History of Newton County
 

Many early records of Newton County were destroyed when the courthouse burned during the Civil War. The 1850 Census, the land survey and land entry records from 1838 to 1845 provide the most reliable recorded history. They indicate that settlers began to make homes here as early as 1825.

The first people to live in the county, however, probably came in the Paleo period between 20,000 and 9,000 BC. They were followed by Indians of the Archaic Period, 8,000-1,000 BC; then those who came to be known as the Rock Shelter people. Remnants of their occupation can still be found in south-facing bluff shelters.

When pioneers began pushing west, the area was established territory of the plains tribes and there is documentation showing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Fox, Kickapoo, Sack and Osage tribes lived in or visited Newton County.

With the treaties of 1808 and 1818, the Cherokee Nation split and those in Newton County were part of the Western Cherokee who wanted to preserve their tradition and heritage by avoiding contact with the whites.

During this time, the Cherokee Sequoyah is believed to have lived near Deer, using the name George Guess. While there, he developed the Cherokee alphabet and, by 1828, Cherokees had a complete written language.

The Choctaw, however, were the last legal land owners before the wave of new settlers and were the last to disappear from the area. By 1838, all who remained had been assimilated into white settlements.

Jasper was an established town by 1840. One of the first residents was John M. Ross, a Choctaw, who became the first postmaster and the first county clerk, serving from 1842 to 1846. His salary for the year of 1845 was $7.09. Governor Archibald Yell signed the legislation creating Newton County from part of Carroll County on December 14, 1842.

Although Ross kept county records at his cabin in Jasper during his tenure of office, the actual first seat of county government was the home of John Bellah on Shop Creek near Parthenon. Jasper became the county seat in 1843.

By 1850, the population of Newton County was 1711. The average price of 40 acres of land was $50. New towns began to spring up over the 846 square miles in the county and by 1856, there were 10 post offices. In the order in which they were established, these were Jasper, Walnut Fork, Borland, Mt. Parthenon, Whiteley, Denton, Forest Home, Marshall Prairie (now Western Grove), Cave Creek and Mt. Judea.

Early settlers were not untouched by the Civil War. Several skirmishes occurred in the area and many families handed down stories of "bushwhackers", partisan outlaw gangs. The Confederacy had a saltpeter works at Boxley and one of the best known area battles occurred when a detachment of the First Iowa Cavalry captured and destroyed it on January 12, 1863, took 17 prisoners and seized two steam engines, three boilers and seven iron kettles. They destroyed three concord wagons, two carts and half a ton of saltpeter. During fighting at Jasper, Union soldiers, hunting for Confederate guerilla leader John Cecil, burned the town to the ground.

In the post-war years, communities grew and schools were built. By the turn of the century, cotton was the principal crop, although the boll weevil finally wiped it out. Most industry was related to the abundance of timber. Large logging camps harvested oak for stave bolts and Sutton Wood Products was founded at Lurton as the Lurton Furniture Factory. At Ponca, mining of lead ore created a boom town.

Rural electrification came to the county in 1937, and in 1951 Highway 7 was paved from Harrison to Jasper. These two accomplishments brought enormous changes to the county, not the least of which was the birth of tourism.

 
Fugitive Faces

Frank & Jesse James

From the beginning of white settlement of northwest Arkansas, the area acquired a reputation as a hideout for the notorious At first, it was because the mountains were still Indian Territory and Indian law had no jurisdiction over the white fugitives who dashed into the rugged hills to hide. Later, settlements, laws, and peacekeepers did their best to tame the region, but the terrain was still in favor of the outlaw and wild game and plenty of fresh water made it easy for a man alone or a whole gang to camp indefinitely in some remote spot until the heat was off. Even in later days, crossing a state boundary often put lawbreakers out of reach of their pursuers.

Thus, many of the most famous names in American crime annals have some connection in fable or fact with the Ozarks. Frank and Jesse James, the Youngers, Belle Starr, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd all figure at least marginally in the history of the area.

