Bootheel Backstory

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This 1813 map displays the contest and confusion of the Arkansas-Missouri territorial boundary

Jutting down into Arkansas from southeast Missouri is “The Bootheel”, one of the nation’s great geographic curiosities.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas ruefully suggests there’s something not quite right about this unique jog in the state line. Perhaps, but a different conclusion might come from looking at the cultural and economic history of the Bootheel region. The 1815 territorial boundaries defined the Bootheel nearly as it is today, with the St. Francis River dividing New Madrid (Missouri) and Lawrence (Arkansas) counties.

During this time, there was much political activity to fix the Bootheel’s contested southern boundary. John Hardeman Walker of Little Prairie is remembered as the most vocal spokesman on behalf of keeping all of New Madrid County, and thus the Bootheel, in Missouri. Ambitious and energetic, Walker and his family came to Little Prairie in 1810. The lively village, founded in 1794, was inhabited by French traders and farmers, sprinkled with a few Americans, who had just begun to establish plantations in the surrounding countryside. The three massive earthquakes between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812, literally rocked Walker’s world and that of his fellow settlers. Little Prairie was destroyed. Most of the French inhabitants left the area. After resettling his parents across the river in Tennessee, Walker returned. His cattle herd survived the quakes, and he immediately set to building his large plantation along the banks of the Mississippi River where Little Prairie once stood. Like Walker, many of the settlers who initially fled, also decided to return to territorial New Madrid County. Walker was at the forefront of those who believed in a promising post-quake future for New Madrid County as a part of a new state: Missouri.

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John Hardeman Walker, Father of the “Bootheel”

In March of 1819, Congress decided to proceed with the organization of the Arkansas Territory, regardless of Missouri’s unsettled status as a state. Local representatives from both the Arkansas and Missouri territories likely came to an agreement among themselves regard the final Arkansas-Missouri border, with equal give and take regarding physical territory on both sides. The 1815 norther boundary of New Madrid and Lawrence counties would drop to the Mason-Dixon Line, and previous border contentions were soon abandoned. New Madrid County would stay in Missouri with the St. Francis River as it’s western boundary and line of division between Lawrence County, Arkansas. Powerful friends must have joined Walker in the crusade to keep the established New Madrid County boundary intact within Missouri during negotiations. Robert D. Dawson, an influential New Madrid County political leader who served in the Territorial Legislative Council and who also happened to be Walker’s brother-in-law; most assuredly aided Walker in the inter-territorial boundary discussions.

At a national level, Congressman John Scott of St. Genevieve also gave his blessing to the proposal, aiding in the ushering in of the imminent Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Enabling Act of 1820, finally admitted Missouri into the Union with slavery and revised boundaries. The western boundary was moved 24 miles west of Fort Osage to the mouth of the Kansas River (modern day Kansas City) and all 627,000 acres of the Bootheel were declared a part of the new state, were it evidently belonged.

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A view of the St. Francis River 

Walker lived in the Bootheel for the remainder of his life. Along the way, his plantation beside the Mississippi River grew some 2,000 acres. In 1857, he co-founded a new town near where Little Prairie once stood. This town, Caruthersville, eventually became the county seat of Pemiscot County, which, along with Dunklin County, was partitioned from the old New Madrid County in the mid-nineteenth century to create the Bootheel counties of today.

1a-002-ss-10-jroll-sm       The “Bootheel” today

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