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In the earliest human history, indigenous “Mound People” thrived in the lower Arkansas Delta region creating settlements, trails and trade routes at what is now Toltec State Park. With its proximity to the Ozark and Ouachita mountains and the Arkansas River, the area now bounded by Pulaski and Lonoke counties became a central point for the movement of people and goods long before European explorers traversed the state.
One of the first European explorers to reach the area was Spaniard Hernando de Soto in 1540 and 1542. No organized expeditionary groups traveled to the region until two centuries later, when French explorer Bernard de la Harpe reached the Pulaski and Lonoke area via the lower Arkansas River in 1721 and 1722. Historians estimate that European settlers eventually put down roots in Pulaski County in 1807 and that fewer than 2,000 settlers resided in the county by 1820.
In 1818, Congress established Arkansas Territory, at which time Pulaski County was created, taking its name from Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman who fought and died in the 1779 Battle of Savannah during the Revolutionary War. The territorial legislature established Cadron as the seat of Pulaski County government in 1820 but moved the county seat to Little Rock in 1821 when the territorial capital moved to Little Rock. Pulaski County had a population of 3,513 when Congress accepted Arkansas as a state in 1836.
The Secession Convention delegates voted almost unanimously May 6, 1861, to secede from the Union, and Arkansas formally joined the Confederate States of America on May 20, 1861. Little Rock remained the state capital; however, in 1863 as the Union Army approached, the Confederate state capital moved to Washington, Arkansas, in Hempstead County. Union forces prevailed in the Battle of Little Rock in September 1863, defeating the Confederate Army. Union forces occupied Pulaski County for the duration of the Civil War, and at its conclusion, state officials moved the state capital back to Little Rock.
Lonoke County was originally part of Pulaski and Prairie counties until the late 1800s. The lands of the county were sparsely populated for most of its early history, with evidence of indigenous artifacts in several mounds built between A.D. 650 and 1050. The first known settlement of European immigrants was in 1821 on Moss Prairie, founded by Sampson Gray from Williamson County, Tennessee. Further settlements are attributed to Francis Secrist in 1826 and James Eagle — father of Arkansas Gov. James P. Eagle — in 1839.
In 1830, John Harrod settled the area known as Cypress Creek, which is the northern boundary of current Lonoke County. In 1857, Gilbert Knapp, who owned the land where the mounds were found, named them the Toltec Mounds, thinking that the Toltec Indians from Mexico built them, though archaeologists later proved otherwise. As the Arkansas Legislature was forming and locating counties in the latter half of the century, a petition was introduced to form the county of Lonoke. Gov. Elisha Baxter signed the act on April 16, 1873. Its name originates from a “lone oak” tree that stood on the site of the current county seat. Among the 75 counties in Arkansas, it is the only one to share its name with its county seat.
Pulaski County’s population surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from 63,179 in 1900 to 156,085 in 1940. In 1938, completion of construction of Lake Winona created the principal municipal water supply for Little Rock. Families poured into the area with the establishment of the Little Rock Housing Authority in 1940, which provided low-cost rental housing.
With more families arriving during the World War II era, educational services began to grow as well. The state established the Schools for the Deaf and Blind in 1939, which still operates at the same Little Rock location. In 1927, local leaders founded Little Rock Junior College, which began offering four-year degree programs as Little Rock University in 1957.
Little Rock University was added to the University of Arkansas System in 1969. Also, during the pre-World War II period, Shorter College (1895) and Arkansas Baptist College (1884) were established to serve predominantly African-American students. During World War II, Lonoke County was chosen for a training center. An Army/Air Force pre-glider school was built north of Lonoke, near Chambers School on the George Stauber farm.
The racial integration of Central High School in 1957 was the most transformational event in Little Rock and Pulaski County in the 20th century. Considered the first major test of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the integration effort, which revealed deep divisions among local and state leaders, foreshadowed the civil rights turmoil the nation faced throughout the 1960s.
Despite the turmoil of overcoming racial segregation, Pulaski County developed as a multimodal transportation hub. The Interstate Highway System was completed in Arkansas with Interstate 30 and Interstate 40 intersecting in North Little Rock. In the 1970s, I-630 was completed in Little Rock, and the I-430 and I-440 loops were completed around Little Rock and North Little Rock. The completion of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System project Dec. 3, 1970, opened the Arkansas River to barge traffic, and Little Rock and North Little Rock both developed port facilities on each side of the river.
Airport improvements were made as well. Between World War I and World War II, the Adams Field airport grew to 640 acres. During the 1990s, more than $170 million in capital improvements were made to the airport. The airport, now known as the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, encompasses about 2,200 acres.
Pulaski County’s workforce numbers 204,670 and consists of 69.3 percent private wage and salary workers, 19.5 percent government employees and 5.4 percent self-employed and unpaid family workers. Of the population 25 years old or older, 89.7 percent are high school or equivalency graduates, while 32.9 percent hold a bachelor’s degree. Three large publicly traded companies are based in Pulaski County: Alltel, Acxiom and Dillard’s Department Stores. In November 2004, construction of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, on the bank of the Arkansas River in Pulaski County, was completed.
In Lonoke County, agriculture continues to be its principle economic resource. Cotton ruled as the main crop until W.H. Fuller proved in 1904 that rice could be profitably grown on the same land. Remington Arms is the largest manufacturer in the county. Other industries include MKT Fastening and Ammonia Hold in Lonoke and Dreamline in Cabot. Due to their locations, Cabot, Austin and Ward make perfect bedroom communities for Little Rock Air Force Base and the Little Rock metropolitan area. The county is the site of the Camp Nelson Confederate Cemetery, Toltec Mounds State Park and the Joe Hogan Fish Hatchery — one of the world’s largest fish hatcheries.