Jean-Baptiste Benard de La Harpe was born into a wealthy French family known for having the finest ships in its part of the country. Born in 1683, La Harpe was one of 12 surviving children in his family and became an explorer at an early age. He served as a cavalry officer in Spain, and in 1703 departed on an exploration mission to South America.
“While in Peru, he married an older widow, Dona Maria de Rokafull, and the couple returned to France in 1706,” Kate Buck writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His wife died three years later, and La Harpe became involved in lawsuits with her family for her fortune. These lasted until 1715, when he lost all claims. La Harpe married Jeanne-Francoise Prigent in 1710. She’s believed to have 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 what’s now Texarkana with the goal of trading with Spaniards and Native Americans. After exploring the Red and Sulphur rivers, La Harpe returned to New Orleans in January 1720 and later went back to France.
In August 1721, La Harpe was sent to North America to claim Matagorda Bay in Texas for the French. His ship landed by mistake in Galveston Bay, and the explorers were met by hostile natives. La Harpe returned to Louisiana, but he wasn’t 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 Feb. 27, 1722, stopping at Arkansas Post for supplies,” Buck writes. “La Harpe noted in his journal the local Indian name for the river, which refers to the reddish color of the water, and stated that it later became clear and excellent to drink. Continuing upstream, the party reached a short range of three steep hills, the first outcropping of rock the explorers had encountered since entering the Arkansas River.
“A large outcropping was on the north bank of the river, ascending to about 160 feet high and veined with a hard marble-like stone. La Harpe also described a waterfall and several fine slate quarries nearby. According to his journal, he named this point Le Rocher Francais and took possession of it on April 9 by carving the coat of arms of the French king on a tree trunk at its summit.”
The French called the smaller outcropping on the south bank of the river Le Petit Rocher, with that term first appearing on a map in 1799. By the 1850s, the term La Petite Roche was being used.
La Harpe’s trip up the Arkansas River and his discovery of those rock outcroppings are being celebrated this weekend. This marks the beginning of a year of events known as La Petite Roche Tricentennial. The year-long affair is the brainchild of Little Rock public relations executive Denver Peacock.
Peacock, a McCrory native whose brother Nelson runs the influential Northwest Arkansas Council, is part of a group that meets for lunch on the Monday after Easter. Those attending call it Seersucker Monday since they wear seersucker suits. At one such luncheon, Scott Carter, who serves as the Little Rock historian among his many duties for city government, mentioned that the tricentennial of La Harpe’s journey was approaching. Peacock latched onto it and brought together representatives of Arkansas cultural institutions.
“This is much broader for me than just the city of Little Rock,” Peacock says. “It’s about this entire region of the state. It’s an opportunity not only to celebrate our past but also to ask questions about the present and plan for the future. Who are we today as a region? We want as many people as possible to be thinking about what we can do going forward to mark the tricentennial year.”
Later this year, Peacock will become president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, the state’s largest civic club. It will give him a platform from which to float ideas such as improving the area around La Petite Roche, lighting the Broadway Bridge, and opening the nation’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 was allowed to pass absolutely unnoticed,” he lamented. “If the year 2022 should pass with no proper observance of … the discovery of the historic rock, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
According to a document produced by the La Petite Roche Tricentennial task force: “The tricentennial of La Harpe’s visit presents an opportunity to reflect on the area’s history–the positive and the negative. It allows us to reflect on how the region has grown from a largely unsettled trading post of a few white young to middle-aged men living in a cluster of shacks into an expansive, thriving city rich with diverse races, ages, beliefs and backgrounds.”
Here’s how the Gazette described La Petite Roche on Aug. 20, 1822: “It projects several feet into the river, forming below it a fine basin for boats, and its top reaches perhaps about midway between low-water mark and the summit of the bank of the river. The name Little Rock was given it by the … early white settlers of the country to distinguish it from the Big Rock.”
“Several early accounts tell of the rock being totally submerged by the Arkansas River at its highest stage,” writes Bill Worthen, who led the Historic Arkansas Museum for decades. “In 1818, the United States restricted the Quapaw tribe to a reservation in Arkansas, the western boundary of which–known as the Quapaw line–began at the Point of Rocks on the Arkansas River and extended due south. Arkansas Post became the territorial capital in 1819, but the need for a more centralized and less swampy location resulted in the seat of Arkansas Territory shifting to Little Rock in 1821.
“In 1824, the Quapaw were removed from central Arkansas, opening the reservation to resettlement. As the city of Little Rock became established, ferries crossed the river at the rock, and riverboats docked immediately downstream from it. During the years that the Arkansas River was the lifeblood of the town, the Little Rock remained an important landmark.”
In 1872, Congress authorized Little Rock Bridge Co. to construct a bridge at the rock that would be used by all railroads terminating at the river.
According to an October 1872 Gazette story: “Several tons of rock have been cut away and thrown into the river, so much so as to greatly change the appearance of the rock from the lower side.”
Two days later, the newspaper urged someone to “take a photograph of the Little Rock, from which our city derives its name, before it is destroyed by the ruthless hand of civilization.”
“Though the rock suffered significant reduction, the bridge was never completed,” Worthen writes. “The first permanent bridge was built a mile upstream by Baring Cross Bridge Co. On Dec. 8, 1883, a group of businessmen organized Little Rock Junction Railway Co. to build a bridge connecting the Little Rock & Fort Smith rail line with the Little Rock, Mississippi & Texas railway.
“The Arkansas Democrat of Dec. 19, 1883, reported that ‘while the bridge will pass over the historic Little Rock from which this city takes its name, it will be necessary to remove but a small portion of the point’ to make the wall needed for the function of the swing span. The company didn’t rely on the congressional sanction of the old Little Rock Bridge Co., so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claimed not to have the authority to approve or disapprove of 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 a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.