Photo: Rickon, G. &. D. (1888) Map of the city of Little Rock and Argenta, Arkansas: compiled from official sources and actual surveys. Little Rock, Ark.: Rickon, Gibb & Duff. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
I HAVE LONG been fascinated by the way we use maps to give the world shape and meaning when, in reality, borders are nothing more than an imaginary construction. There are no lines on the land that define home. Only a people can do that.

Yet that’s what makes imaginary boundaries so formidable. Look no further than contemporary headlines for proof of the enormous consequences the placement of invisible lines can have on the lives of so many people.

What then to make of a man-made line that was, in its day, no less powerful—one that literally meant life and death for an entire people? And what to make of that line being largely unknown and all but inconsequential today?

With these thoughts in mind, I set out to explore the Quapaw Line, established some 200 years ago this month. Though a Little Rock native who has spent the vast majority of my life in and around the city, crossing this antique, imaginary boundary more times than I can possibly imagine, I confess I had never heard of the Quapaw Line until a few months ago—despite a deep and abiding love of and respect for history, local or otherwise.

In short, the Quapaw Line is the sort of invented boundary that European explorers and settlers needed but that did not fit into the worldview of natives, who for many years before white people arrived had inhabited a land without lines. The line was established via an 1818 treaty that drew a line in what was then still part of the Missouri Territory, due south from the Little Rock (the geographic feature from which the city gets its name) on the Arkansas River to the Saline River, roughly halfway between modern-day Sheridan and Fordyce. The Quapaw (the native people from whom Arkansas gets its name) were relegated to live on roughly 8,000 square miles between that line and the Mississippi River, but only for a time.

Within six years, changing attitudes caused the original treaty to be abrogated and a new treaty to be written, one that would begin the removal of the Quapaw entirely. Despite the original demarcation’s short-lived significance, and though the natives departed long ago, the Quapaw Line still remains—or at least some traces of it.

You can still follow most of it for yourself, as I did. Begin at the monument installed at the corner of Ninth and Commerce streets in MacArthur Park. Continue the line’s path by observing markers inlaid into streets and sidewalks in a direct north-south line through downtown (as opposed to the street grid, which is slightly offset from the compass) until arriving at a terminal point in Riverfront Park, where a 2012 art installation signifies the presence of the line, and a plaque, placed by the Civitan Club on the remains of the Little Rock in 1932, marks the line’s terminus.

Doing so, however, won’t tell the whole story. For that, one might start at the Historic Arkansas Museum, a few blocks west of the line. Among the many topics covered in the exhibit We Walk in Two Worlds, a sprawling permanent exhibition that tells the stories of Arkansas’ indigenous peoples—the Osage, Caddo and Quapaw—a visitor can learn the basics of the Quapaw Line, which is addressed as part of the larger American project of Indian removal.

For the tribe, it is a painful memory.

“You don’t hear anything about [the removal] because we try not to remember it. It was such a traumatic experience for our people,” states one panel in the museum exhibit, quoting Quapaw historian Ardina Moore.

While the Quapaw certainly have the right to forget if they choose, I believe this is not a story that those of us descended from the white settlers who took the Quapaw’s land should be allowed to forget.

So I turned to my local library to find out more about the white man’s expansion into Arkansas. Academics S. Charles Bolton of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Joseph Key of Arkansas State University, who have studied and written about the time, describe a rapidly changing world in which relations between the still nascent American nation and native peoples underwent a massive paradigm shift. The Quapaw had been a partner in trade and defense for European colonial powers for many years when, in 1803, a megalomaniacal Frenchman sold his empire’s foothold on global ambitions to fund his wars for dominion of the continental Old World. Suddenly, the native tribes were dealing with the Americans, who had very different ideas.

“The 1818 treaty, which saw the Quapaws cede all but 2 million acres of their vast claims south of the Arkansas River, would further a policy that had been devised in a world before the Louisiana Purchase—before the wholesale removal of Indians seemed possible,” writes Key in “Outcasts Upon the World,” his contribution to A Whole Country in Commotion: The Louisiana Purchase and the American Southwest.

As with treaties with eastern tribes, he explains, the 1818 agreement was guided by a policy of so-called civilization, reducing native claims to hunting land by teaching men to farm (rather than hunt) and women to run the home (rather than farm).

The treaty was implemented disingenuously, with the Quapaw Line being drawn due south from the Little Rock instead of southwest as originally agreed, depriving the Quapaw of significant territory. But even then, Arkansas’ white population, which then numbered around 10,000 people, a tenfold increase from the state’s first census count in 1810, was unhappy with the result, an indication that the Quapaw’s troubles were far from over.

In 1820, territorial officials complained to Washington, D.C., about the two-year-old treaty. Bolton notes primary sources who claimed that the lands retained by the Quapaw were not only still far too abundant, with roughly 20 square miles per member of the relatively small tribe (numbering about 400), but also among the choicest agricultural properties in the territory—if not the entire Louisiana Purchase. Abundantly fertile and better protected from flooding by natural levees than lands ceded by the Quapaw north of the Arkansas River, the lands retained by the tribe, they argued, would be ideal for the cash crop that would form the backbone of the antebellum Southern economy: cotton. There was money to be made here.

