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Long Lost Lafayette (and Prairie), Arkansas

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

This 1839 postal road map shows Lost Prairie, Lafayette Courthouse, and Conway connected via the Red River in Lafayette County (Miller County on the east side of the Red River would be re-established in 1874). In 1839, Lost Prairie was not yet part of the federal postal road (LOC).

Lafayette and Lost Prairie in Arkansas were built by slave labor and washed away by the Red River.

I received an emailed inquiry about "Lost Prairie, Arkansas" and just like everyone else along the Red River, they were confused about Lost Prairie. Where was it located? How was it significant? Is it really named after a steamboat that tried to take a shortcut and got stuck?

While I can't answer the last question definitively (I like the idea, though!), I can tell the e-mail sender, and you, a bit about Lost Prairie, which was once a steamboat port on the western shore of the Red River in today's Miller County, Arkansas.

Southwest Arkansas's history is not as well documented as one would hope. Even though its location along the Great Bend of the Red River made it a major thoroughfare going into Mexican Texas and the Indian Territory and became well populated with plantations, it's still a bit of an enigma. One reason is that until around 1830, the actual demarcation line between The United States in Arkansas and Mexico in Texas, established via treaty in 1819, had not yet been properly surveyed. This led to the first iteration of Miller County, which stretched into today's Texas. A handful of American settlements appeared in today's Miller County, Arkansas and Lafayette County, Arkansas during this time before the survey line was drawn in the early 1830s: Lost Prairie, Lafayette Courthouse/La Grange, and Lost Prairie/Conway.

Lost Prairie was established around 1816 (in 1806, the location was referred to as Round Prairie by mapmaker Nicholas King). Hugging the Red River as the settlers hoped for riverboat traffic, enslaved Americans built a plantation economy around Lost Prairie, which was surrounded by ancient Caddo mounds, old Caddo villages, swamps, wide prairies, and oxbow lakes. In 1830, famed Texas revolutionary Benjamin Milam set up a land office for the Mexican government in here to legitimize the land claims of American filibusters. The little settlement also had a few stores, a grist mill, and a post office.

Down the river from Lost Prairie, and on the eastern bank of the Red River, stood Lafayette Courthouse, which became known as La Grange sometime after 1840. This was the first records depot for Lafayette County, established in 1827 from Hempstead County.

The last "major settlement" -- a relative term in this area -- was Long Prairie, established around 1820 and described as "a mile and a quarter in width that gives to its citizens an expanded and uninterrupted view of a most beautiful, level, fertile country" (Weekly Arkansas Gazette, May 27 1840). Because in 1820, Long Prairie was the site of James Sevier Conway's land surveying operations, the town of Conway was established on the northern end of the prairie. James Sevier Conway became the first governor of Arkansas in 1836.

By the 1850s, floods and shifting river channels led to the loss of these three towns along the Red River. They aren't even mentioned on modern maps. And, when you drive around this area along twisty, unpaved county roads, you'd never in a million years guess that the Red River in this neck of the woods was in any way ever developed. It's surprising how quickly history fades from memory!

The postal road to Lost Prairie, Lafayette County, Arkansas (now Miller County) can be seen in this 1847 postal road map (LOC). Note that Lafayette Courthouse is referred to as La Grange.
By 1864, there ain't nothing left of Lost Prairie or La Grange (Lafayette Courthouse). Little Conway's still there, though the postal road now links it to Lewisville, the new (and dry) county seat for Lafayette County, Arkansas (LOC).
The Red River Valley was built by enslaved people, as the Arkansas Gazette from May 26, 1836 suggests.

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