Jean-Baptiste Benard de La Harpe was born into a wealthy French family known for having the finest ships in their part of the country. Born in 1683, La Harpe was one of 12 surviving children in his family and became an explorer from an early age. He served as a cavalry officer in Spain, and in 1703 set out on a mission of exploration to South America.
“While in Peru he married an older widow, Dona Maria de Rokafull, and the couple returned to France in 1706,” writes Kate Buck for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His wife died three years later, and La Harpe was involved in lawsuits with her family for his fortune. These lasted until 1715, when he lost all his claims. La Harpe married Jeanne-Françoise Prigent in 1710. It is believed that she died a few years later.”
In 1718, La Harpe obtained land on the banks of the Red River in Louisiana as part of John Law’s plans for a colony. The governor of Louisiana sent him from New Orleans to explore the upper Red River. In April 1719, La Harpe founded a fort near present-day Texarkana for the purpose of trading with the Spaniards and Native Americans. After exploring the Red and Sulfur Rivers, La Harpe returned to New Orleans in January 1720 and later returned to France.
In August 1721, La Harpe was sent to North America to claim Matagorda Bay in Texas for the French. His ship mistakenly landed in Galveston Bay and the explorers were met by hostile natives. La Harpe returned to Louisiana, but he did not stay there long. In late 1721, the French governor of Louisiana asked La Harpe to explore the Arkansas River.
“With about 25 men he left New Orleans in December and entered the Arkansas River on February 27, 1722, stopping at Arkansas Post for supplies,” Buck wrote. “La Harpe noted in his journal the local Indian name of the river, which refers to the reddish color of the water, and said that it later became clear and excellent for drinking. Continuing upstream, the group reached a short reach of three steep hills, the first rocky outcrop encountered by explorers since entering the Arkansas River.
“A large outcrop lay on the north bank of the river, rising about 160 feet high and veined with a hard, marble-like stone. The Harp also described a waterfall and several fine slate quarries nearby. According to his diary, he named it Pointe Le Rocher Français and took possession of it on April 9 by engraving the coat of arms of the King of France on a tree trunk at its summit.”
The French called the smallest outcrop on the south bank of the river Le Petit Rocher, with this term first appearing on a map in 1799. By the 1850s the term La Petite Roche was in use.
La Harpe’s journey up the Arkansas River and his discovery of these rocky outcrops are celebrated this weekend. It is the beginning of a year of events known as the Tercentenary of La Petite Roche. The one-year affair is the brainchild of Little Rock public relations executive Denver Peacock.
Peacock, a McCrory native whose brother Nelson leads the influential Northwest Arkansas Council, is among a group that meets for lunch on the Monday after Easter. Attendees call it Seersucker Monday because they wear seersucker costumes. At one such luncheon, Scott Carter, who is Little Rock’s historian among his many duties for the city government, mentioned that the tercentenary of La Harpe’s voyage was approaching. Peacock stuck to it and brought together representatives from Arkansas’ cultural institutions.
“To me, it’s a lot bigger than the town of Little Rock,” says Peacock. “It’s about this whole region of the state. It’s an opportunity not only to celebrate our past, but to ask questions about the present and plan for the future. Who we are today “as a region? We want as many people as possible to think about what we can do in the future to mark the tricentenary year.”
Later this year, Peacock will become president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, the largest civic club in the state. This will give him a platform from which to launch ideas such as improving the area around La Petite Roche, lighting the Broadway Bridge and opening the country’s first museum devoted entirely to the Trail of Tears. .
In the late 1940s, Arkansas Gazette publisher J. N. Heiskell gave a speech in which he discussed Little Rock’s lack of awareness of its place in history.
“The 200th anniversary of the discovery of our rock has gone completely unnoticed,” he lamented. “If the year 2022 were to pass without proper respect … the discovery of the historic rock, do not say that I did not warn you.”
According to a document produced by the La Petite Roche Tercentenary working group: “Visiting the Tercentenary of La Harpe is an opportunity to reflect on the history of the region, the positive and the negative. It allows us to reflect on how the region developed from a largely unstable trading post of a few young to middle-aged white men living in a cluster of shacks to an expansive and prosperous city rich in races, of different ages, beliefs and backgrounds.
Here is how the Gazette described La Petite Roche on August 20, 1822: “It projects several feet into the river, forming a beautiful basin below for boats, and its summit comes perhaps halfway between the low tide and the top of the river bank. The name Little Rock was given to it by the first white … settlers in the country to distinguish it from Big Rock.
“Several early accounts say the rock was totally submerged by the Arkansas River at its highest point,” writes Bill Worthen, who ran the Arkansas Historical Museum for decades. “In 1818, the United States limited the Quapaw Tribe to a reservation in Arkansas, the western boundary of which – known as the Quapaw Line – began at Point of Rocks on the Arkansas River and ran due south. Arkansas Post became the territorial capital in 1819, but the need for a more centralized, less marshy location resulted in the Arkansas Territory headquarters being moved to Little Rock in 1821.
“In 1824, the Quapaw were expelled from central Arkansas, opening the reservation to resettlement. When the town of Little Rock was established, ferries crossed the river at the rock, and riverboats docked immediately downstream. During the years when the Arkansas River was the lifeblood of the city, the Little Rock remained a prominent landmark.”
In 1872, Congress authorized Little Rock Bridge Co. to build a bridge at the rock that would be used by all railroads terminating at the river.
According to an October 1872 Gazette article: “Several tons of rock were cut and thrown into the river, so much so that the appearance of the rock on the lower side was considerably altered.”
Two days later, the newspaper urged someone to “take a picture of the Little Rock, from which our town takes its name, before it is destroyed by the merciless hand of civilization.”
“Although the rock underwent significant reduction, the bridge was never completed,” Worthen writes. “The first permanent bridge was built a mile upstream by Baring Cross Bridge Co. On December 8, 1883, a group of businessmen organized the Little Rock Junction Railway Co. to build a bridge connecting the Little Rock railway line & Fort Smith to the Little Rock.Rock, Mississippi and Texas Railroad.
“The Democrat of Arkansas of December 19, 1883, reported that ‘While the bridge will pass over historic Little Rock from which this town takes its name, it will only be necessary to remove a small part of the point’ to make the wall The company did not rely on congressional sanction of the former Little Rock Bridge Co., so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claimed it had no authority to ‘Approve or Disapprove of the Plans for the Junction. Bridge.’
The junction bridge is now a pedestrian span. Near the bridge, visitors can still see what remains of La Petite Roche.
Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.