“In October 1821, the territorial assembly sent a petition to Congress indicating that acquiring the Quapaw lands was ‘of the highest importance’ to Arkansans,” Bolton writes in Arkansas 1800-1860: Remote and Restless. “Further, the petition declared that the Indians themselves were willing to vacate the tract so that they could live with some other tribe.”

Turns out this wasn’t the case. As seems intuitive, and would soon be discovered, the Quapaw in fact felt very tied to the land that contained the bones of their ancestors. In an 1824 letter to territorial secretary Robert Crittenden, Quapaw head chief Heckaton lamented that to be removed from their lands would make the Quapaw “outcasts upon the world.”

Nevertheless, emerging American policy meant the Quapaw—and many other native peoples—would become just that. Growing population in the east meant an insatiable hunger for territory in the west. Since the signing of the 1818 treaty, the territory had been organized and given a voice in government (for the whites, that is; the Quapaw would not be recognized as citizens until 1925). Little Rock, sitting right on the line, became the territorial capital in 1821. By 1824, bolstered by the territorial assembly’s false claims, Indian-removal policy came to bear on the Quapaw’s remaining lands in east Arkansas.

Under the directive of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, territorial secretary Crittenden signed the Quapaw Treaty of 1824, calling for the complete removal of the native population, relocating them to Caddo lands along the Red River near what is today Shreveport, Louisiana. In exchange, they were given $4,000 in merchandise, six months’ subsistence in their new home, an 11-year annuity of $1,000 and a small number of individual payments in money and land. The Quapaw Line, as a meaningful boundary, was no more.

But the story does not end there. The Caddo were not informed that they’d be getting new neighbors and did not welcome them. To make matters worse, within months of the Quapaw’s arrival in 1826, their corn crop was flooded and lost. It was replanted and again flooded and lost the very next month. Suffering starvation, a small group under a chief named Sarasin returned to Arkansas only months after they’d left. Finally, “for the first time, they received some pity,” Bolton writes.

By 1830, following another flood and further resentment of their presence around the Red River, all the Quapaw had reversed course and returned to Arkansas. They’d stay for four years before ultimately agreeing to a treaty in 1834 consigning them to Indian Territory on 96,000 acres in what is today the extreme northeast corner of Oklahoma, west of Missouri. In exchange, they were given money for subsistence and travel expenses, livestock and farming equipment, $1,000 annually for education and a new $2,000 annuity. Ultimately, 161 Quapaw resettled there under the third treaty, while some 300 others, led again by Sarasin, returned to the Red River to settle and collect the original annuity. Sarasin himself would almost immediately return to Jefferson County, near Pine Bluff, where he stayed until his death.

I THINK ABOUT this sad, segmented history as I visit the handful of small circular metal plates inset into streets and sidewalks between Riverfront and MacArthur parks, the plates a project of preservation-minded Boy Scouts in the late 1960s. Though doubtless not intended as such, each plate feels like a metaphorical injury, one following the other, against the native people who ceded their unused ancestral hunting land in good faith 200 years ago, only to be left divided and “outcast upon the world” within a few short years.

With Little Rock being no more than a handful of log cabins at the time, no trace of which remains today, it feels as though there’s really nothing left to denote this once-important imagined boundary and the sacrifices it entailed, the deaths it caused. It predates even the barest bones of today’s built environment, the street grid.

Then I notice something curious when looking at property lines. While virtually all lots downtown are squares or rectangles aligned to the street grid, the property between Seventh and Eighth streets containing the Arkansas Arts Center’s gorgeous Greek Revival Terry Mansion is irregular. Its eastern edge, though arrow straight, is not aligned parallel to the western property line along Rock Street. The mansion, officially the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, was first built by Albert Pike in 1840. So why would the property be shaped in such an odd way?

In digging, I find that Pike acquired the property from one Chester Ashley, a prominent lawyer in territorial Arkansas with extensive wealth and property holdings. Indeed, according to the online Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Ashley “was a key figure in the dispute over the ownership of the land on which [Little Rock] was to be built.” Though he lost that dispute in court, Ashley still arranged a compromise and received a land claim (later sold to Pike) along what was then the eastern edge of the settlement.

As I stand next to the wrought-iron fence on Seventh Street looking directly south, I imagine it as it may have been back in Ashley’s day, empty and possibly fenced with wood on the east side to mark an imaginary line. On the other side, where an unassuming gray brick home with white trim now sits, was the territory of the land’s original inhabitants. The border of Ashley’s land—and still to this day the edge of the Terry Mansion property? The Quapaw Line.

Spencer Watson is a writer living in North Little Rock who loves history, particularly the parts that tend to get overlooked or forgotten.