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Chief Heckaton’s Battle to Remain in Arkansas

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

In the late 1800s, relentless Quapaw Chief Heckaton, repeatedly petitioned the US government to allow his tribe to retain their Arkansas land.

Image Credit: Arkansas Archeology Survey (Quapaw Chief)

The Quapaw tribe first appeared in the historical account of Arkansas in 1673, when they encountered a group of French explorers in the Mississippi River Valley, led by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. The French called them the “Arkansas” and named the river and the surrounding countryside after them. At the time, the Quapaw lived in four villages, three along the Mississippi River in present-day Desha County and one along the mouth of what is now known as the Arkansas River. It was estimated that during this time the Quapaw population was between 3,500 to 7,500 tribesmen. This figure quickly declined in the late 17th and early 18th century, as the Quapaw first succumbed to the smallpox epidemic of 1698 and numerous raids by other tribes, particularly the Chickasaw. During French and Spanish control of the Louisiana Territory, which included Arkansas, the Quapaw partnered with the colonists. They served as a vital economic, political, and social force in the life of the region.

By the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Quapaw population was living on homesteads along the Arkansas River as far north as the site of Little Rock, and their population had dwindled to fewer than 600. During this time, the Quapaw life remained largely unchanged, as they had no official relation with the US government. This all changed though after the War of 1812, which resulted in a huge influx of American settlers into the Arkansas region. The U.S. settlers and government did not value the Quapaw’s assistance as the French and Spanish. The US government instead wanted the 30 million acres of land the Quapaw occupied. During this time, the U.S. government was in the process of eliminating Quapaw’s Arkansas land claims.

Heckaton, a full-blooded Quapaw, became the primary hereditary chief sometime after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1816 Heckaton led a delegation of Quapaw leaders to St. Louis to meet with the territorial governor William Clark about their land claims. At this meeting, the Quapaw signed an agreement in which they relinquished their claim to some of their land in exchange for an annuity and other economic benefits. Though the American officials met with the Quapaw delegation, the U.S. government had no intention of letting the Quapaw keep their land, so the agreement was not accepted. So, in 1818, Heckaton and his delegation went back to St. Louis for another meeting.

During this meeting, the Quapaw signed a treaty in which they relinquished their claims to thirty million acres south and west of the Arkansas River in exchange for $4,000 in goods and an annual payment of $1,000 worth of goods. They also agreed to move to a reservation of one million acres running northeast to southwest between the Arkansas and Ouachita rivers. Heckaton and other tribal leaders left thinking the Quapaw’s Arkansas home had been secured. Arkansas settlers were not satisfied though as they coveted the Quapaw’s land on the Arkansas River and wanted the tribe evicted from the region.

By 1825, despite Heckaton’s public pleas, the Quapaw were forced to give up all their remaining lands and move to the Caddo tribe’s Red River reservation in Louisiana. The Red River reservation proved to be a disaster. The Caddos did not welcome the Quapaw, the Red River flooded the Quapaw cornfields repeatedly, and many of the Quapaw people starved. A half Quapaw, half-French tribe member, Saracen, earlier appointed as a leader by the Arkansas Territorial Governor, led a group of Quapaws back to Arkansas where their pleas finally attracted food aid and other support of Arkansans sympathetic to their plight. The rest of the Quapaw remained in Louisiana under Heckaton’s leadership; but by 1830 many of the Quapaw, including Heckaton, had made their way back to Arkansas. In Arkansas, the Quapaw fared no better as they were landless and separated from the annuities that would only be disbursed in Louisiana.

Later that year, Heckaton traveled to Washington, where he asked that the Quapaw be reassigned to land in Arkansas as well as receive their annuity payments. Heckaton even tried to prove that the Quapaw were open to Western culture by enrolling four boys in the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky. Though he asked for funds to support them, the government simply subtracted the boys’ tuition from the tribe’s annuity. The Quapaw’s land issues remained unresolved for the next three years.

In May 1833, Heckaton again presented the tribe’s case to the Stokes Commission, a government-authorized panel empowered to resolve all Indian problems west of the Mississippi River. At a meeting held in New Gascony, south of Pine Bluff, Heckaton again argued for the Quapaw’s reassignment to Arkansas. He even offered to move the tribe to swampy areas to allow white settlers access to good farmland. Commissioner J. F. Schermerhorn remained unmoved and instead declared that the Quapaw had to leave Arkansas. Heckaton reluctantly accepted a draft treaty that assigned the Quapaw to a tract of land west of Missouri in southeast Kansas.

The treaty was implemented the next year. By then though, many Quapaw decided to return to the Red River reservation in Louisiana or join other tribes in east Texas. Heckaton led the remainder west. 176 Quapaw began this journey, but only 161 arrived as some died, returned to southeast Arkansas, or left to join friends and relatives among the Texas Cherokee.

This would not be the Quapaw’s last stop as they were forced to move once more when their Kansas location was contested. They were re-assigned a tract of land in northeast Oklahoma in 1839. The Quapaw, eager to finally settle down, began building homes and sowing fields before the tract was surveyed. By the time the survey was finished, some Quapaw found themselves on the wrong plot of land once again and were forced to move. Chief Heckaton died in northeast Oklahoma in 1842.

Though history has largely forgotten Heckaton’s invaluable role in Quapaw leadership and has highlighted Saracen’s work in a far more outsized way, there should be no doubt that Heckaton’s prodigious legacy still lives on.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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