Before 1541 Union County Arkansas was populated only by Indians, the Osages, Kansas, Omahas, Poncas, Quapaws or Akansas. Food was abundant and the virgin forests harbored game without limit. In the late summer of 1541 DeSoto, having been turned back by the fierce Caddo Indians began to look for Winter Quarters. No gold had been found. Sickness and death had plagued the expedition. In November of 1541 the haggard group stopped for the winter at a Quapaw Indian village called Autiamque on the banks of the Ouachita River within the area that came to be Union County. This settlement of Europeans preceded Jamestown! The winter of 1541-1542 was bitter cold with deep snow and heavy frosts. One man's diary stated that it was so cold that they thought they might all perish. Maize, beans, walnuts and rabbits (which the Indians taught them to catch) were plentiful. Their valuable guide died here and they had lost 250 men and many horses. DeSoto decided they should go toward Florida where they could send to Cuba for help. They began their journey down the Ouachita on March 2, 1542 and reached the Mississippi River. On May 21 DeSoto, at age 42, died and was buried in the waters that he had discovered. It would be more than 100 years before the Indians were to see the face of another white man.
The land was left as an undisputed possession of Spain until 1673 when two Frenchmen, Marquette and Joliet came down the Mississippi to the Indian village of "Arkansas". In 1685 La Salle made his claim to this area in the name of Louis XIV of France and named the area "Louisiana". In 1762 France ceded the area back to Spain and in 1800 it went back to France. On April 30, 1803 President Thomas Jefferson purchased the land from France in what is now known as the "Louisiana Purchase" and it was divided into territories.
The territory of Arkansas was a name derived from the "Algonquin Arkansa" and functioned for a little more than 10 years when an act of the Territorial Legislature authorized the formation of Union County on November 2, 1829. At that time Union County consisted of the entire present day counties of Bradley, Calhoun, Ouachita and Union as well as parts of what is now Ashley, Drew, Dallas, Cleveland, Nevada, Columbia and Hempstead Counties.
Arkansas was admitted as a State on June 15, 1836. People began to come to this beautiful land. Our principal heritage comes from the Spanish, French, English, Scotsmen, Irish, and Africans. Most came by covered wagons or on horseback and some came from New Orleans by boat. The Census of 1840 showed 2,889 and land was virtually untouched.
On December 2, 1843 Matthew Rainey deeded 160 acres to establish a town site. Commissioner John Hampton came up with a name: The Spanish name "El Dorado" meaning "gilded". A beautiful wooded area with a duck pond in the center was reserved for the public square and the town was laid out around it.
El Dorado was enlarged and was incorporated for a second time in 1859. The stage line from Little Rock to Monroe, Louisiana was established and came through El Dorado and Hillsboro. Union County was prosperous and many fine houses were built, many furnished with fine furniture from New Orleans. One of these homes, the John Newton House has been preserved and furnished by the Union County Historical Foundation.
Union County was not spared the pain of the Civil War. Arkansas held out for a few weeks then seceded on May 6, 1861. Union County sent between 1,200 and 1,500 young men to battle. Several companies of men were organized and trained in Union County. Major Quantrill brought a battalion that camped a few miles west of Lisbon on the Mt. Holly Road. It is likely that Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger, famous gunfighters, were there. General Parsons brought his brigade to camp near Three Creeks--called the Kirby-Smith Camp.
Reconstruction was difficult period for all our citizens but gradually morale and the economy began to pick up. Schools opened and the churches became more active.
A federal Army of Occupation was set up on North West Avenue between Rowell and 5th Street. All citizens of Union County who wanted to vote had to take an amnesty oath disavowing the Confederacy and pledging allegiance to the United States. Finally Reconstruction came to an end.
Sawmills were established and a new industry began to grow. Boats began to come up the Ouachita and Oxen were utilized to get over the muddy roads. The economy of El Dorado was bustling but business grew in the small towns too: Mt. Holly, Lisbon, Hillsboro, Champagnolle, New London, Caledonia, Junction City, Three Creeks and Wesson. A full scale resort was built at Blanchard Springs where the 16 springs were said to bring healing power.
The first passenger train came to El Dorado on July 4, 1891. Crowds came and there was a great celebration. The first bank was organized. A town named Henderson City was formed in the North of the County. As it grew it became clear that a Post Office was needed. They applied and to their dismay this name was already taken: Smackover (believe it or not, from the French words Asumac covert ) was then chosen. The Ouachita River continued to provide much of the transportation needs and in 1893 the U. S. Government appropriated about Five Million Dollars for a lock and dam system to provide year round navigation as far as Camden, Arkansas. Three more banks were established and two more railroads came to town.
