Dig of the Week: Davidsonville Historic State Park

 

By Carla Charter

POCAHONTAS, AR. – Treasures from Davidsonville, the first planned town in what would later become the state of Arkansas can be seen at the Davidsonville Historic State Park Visitors Center which opened in 2016.

“Davidsonville was the county seat.  The town was plotted out, there were roads. It housed the first courthouse, land office and post office in the territory of Arkansas. It was not large, there were about 75 to 125 people full time living there. During court week the population would swell.,” said Geoffrey Havens, Park Interpreter, for the Davidsonville Historic State Park.

Despite the town being settled in 1815, by 1830 the town had been abandoned due to a combination of reasons.  First, there was a landownership issue.  “Davidsonville was a county seat which should have been built on county owned land.  However instead of the town being on United States land a Spanish land grant was purchased from five French families.  It was hoped that despite this that the United States government would recognize the town. They did not. Without recognition the homeowners could not get deeds for their land so in 1824 and 1825 they moved away to a place where they could own their own land,” Havens explained.

In addition to this the town was bypassed by the old Military Road which was then called the Southwest Trail. The trail went ten miles west of the town rather than through it.

The location of the town itself also led to the demise of the town. Five rivers converge in the area, Havens said. This was great for commerce but it also meant that in the spring the area flooded, which brought insects bugs and muddy water to the town.

After the town was abandoned no other towns were built on the land.  This meant that when archaeological digs were done in 1972 there were not multiple layers of towns to be unearthed.  “There was no other town on the top. It gave us a straight shot back to the 1830’s.  The early digs helped established how the town was set up and locate building foundations and cornerstones,“ Havens stated

In the Early 2000’s we paired up with the Arkansas Archaeological survey which is through the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  The dig’s purpose was to confirm how buildings such as the post office and courthouse were positioned.

In the process of doing this, those working at the site also uncovered some promising sites for further investigation.  “We found a cellar of an old inn in which we discovered a coin pouch, which today would be the equivalent of a wallet. The pouch contained Spanish coins called reals and a sewing kit. We also uncovered a great deal of pearlware, an inexpensive fine china as well as cast iron cookware eyeglass pieces and women’s jewelry.  Arkansas is seen as rough and tumble at that time. These discoveries show that Davidsonville was developing into a town of means and value,” said Havens.  The park hopes to host another archaeological dig at the site in the next three to five years.

Archival and courthouse records also help piece together the town’s history.  “During some archival research over the past year we discovered that the postmaster who was also the town’s doctor, had an apprentice for several years.  We find bits and pieces to help fill in the history.”

None of the original building structures remain today.  Instead the park has constructed ghost structures, iron framed steel structures, to show where the buildings were. “The ghost structures bring the town to life visually,” Havens said.

In the visitors center exhibit area, are some of the most complete items uncovered during the digs.  These include pearlware, building materials such as bricks and nails and coinage.  “There is also a replica of a flat bottom boat with a cabin on top of it.  It was the mini-van, pick-up truck of the early 1800’s. You could load your farm goods and family on it and go down the river.”

The park has three miles of hiking trails and camping sites for both tents and recreational vehicles.  More information on the Davidsonville Historic Park website can be found at their website: https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/davidsonville-historic-state-park