When Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River on a foggy morning, Saturday, June 18, 1541, he and his expedition were the first Europeans to walk the land known today as the State of Arkansas. In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet met the Quapaw Indians (Link to Quapaw Indians) at the mouth of the Arkansas River. When Father Marquette asked for the name of the Indians, his Iroquois guide replied, “Arkansa.” From that, the name of the state was derived…Arkansas. In 1686, Henri de Tonti established a small fort, Arkansas Post, at the mouth of the Arkansas River.
From this humble beginning, the state of Arkansas grew. The early settlers were French and Spanish, but in 1803 America purchased almost all of the Midwest from France in a transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase. This area included what is now known as Arkansas, Jefferson County and Pine Bluff.
French and Spanish settlers intermarried with Quapaw women and some of their descendants still live in Jefferson County. From one of these relationships came Joseph Bonne who was born in 1793 and was baptized by a visiting priest at Arkansas Post. Records dating back to 1801 show that “fifty miles up the Arkansas River on the Bonne Reserve lived Joseph Bonne, Michael Bonne and other taxpayers named Bonne.”
Joseph Bonne was interpreter for the United States government at the signing of the Quapaw Cession at St. Louis, Missouri, August 21, 1818. Due to a great flood in 1819, Bonne and his wife, Mary Imbeau, moved five miles upstream from the Bonne Reserve to the place later named Pine Bluff. This was the first bluff above the mouth of the river and was covered by towering pine trees, the eastern boundary of the coastal plain of South Arkansas.
Bonne built a log cabin with a lean-to which served as his home…as well as a tavern with lodging accommodations for travelers. The settlement was officially named “The Town of Pine Bluff” by the county court on October 16, 1832.
A key factor in the early growth of Pine Bluff was the arrival of the steamboats on the Arkansas River.
During the Civil War, the Battle of Pine Bluff was fought on October 25, 1863, when Confederate General John S. Marmaduke led 2,500 men in an attack on 550 federal troops under the command of Colonel Powell Clayton. Fighting from behind a breastwork of cotton bales erected by 300 former slaves, or freedmen, Clayton warded off the rebel attacks for five hours. Marmaduke withdrew rather than risk heavy losses. A number of stores and other buildings were burned along with the bulk of the federal army’s supplies during the battle.
Reconstruction after the war included a three year period of martial law concluded by the adoption of a new state constitution in 1868. The first public school supported by taxes was begun in 1869. Afro-American private school had been established in 1866 by the American Missionary Society. Those schools were absorbed into the public school system.
With the coming of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s, Pine Bluff grew from 2,081 in 1870 to almost 10,000 people in 1890. An agricultural boom resulted as planters could easily transport their cotton markets in New Orleans and St. Louis. The cotton Belt Railway played an important role in the growth of the city with the building of extensive maintenance and car building facilities.
The turn of the century brought a flourishing lumber industry with the Sawyer-Austin Lumber Company (later Long-Bell) constructing a large lumber manufacturing plant. This was combined with the expansion of Bluff City Lumber Company with mills in Pine Bluff, Kearney (near Redfield, Arkansas) and Clio in South Jefferson County. Pine Bluff’s two major railroads opened lumber markets nationwide.
World War I saw the city making its contribution to the war effort. After a short period of depression, the city once more moved forward until encountering the Great Depression of the 1930s. This economic disaster was brought to a close by World War II. Pine Bluff was the site of a primary flight school at a newly constructed airport called Grider Field. Fledgling pilots were trained by the Pine Bluff School of Aviation, a civilian operation under the guidance of the U.S. Army. The Pine Bluff Arsenal was constructed just prior to World War II and is still operated by the U.S. Army today. The Arsenal’s original mission was to manufacture incendiary bombs for the British. However, that mission changed drastically when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States into global conflict.
The post war period was also witness to continued growth for Pine Bluff with the construction of two paper mills in 1957-1958 by International Paper Company and the Dierks lumber interests. Pine Bluff’s population increased from 20,000 in 1930 to 55,000 today.
1814 – First settlements recorded in what is now Jefferson County
1818 – First Quapaw Treaty signed
1819 – Arkansas admitted to U.S. as a Territory
1824 – Second Quapaw Treaty signed
1829 – Jefferson County established
1836 – Arkansas admitted to U.S. as a State
1839 – Pine Bluff first incorporated
1863 – Battle of Pine Bluff
1870 – First public school built
1873 – Railroad serviced arrived
1875 – Branch Normal College began classes
1885 – Telephone service began
1902 – First electric street cars
1906 – Union Station Depot constructed
1914 – First concrete road in Arkansas, “The Dollarway,” completed between PB and LR
1927 – Mississippi River and its tributaries flood affecting not only Pine Bluff, but seven states
1941 – Construction of Pine Bluff Arsenal began
1976 – Fire destroyed Jefferson County Courthouse
Historical information courtesy of the Pine Bluff / Jefferson County Historical Museum, located in the old train station, Fourth Avenue and State Street, 201 East Fourth Avenue, Pine Bluff, AR 71601 (541-5402), open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer months and 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the winter. There is no charge for admission and tour groups are always welcome. The Historical Museum is supported by memberships from the general public.