There had been ongoing disagreements among the family of Marshall and Rebecca Parnell and Marshall Guy B. Tucker and Constable Harrison Dearing. Late afternoon, October 9, 1902 the first shootout took place on the east side of the Square. Within a few minutes, Walter Parnell, Tom Parnell and Constable Dearing were dead. Many others, including Marshall Tucker were wounded. There were many other fights to come and some rumors were that at least 40 people were killed as a result. Governor Jeff Davis declared martial law and called out the National Guard to keep the peace. It is of interest that Walter Parnell's daughter, Blanche Parnell Wade became one of the greatest benefactors of Union County, establishing the Proctor Hill Memorial Fund through Union County Community Foundation and Marshall Tucker's grandson was to become the Arkansas Attorney General, Member of the United States Congress and Governor of Arkansas. The feud is reenacted in around twenty-six performances, over thirteen weekends during each summer right where it occurred. An estimated 10,000 people have attended this dramatic production including Governor Tucker and descendants of the Parnell's various people in the feud.
Dr. John C. Branner's geological survey of 1887 had indicated that oil was present in Union County. People came to try to find oil and many leases were sold for wildcat drilling. When 1920 came to a close all they had were some dry holes and unmanageable troublesome gas wells. The Constantine Oil and Refining Company of Tulsa began to drill on the Parnell farm and this well blew in with such force that it blew wild for two months.
On January 10, 1921 the Bussey #1 blew in on the Armstrong Lease and the oil boom was under way! Farm animals were killed drenched with oil; oil spots on the clothes on the lines all over Union County were common. The rush of the boom was on and excitement was everywhere. Within 48 hours the town began to be filled with speculators, beggars, prostitutes, hijackers and also conservative investors. Hotels were at capacity. Homes opened and the population of El Dorado went from about 4,000 to 15,000. Hamburger row was established on South Washington Avenue. Numbers of tent cities were established
The Chamber of Commerce was organized. El Dorado became a city of the First Class with population of around 16,000 peaking at about 30,000. Six months after Bussey there were more than 200 wells producing in Union County! Root Refinery, later to become American Oil, now the site of Ensco, was established. Then Colonel T. H. Barton acquired another refinery and named it Lion Oil Company. The West and South Fields were developed; then the East Field. In the spring of 1922 one of the most prolific fields in the country was discovered, the Smackover field. J. T. Murphy blew up and the entire derrick and rig was lost. For weeks a great pillar of flame lit the countryside. The Murphy Crater is now a park open to the public. The town of Smackover became a boomtown peaking out at a population of about 10,000. Strong was wiped out by severe tornado May 9, 1927. The Shuler Field discovered by Lion Oil in 1937 and became one of the most important deep fields in Union County, producing from three sands below 5,000 feet.
Colonel Barton built what was at the time the tallest building in Arkansas the Lion Oil Building, which is on the National Historical Register and is now First Financial Center. He established one of the first radio stations in Arkansas and the first in El Dorado, KELD-AM which was later to become the first Stereo AM in Arkansas. KELD-FM (now KIX-103) became the first Stereo FM station in Arkansas. These properties are now owned by Noalmark Broadcasting Corporation which owns and operates KELD-AM, KIXB-FM, KAGL-FM, KMRX-FM, KMLK-FM and KELD-FM. , KBHS-AM, KLAZ-FM, KLEZ-FM, AND KBOK-AM, and KYKK-AM, KZOR-FM, KIXN-FM, KPZA-FM and KPER-FM.
The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission was established and is the only State Commission in Arkansas located out of the Pulaski County area.
C. H. Murphy established the home office of Murphy Oil Corporation in El Dorado. It is an integrated oil and gas company that operates worldwide and is a very important part of our City. The land and timber operations of Murphy were spun off to Deltic Timber Company, which owns and operates over 450,000 acres of timberland and two sawmills, and has recently established DelTin, one of the nation's largest medium density fiberboard production plants. Anthony Forest Products, Georgia Pacific and Loutre Land and Timber Company are among many large timber companies in the area. Great Lakes Chemical Company produces Bromine from the largest such source in the western hemisphere.
In the late fifties Jess Merkle came to town. He had a background in poultry operations and had a dream of raising and processing poultry on a massive scale. J. M. Poultry Company was established and brought the poultry industry to El Dorado. It's successor in interest ConAgra Poultry continues to operate a large processing plant and has just completed a new high tech feed mill.
El Dorado is a regional trade center and has the most beautiful downtown in Arkansas. It is also a medical center with excellent physicians and Medical Center of South Arkansas, which is jointly owned by Triad, Inc. and SHARE Foundation and well as a Medical School known as South Arkansas Area Health Education Center. It also boasts the Johnnie Walker Murphy Lung Center, South Arkansas Regional Health Center and is developing a center for the aging. All the medical services combined are one of the largest employers in the area.