 

There were also feuds where family loyalty counted more than the formal structure of the law. One such feud erupted between the Miller and Robinson families in the Kenner Creek region along the Carroll Newton County line before the Civil War. At that time, settlers claimed government land by paying a $1.25 per acre "entry fee". Marion Miller wanted to "enter" some government owned bottomland and rode 60 miles to the land office at Fayetteville only to find he had been forestalled by George Robinson. Soon after that, someone shot at Robinson on the road near the Miller place and later he was killed. Then Miller's father was "tried' by a self-appointed mob of citizens and hung. Marion Miller fought in the Civil War, but when he came home, he went on a rampage that reportedly left 15 dead before he him­self was killed. 

The Civil War was the era of the bushwhacker in northwest Arkansas. Tempers ran high and there were sympathizers of both sides living here. There are many stories of terrorism handed down through local families. Leader of the most notorious local gang was Chief Longhair, a Cave Creek resident of mixed descent who was held responsible for at least two murders and countless acts of violence against Northern sympathizers. Longhair met vigilante justice finally. He was hung from the fork of a sycamore tree near the forks of Big Creek, just north of Mt. Judea. 

The end of the war didn't bring an end to the outlawry and men like Jesse James and Cole Younger began careers that were to become famous. Jesse and his brother Frank were southern sympathizers who joined the Confederate guerillas led by William C. Quantrill. After the war, their gang, which included the three Younger brothers, was active for 13 years, 1866-1879, in an area from Arkansas to Colorado to Texas. They are credited with at least one crime in this area, the robbery of a stagecoach south of Eureka Springs. However, legend generally holds that the James brothers came here to cool their heels between robberies and maintained a low profile while frequently using eastern Madison County and western Newton County as a resting place. 

After Jesse was killed, Frank worked out a surrender agreement and dropped from the public eye. About the same time, Joe Vaughn settled on a farm at Wayton where he kept to himself and raised his family. There were, according to family historians, some in the county who knew his identity, but in the mountain tradition he was left alone. One of those to whom he revealed his identity was "Yank" Sutton, who worked with him surveying all over the county. Just before he died, Joe gave his family a short autobiography. Descendants say a look alike was persuaded to surrender for Frank James and he changed his name and moved to Newton County. 

Belle Starr, the Outlaw Queen, was born Myra Belle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri. Though her presence along the western border of the state is documented, she doesn't figure in local legend, but her nephew Henry Starr was fatally wounded while attempting a hold-up of the People's National Bank in Harrison in February, 1921. Starr's remains were placed on display in the window of the local furniture storekeeper who also served as undertaker. 

Cole Younger outlived all the rest of the James and Younger gang, perhaps only because he was captured during the well known robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876 and spent 25 years in prison. Like the James brothers, he is believed to have been a member of Quantrill's guerrillas and probably fought at the battle of Prairie Grove during the Civil War. In 1912, Younger spoke to what the local paper called the largest crowd ever to attend a lecture in Berryville on "What Life Has Taught Me." The North Arkansas Star of February 2, 1912 described him as "not only a pistol-packing outlaw, he also carried along with him a copy of the Holy Bible and was an avid reader of the scriptures." 

The 36 men who signed a pledge to take up arms if necessary to resist the draft during World War I didn't regard themselves as lawbreakers. They saw no reason to fight the Germans on behalf of "silk-hatted fellows up in New York ...to make a lot of money." For two years, from 1917-1918, they successfully hid out in Cecil Cove, an area 12 miles long and eight miles wide in the northern part of the county, avoiding the county sheriff, Federal deputies and an army colonel. Finally the "Slackers", as they were known, arranged an agreement that the government would not prosecute them and surrendered. 

The 1920's and 1930's were decades when gangs became famous for knocking off banks and shooting their way out and none were ever better known then Bonnie and Clyde. Although not known to have been in Newton County, at least three dashes through northwest Arkansas while running from the law are recorded, two in the Fayetteville area and one into neighboring Carroll County.

Excerpts from Newton County Action Team Pathways

 


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