paused to resupply on their way to hunt and trap game and to explore and settle the West.

“Since its founding, Little Rock has been a hub for logistics,” says Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In the centuries since it was first sighted by non-indigenous people, Little Rock rose from the river’s southern bank to become a state capital, a hot spot for trade and commerce, a birthplace and home to some of the nation’s notable figures and a setting for major historical events, some shameful and some stellar.

As it marks the tricentennial of the discovery of La Petite Roche, the city is celebrating with two weeks of events centered around the April 9 anniversary of the moment La Harpe’s expedition rounded the bend and made its find.

“As a community, the Little Rock of 2022 looks very different from those who lived around and visited in 1722,” Mayor Frank Scott Jr. says. “I am excited to think what the future holds for Little Rock. Just as the people who came through here 300 years ago could never have imagined what we have here today, the future possibilities are boundless for this area and the people who call Little Rock home.”

Getting Littler

Like the explorers, the little rock itself came from somewhere else. Approximately 300 million years old — older than the Ouachita Mountains — geologists believe the construction of sandstone and siltstone was likely deposited by glaciers in what was then the area's "deep marine environment."

The rock marks the boundary between the Mississippi River lowlands and the Ouachita Mountains uplands that stretch into Oklahoma.

Scott Carter, public affairs and creative economy advisor for the City of Little Rock, points out that La Harpe was hardly the first person in the world to have seen the little rock or inhabit the area. The Quapaw Tribe pre-dated the arrival of the French by at least a century.

"I don’t like the phrase 'discovering our rock,'" he says, "because it wasn’t lost."

But it was La Harpe’s arrival that led to the area’s naming and helped to put it on the modern map. By 1812 — when trapper William Russell built a structure that was the area’s first documented white settlement — the site was already being referred to as Little Rock.

Russell was only there for a few months, but more would come. The natural harbor was a convenient place to land boats and the high ground above the banks was relatively safe from floods, making it a logical place to settle.

Little Rock’s first permanent settlement was built in 1820. By that March, a post office using the name Little Rock had been set up and the area’s growth and development would be tied to water (and later to train) transportation.

Little Rock became the capital of the territory of Arkansas in 1821 and the city was chartered by Arkansas in 1831. In 1835, a year before statehood, Little Rock became an incorporated city.

While Little Rock has grown, however, its namesake has taken a beating through the years.

Because of its sturdy base, La Petite Roche was selected in the 1870s as a site for part of a railway bridge and a portion was blasted away. That bridge was never built, but more rock was removed for the later construction of the Junction Bridge, and still more sections were taken away for a variety of reasons as time went on.

A piece that once sat on the lawn of Little Rock City Hall was relocated to the La Petite Roche Plaza in Riverfront Park in 2009 under the southern terminus of the Junction Bridge.




Hard History

In 1818, the government used La Petite Roche as the start of the Quapaw Line marking the boundary of tribal lands and those that would be used for future settlements. The treaty establishing the line appears to be the first official document to use the name Little Rock, but by 1824 the tribe no longer held the land.

As a river-crossing town with a natural harbor, Little Rock had the unfortunate fate of being a center of transport for slaves as well as being part of the Trail of Tears. The Memphis to Little Rock route was one of those the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast followed from 1831-1850 when they were relocated due to the government’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.

A government office in downtown Little Rock would write slips that operatives overseeing the relocation could cash for the purchase of supplies and transportation as they moved the tribes through the area. This created awareness for the need of a bank in Little Rock the government would recognize, and may have hastened the race to statehood so Arkansas could pass laws that would establish such a bank.

As dubious as they were, such business dealings further established Little Rock as a broadly recognized center of commerce.

That may be even more true now, but, Scott says, today's commerce has come with inclusion.

“While the early settlers who came to Little Rock were overwhelmingly white and male, today we seek to welcome and encourage prospects for different races, genders, beliefs and ages,” he says.

Modern Rock

Over the years, Little Rock has produced World War II heroes like Douglas MacArthur and a U.S. president in Bill Clinton. On most days, Little Rock simply continues to produce.

La Harpe wouldn’t recognize the area, probably not even the rock he spotted in 1722. But in many ways, Little Rock is still what it was in the heady days after he helped put it on the map: a bustling hub for commerce, business, finance and entrepreneurship.

The river is spanned by six bridges connecting Little Rock to North Little Rock. Interstate highways encircle and pass through the city. A recently remodeled airport sits on the outskirts of town and, just like in the old days, passenger and freight trains come and go while the Arkansas River is still used for transport and shipping.

With its infrastructure and central location in the U.S., Little Rock regularly brings a range of new business and residents to the city and state, while its diverse population of workers and innovators make those businesses go.

E-commerce and retail giants like Amazon and Trader Joe’s “don’t go to places they don’t think they can do well in,” Carter says.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic of the past two-plus years, Chesshir notes Little Rock has lured companies committing $1.2 billion in capital and creating 7,500 jobs.

“Almost all of that growth has come through manufacturing, logistics and distribution,” Chesshir says. “As we look to the future, our community is poised to build upon [our heritage as a logistical hub] as we continue to attract projects that will use Little Rock as a launching point to serve markets across the U.S. and the world.”

With commerce has come a different kind of infrastructure — the arts, dining and nightlife and outdoor recreation opportunities that young professionals want out of a city — as well as innovative, workforce-oriented schools and the medical facilities people want for the care of their families.

It’s hard to predict the future, as change can often come almost overnight (see the aforementioned pandemic) but on Little Rock’s immediate horizon is a revamped Interstate 30 interchange, a $630 million project that will be complete in 2025; a completely reimagined $125 million Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts; and the conservation of Blue Mountain, the westernmost peak in the Maumelle Pinnacles chain, a move that will protect rare species, provide new trails and preserve the water quality of more than half a million Arkansans.

It's a broad mix that appeals to the mayor as much as it does the public.

“While we have skyscrapers in downtown, we also offer canoeing and biking opportunities in our parks,” Scott says. “Little Rock’s different neighborhoods have unique attributes which come together to form a rich tapestry offering varied styles of living experiences.”

That tapestry continues to be enjoyed by both newcomers and neighbors who have long loved the city. Though there are unsightly parts in its past, the threads of which we cannot change, Little Rock is poised for another 300 years of growth and life, knowing the story is far from over.


Learn more about tricentennial commemoration events at littlerock.com/300.