Tom Dillard: Yell County grew up with two county seats and ‘True Grit’

Recently, while driving across the Arkansas River bridge connecting Russellville with Dardanelle, it occurred to me that had I been making that trip 100 years ago, I would have been using the nation's longest pontoon bridge.

That floating bridge was an economic stimulus for Dardanelle, Yell County, and other areas south of the river. Yell County, with its two county seats -- Dardanelle and the older Danville -- has a history as fascinating and diverse as its geography.

The Legislature formed Yell County in 1840 with lands taken from Scott and Pope counties. It was named for governor and later U.S. Rep. Archibald Yell of Fayetteville. In addition to the lowlands bordering the Arkansas River, the southern portion of Yell County contains uplands clothed in extensive pine forests.

Yell County is home to an imposing geological oddity, the 1,350-foot-high plateau remnant known as Mount Nebo. Originally the mount was developed as a summer resort; since 1928 it's become Mount Nebo State Park, which contains some classic Civilian Conservation Corps architecture.

While Yell County has been home to American Indians for untold centuries, by the time the county was organized, few Indians remained in the area. One of the most important settlers in the Dardanelle area was David Brearley, who was in charge of the official government trading post at Spadra Bluff -- now part of modern Clarksville in Johnson County.

It was probably Brearley who gave the name Dardanelle to the infant town which grew up around his farm at Dardanelle Rock. Brearley became a major landowner before his death in 1837. His son Joseph Brearley donated land for the new town and laid it out in 1847. The family also gave land for a cemetery: Brearley Cemetery survives today as one of 30 Yell County sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite its economic advantages as a river town, Dardanelle was not the original county seat of Yell County. That honor fell to a more centrally located site which would become known as Danville. A log courthouse was constructed in 1844, soon replaced by a frame structure. The town was named for the steamboat Danville, a small vessel which plied the Petit Jean River on which the town was situated.

Agriculture was the lifeblood of antebellum Yell County, with cotton and corn the primary crops. Enslaved workers could be found across the county, heavily concentrated in the alluvial soils near Dardanelle and eastward into the low-lying, highly productive Cardin Bottoms. Of the 6,333 people in Yell County in 1860, some 3.9 percent were enslaved.

The Civil War caused immense economic and human losses in the county. Danville escaped much of the fighting, although two skirmishes were fought in the area. Being a major port, Dardanelle was a natural target for both armies, and it was occupied by both on multiple occasions.

On Jan. 14, 1865, a skirmish at Ivey's Fort near Dardanelle resulted in First Sgt. William Ellis, Third Wisconsin Cavalry, receiving a Medal of Honor for gallantry in action.

Perhaps more deadly than the Union and Confederate armies were bands of brigands who terrorized and looted the countryside. One of the most notorious was "Wild Bill" Heffington, a Confederate deserter but a unionist at heart, who led a force of 125 men in stealing from both sides.

As soon as the war was over in 1865, Yell County residents set about repairing the damage and creating new institutions and businesses. In 1872, Dardanelle residents could brag about their thrice-weekly mail service, a newspaper, one medical doctor, five lawyers and a blacksmith. A hotel served the needs of drummers -- traveling salesmen. There was even a professional photographer. The 1870 census recorded a population of 926 in Dardanelle. By 1875 the Dardanelle area had grown to the point that it was named a second county seat.

The smaller and more isolated Danville took longer to regain its footing following the war; by 1869 the town had a flour mill, a cotton gin with wool-carding machinery and a sawmill. A new two-story brick courthouse was finished in 1873. Later that decade, a 100-foot bridge was built over the Petit Jean River at Danville, significantly improving travel and trade.

Beginning in 1877, small groups of eastern European immigrants settled in and about Dardanelle: Moravians, Czechs, Slovaks and Bohemians. Many of these settlers became successful farmers and businessmen. The best place to get a feel for the Bohemian presence is Brearley Cemetery, where one can find tombstones bearing names such as Lastovka, Balloun and Novy.

Latinos are the most recent immigrant group to settle in Yell County. Wayne Farms, an integrated poultry company headquartered in Georgia, opened a poultry plant at Danville in 1970. In the ensuing years, large numbers of Spanish-speakers have settled in Danville, with the city now having a Hispanic majority.

Despite its location in the thriving Arkansas River Valley, Yell County has lost population through the years. From a high point in 1940, when 20,970 lived there, the county shrank to 11,940 citizens in 1960 -- though it had grown to 20,263 in 2020.

One of the most fascinating facts about Yell County is the large number of professional baseball players who lived there. Both Dizzy and Daffy Dean spent part of their teenage years on a farm in remote southern Yell County. Baseball historian Jim Yeager commented recently in an email that a 5-square-mile area of Yell County in 1920 was home to five outstanding future baseball players: Dizzy, age 10, Daffy, about 8, Jimmy Walkup, 25, Elton Walkup, 11, while Johnny Sain was 3.

Among the nationally known residents of Yell County are James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; golfer John Daly; and the late Bonnie Brown Ring, a member of the country music legends the Browns.

My favorite native of Yell County was Mattie Ross of Dardanelle, a young woman of grit. True Grit.

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

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