Poinsett County celebrates 175th birthday

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thursday was a big day for the county. On Feb. 28, Poinsett County turned 175 years old.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, prior to the establishment of Poinsett County, the Cherokee and Shawnee had settlements. They moved south and west after the New Madrid Earthquakes hit in 1811 and 1812. During the earthquakes, a portion of land on the eastern side of the county became submerged in water. This area is known as the Sunken Lands. This land became more habitable after the Marked Tree Siphons were built in 1939.

The first permanent white settlers in the county were Charles and Rebekah Shaver. They brought two sons, a daughter and her husband, and several slaves. They traveled here in 1824, following an old Indian trail in covered wagons, and bought the cabin of a trapper on Sugar Creek, now known as Bay Village.

Arkansas became the 25th state in 1836. Two years later, on Feb. 28 1828, Poinsett County was established. It was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. Secretary of War from 1837-1841 during the Van Buren administration. Born in South Carolina, Poinsett traveled extensively during his lifetime from Europe and Russia to South America. He served in Congress in the House of Representatives from 1821-1825 and was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1816-1819 and 1830-1831.

He also became the United States' first Minister to Mexcio from 1825-1829. Poinsett was also an amateur botanist. It was during his time as Minister to Mexico that he discovered a plant known as Flor de Noche Buena, which translates as Christmas Eve flower. He sent samples of this plant to the U.S. where it became known in the U.S. as the poinsettia.

Though Poinsett County was named for Joel Poinsett, he never visited in his lifetime.

The first county seat was named Bolivar, after General Simon Bolivar, a South American revolutionary hero. The courthouse at Bolivar was completed in 1839. In 1856, the county seat was moved to Harrisburg. Harrisburg was named after Benjamin Harris, son of the first county judge. Harris donated the land on which the courthouse was built.

Poinsett County lost portions of land in 1858 when Craighead County was established and in 1862 with the establishment of Cross County. However, land to east, which includes Marked Tree, Tyronza, and Lepanto, was added with the creation of these two counties.

Poinsett County only had about 40 slaves when the Civil War started and voted not to secede from the Union. The county was devastated by the Civil War and almost bankrupted afterward.

The railroads helped the county recover after the completion of several railways in the early 1880s. The trains transported timber, furs, cattle, and cotton out of the county.

During the Flood of 1927, Poinsett County was the hardest hit county in Arkansas with 200,000 acres underwater during the worst phase of flooding. The impact of the flood of sharecroppers led to the creation of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in Tyronza, one of the first racially integrated unions.

On the darker side of history, the last lynching in Arkansas occurred in Poinsett County on April 29, 1936. According to an article on the front page of the Spartanburg Herald dated April 30, 1936, Willie Kees was a 19-year-old black man accused of an attempted assault on a white woman. He was taken into police custody in Lepanto. The police were overpowered on the way to jail by a masked mob who forced Kees into an automobile, sped away, and later shot him to death.

Later, during World War II, several prisoner-of-war camps were set up in the U.S. to house Germans captured in North Africa. Two of these camps were in Poinsett County, one in Marked Tree and one in Harrisburg. The prisoners were used in manual labor on farms and were returned to Germany after the war.

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