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Salt Nation: Caddo Industry in Southwestern Arkansas

Clay bowl
Salt processing pan used by the Caddo nation in southwestern Arkansas (University of Arkansas).

Even before history was recorded in Southwestern Arkansas, the area was known for its salt mining operations. These weren't deep caverns where salt was extracted; they were marshy areas and springs full of salt deposits that Caddoans and later, Americans, sifted and boiled to remove debris. Archaeologists Mary Beth Trubitt and Ann M. Early excvated a Caddoan pan used to for salt processing, which they stated in 2019 "is the most complete salt pan known from southwest Arkansas."

The Caddo Nation mined salt for over eight hundred years, and this activity remained one of Arkansas's major industries well into the 19th century. These ancient salt works became American operations, which are denoted all over this 1836 map. I zeroed in on Sevier County, where a salt work sits north of the Little River in Sevier County near Ultima Thule (no longer extant). The salt works on the map reminded me of an entry I found once in the Arkansas Territorial Papers, and so I began searching for it. I was lucky enough to find it again: a letter by Benjamin H.G. Harfield, proposing to lease the "salt spring known by the name of Little River Lick." By this time, Hartfield had already been manufacturing salt at the location for over five years, where he "made many improvements.. and constructed works for the manufacture of salt" (US Journal of the House of Representatives, 1831). Because this operation was on public lands and Hartfield didn't want to share, he petitioned for a lease, which was granted in 1832.

Today, the Red River valley in Arkansas is no longer a producer of salt, but here's just a small bit of evidence of the industry that was once there.

Two salt works are noted in this 1830's map of southwwestern Arkansas (LOC).
Petition to the Arkansas Territorial Government by Hartfield to privatize the salt mine in the far western portion of Sevier (now Little River) county, as transcribed in the Arkansas Territorial Papers.

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