Arkansas is one of those places that is appreciated by the initiated – and misunderstood by those who have never set foot here.
The wild land that is now called Arkansas was acquired by the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and officially became the Arkansas Territory in 1819.
Then – just as now – brave souls set out to explore this place and discovered that it was something special. Arkansas became a state in 1836, thrived briefly and then fell apart economically following the Civil War and finally began to recover in the 1940s.
However, there’s an intriguing place – and piece – in Arkansas history that is often overlooked by textbooks: a town called Paraclifta in western Arkansas sprang up in the late 1820s and virtually disappeared a few decades later. During its prime, it was a society hub that served as the Sevier County seat, boasting four newspapers (all formed 1857 – 1861) and a seminary that trained up proper Southern Belles.
Today, most Arkansans have probably never heard of Paraclifta.
The township fell off the map just forty years after its glory days, and today all that remain of the formerly flourishing and fashionable example of the antebellum South are a single home and a strange monument in the woods at the end of a dirt road.
Sevier County itself was formed in 1828 on the eastern border of the Choctaw Nation – a full eight years before Arkansas acquired statehood. The area sits near present day Lockesburg and DeQueen, a little west off historic Highway 71.
The county seat was located at what would eventually become Paraclifta, and its first courthouse – built of logs – was replaced in 1841 by a new, two-story version built by “the undertaker and contractor” Ira Smoot, who was paid $319 for his time and materials. A post office was established in 1830, and the square boasted a large hotel called the National House “featuring many well-furnished rooms, delightful cuisine and also an up to the minute livery stable.”
Cotton crops were hauled from the area by mule or ox and shipped to New Orleans by way of the Little River, and the return trip brought supplies (and a little whiskey). A courtroom story is told of Paraclifta related to an attorney who struggled to present his motion. He apologized to the judge:
“I find it difficult, your honor, to keep my glasses on my nose this morning.”
The judge replied, “Your trouble, sir, is that last evening, you had too many glasses under your nose.”
Around the same time that civilized banter unfolded in the courtrooms of Paraclifta, more wild pursuits were taking place: the region was home to many trappers and hunters, and their triumphs and challenges on the Arkansas frontier were a little less predictable than a judge’s verdict.
A band of adventurers passing through the region told a harrowing and fairly plausible tale of an 1865 encounter with The Wild Man – aka Bigfoot – in the area, which was subsequently published in The Weekly Standard in Raleigh, NC (it’s worth a read).
Despite its acclaim near and far, Paraclifta was not centrally-located in Sevier County, so the county lines were being adjusted and new counties were being established. By 1865, Lockesburg was designated the new county seat… and by 1872, nearly every family had relocated. The Gilliam-Norwood House on the west side of the square is the only remaining structure standing in Paraclifta today.
Paraclifta was in essence very similar to the gold rush towns that sprang up and rapidly deteriorated in California during the same years. Just forty years after its heyday, Paraclifta began to fade quietly back into the Arkansas landscape… almost as though it had never existed.
While abandoned or deserted ghost towns falling into ruins stimulate our imaginations, there’s something far more captivating about a thriving place that simply disappears completely, leaving us to stand in the quiet woods picturing it in our mind’s eye.
These days, you better be looking hard for Paraclifta to find it: the old Gilliam-Norwood house, the modern caretaker’s home and an odd but noticeable monument are all that remain of this formerly thriving Arkansas stronghold.
It seems worth a few moments of our attention, doesn’t it?