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The heart-rending images of homes and businesses succumbing to the recent floods have reminded me that our history is full of flooding. While modern Arkansans have the significant advantage of advance warnings, our ancestors faced floods with remarkable stoicism -- despite the heavy price sometimes paid.

For most of our history, eastern Arkansas was regularly inundated by the many rivers which meander their way across the flat expanse. People who settled in the Delta had to come to terms with the rivers which sustained their rich soils and provided transportation -- and yet these waterways demanded heavy tribute in the form of periodic flooding.

The late Lady Elizabeth Luker of Newport in Jackson County -- an area frequently flooded by the White River -- has addressed the complicated relationship between residents and the local river: "For people who lived in delta country, the river and its vagaries are in their blood, as much as the land. To me, there is something downright uncomfortable about staying very long in a high dry place."

Outside of Crowley's Ridge, few places in eastern Arkansas were either high or dry for very long. Residents were accustomed to a yearly "general rise" in the river. The vocabulary of nineteenth century Arkansans was replete with terms for floods. The often-encountered "freshlet," for example, meant a recent flood -- but less than a disaster. A sudden, fast-moving flood was often described as a "torrent." The word "overflow" seems to me to have been used more often than "flood."

Arkansans could be innovative in dealing with floods. Mrs. Nannie Stillwell Jackson, a resident of Watson, a village in flood-prone Desha County, spent Wednesday, March 25, 1891, "fixing things for the overflow." Among the actions taken, as recorded in her diary, was cleaning out the pantry to house Mrs. Jackson's prized chickens. By the following Monday, the flood waters covered Mrs. Jackson's yard, forcing her to undertake the weekly clothes wash inside her home rather than the back yard, as she noted in her diary: "Had to set the kettle in the fire place to boil the clothes."

Edythe Simpson of Red Fork in Desha County was "almost 9" in the spring of 1927 when Arkansas faced the most massive flood of its history. Years later Simpson recalled that her father's announcement that the family must flee to the nearby Mississippi River levee set off a frenzy of activity. While her father and a friend ferried the family chickens to the levee, Mrs. Simpson and the children packed tubs with canned foods. Later, "before the ground had more than an inch or so of water, Mama ... went out to the garden and pulled up all the onions, cabbages and carrots." While most of the family furniture was moved to a tent on the levee -- including Mrs. Simpson's prized Singer sewing machine -- several mattresses had to be left behind.

At the last minute, as waters crept into their home, the Simpson women prepared breakfast. Young Edythe could not recall eating the meal, but she never forgot that "the water was about a foot deep in the house as the women waded around cooking that meal."

One of the interesting aspects of flooding history is how many sources were written from the perspective of children. Clare Phillips Dowell, for example, was only 5 years of age when her family suffered through the 1916 inundation of Newport. Clare's family home was built well above street level, so the family was able to remain at home. Indeed, like many other residents, the Phillips family took in not so fortunate neighbors -- including a family with children. "We kids had a grand time," Clare recalled in her old age.

Margaret Van Dyke, also of Newport, was another child who had fond memories of floods. During the flood of 1914, Margaret's parents invited several people to ride out the flood in their large multi-story home on Laurel Street. "Twenty four people stayed in our house, 14 of them children," Margaret remembered decades later. Among the refugees were several pets, including two dogs, one cat and a parrot. Things became even more exciting when Margaret's family brought their horse, Nelly, into the kitchen until it could be ferried by boat to high ground. From the vantage point of a half-century, in 1970 Margaret recalled that "I had never had so many playmates at one time ... I prayed every night for another flood."

While children might have been spared much of the horror of flooding, adults had to face the disasters without much help from governmental agencies -- at least before the New Deal. The American Red Cross did provide emergency services and supplies, though on a limited basis. During the massive flood of 1937, which is not nearly so well-known as the 1927 flood despite its huge size, the Red Cross cared for almost 18,000 people in camps, administered 53,606 vaccinations, and spent a total of $1.1 million in the state.

The camps, even those created and administered by the Red Cross, were segregated by race. However, the situation was actually far worse because black residents were sometimes forced to work on the levees. According to an account in the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, large numbers of black men and boys had been forced at gunpoint to repair levees damaged in the unprecedented floods of 1927. In one case, the newspaper reported that two Helena policemen had entered a black church during a service, and forced men to report to the levees. Owen Flemming, a resident of the black refugee camp at Barton, a few miles west of Helena, was lynched by a white mob after he killed a white plantation overseer who was leading an effort to rebuilt the levees following the 1927 floods.

Floods have killed countless Arkansas over the past two centuries. In my research for this column I came across two tragedies caused by floods, incidents in which entire families -- or nearly so -- perished in flood waters. On June 15, 1889, a mother and seven children were lost in a flash flood along the Little Red River in Van Buren County. Mrs. Alice Emerson and seven of her children ranging in age from 20 years to 20 months were swept away as the family fled their home afoot.

An equally tragic family disaster occurred in Polk County in May 1910 when two women and six children rushing to return home in a wagon after a long trip, drowned while trying to ford the flooding Cossatot River after dark. Authorities speculated that "the ford was strange to them, and they reached it after dark. As a result they were unaware of the fact that the stream was high and the water out of its banks."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

NAN Profiles on 06/09/2019

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