H-Environment Adkisson on Switzer, 'Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900'
Review published on Monday, May 3, 2021
Ronald R. Switzer. Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900. Jefferson: McFarland, 2019. Illustrations. 218 pp. $49.95 (paper),ISBN
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56178
Besides a well-recognized tune, another lasting legacy of the antebellum verse “The Arkansas Traveler” is a persisting moniker of backwardness that has influenced the culture of Arkansas since the mid-nineteenth century. The various versions of the song, performed by enterprising American entertainers, play up notions of poverty, illiteracy, contentment, rural mystique, and enduring attachment toward simple country life. The widespread notion of Arkansas’s backwardness is rooted in demographic, economic, and cultural history. The comparisons between slow developing Arkansas and rapidly populating states like Missouri and Texas have substantiated the playful fiddle and banjo harmony. The narrative that Arkansas was economically bypassed as Americans continued westward underpins a lack of historical understanding of the multitude of commercial endeavors that unfolded across the young state.
In contrast to the stereotypical characters of “The Arkansas Traveler,” Indian traders, merchants, surveyors, tradesmen, and entrepreneurs are also an accurate cast for early Arkansas history, as shown by Ronald R. Switzer. In Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty, Switzer intricately discusses the development of commerce. Arriving Europeans bent on establishing trade with Native American groups and the expansion of the railroad bookend an encyclopedic study of early Arkansas commerce. Switzer sets out to profile pioneers and émigrés, and to show how their endeavors to establish commerce and trade upend the notion of contented rural life. His attention to detail in explaining various settlers’ lives and documentation of their entrepreneurial endeavors are the important strengths of this study.
This study does not paint with deep analytical strokes. Switzer instead conveys a great deal of information over a short space. Running through the different markets of developing commerce in early Arkansas, the monograph covers trade with Native Americans, the development of infrastructure, the arrival of steamboats, salt refining, illegal liquor, and the stunted expansion of the railroad among other commercial enterprises. Switzer provides an introduction to each topic, but the core of his work is the biographical information through which he presents men and women of diverse backgrounds and their impacts on early Arkansas history.
Switzer’s research complements S. Charles Bolton’sArkansas, 1800-1860: Remote and Restless
Citation: H-Net Reviews. Adkisson on Switzer, 'Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900'. H-Environment. 05-03-2021. https://networks.h-net.org/node/19397/reviews/7661962/adkisson-switzer-arkansas-forgotten-land-plenty-settlement-and Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. 1 H-Environment
(1998). Whereas Bolton provided an important political, social, and cultural overview of Arkansas in the nineteenth century, Switzer’s pointed study focuses solely on the success or failure of a wide range of commercial enterprises. Switzer breaks down the ambitious motivations of Arkansas settlers, their disparate backgrounds, their locations of settlement, and the events that led to individual economic success or failure. Both monographs argue against the persisting characterization of Arkansas as a frontier backwater. Whether it is a desire to establish the state’s southern planter culture or industrious ambitions to turn the state’s mineral riches into working capital, both books provide evidence that determined “civilizing” efforts were ongoing. In contrast to the abovementioned song’s depiction of Arkansans’ seemingly lackadaisical rural lives, Switzer’s profiling of merchants and tradesmen indicates a bustling engagement with modernity.
Because the strength of this book rests with his economic investigations of the nineteenth century, Switzer’s first few chapters lack substance compared to the richly detailed sections concerning Arkansas’s first American settlers. Beginning with the establishment of Arkansas Post by the French, Switzer moves quickly through discussions of the French and Spanish garrisons, their colonial ambitions, and their relationships with the region’s Native Americans. While his study provides context and evidence for the motivations of early frontiersmen and traders, throughout the book his analysis of the Native American perspective falls flat. In comparison to Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (2006), which argues that Native American groups, such as the Quapaw, held significant sway over the developing Arkansas frontier, Switzer’s work lacks perspective outside the cantonment of Arkansas Post. Incorporating a wider study of Native American motivations would have allowed for deeper understanding of the power relationships that were unfolding across Arkansas. How those relationships were intricately involved in developing trade was an important part of early Arkansas history, which is underrepresented in this study.
Beginning with the factory system of Native American trade adopted by the US government at the turn of the nineteenth century, chapter 4 is where the study hits its stride. Profiling the attempts to capture Indian commerce on the frontier, Switzer discusses the expanding fur trade and the competition between government-sponsored trader John B. Treat and the private enterprise of Jacob Bright. His discussion of the US government’s lack of flexibility in dealing with Native Americans and private traders’ ability to outmaneuver government competition on the frontier establishes the format for the rest of the study. In the ensuing chapters, Switzer uses this framework of profiling historical figures’ economic successes and failures, their ambitions in the state, and rising competition to suggest an industrious recharacterization of nineteenth-century Arkansas.
Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty is organized thematically. Switzer often jumps between arriving settlers and the effects of the Civil War. The continual period shifting can become hard to follow, but it is a necessary part of the self-contained topical chapters that allow for a detailed explanation of how specific areas of commerce unfolded across the 1800s. This thematic organization—around silver, manganese, or coal mining, or cotton or corn growing—keeps the reader aware of most settlers’ environmental interaction being exploitative of the land. This monograph profiles a myriad of ways—whether it is the mass fur harvest or use of mollusk shells for button production—settlers exploited the region and directed the economic course of Arkansas history.
One of Switzer’s stated purposes for writing this monograph is to provide a foundation for other
Citation: H-Net Reviews. Adkisson on Switzer, 'Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900'. H-Environment. 05-03-2021. https://networks.h-net.org/node/19397/reviews/7661962/adkisson-switzer-arkansas-forgotten-land-plenty-settlement-and Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. 2 H-Environment historians. In that respect, Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty is a success. Because each economic topic is approached with the intent of providing a detailed accounting of who’s who, what’s what, and where’s where, the book is an excellent starting point into unsettled areas of Arkansas history. Switzer’s work serves as a register for intriguing events and experiences that demand further exploration by Arkansas historians. A lot of the topics covered will not be surprising to historians, but the minutiae provided by Switzer’s diligent cataloging reinvigorates the field. Whether your shelf is full of studies in Arkansas history or you are just looking for a place to dig into the Natural State, Switzer’s book will serve as an important tool in your library.
Citation: Colton Adkisson. Review of Switzer, Ronald R.,Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56178
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Citation: H-Net Reviews. Adkisson on Switzer, 'Arkansas, Forgotten Land of Plenty: Settlement and Economic Development, 1540-1900'. H-Environment. 05-03-2021. https://networks.h-net.org/node/19397/reviews/7661962/adkisson-switzer-arkansas-forgotten-land-plenty-settlement-and Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. 3