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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


One of Oklahoma's two large drainage basins (the other being the Red River), the Arkansas River drains most of northern and central Oklahoma within a drainage area of nearly forty-seven thousand square miles. The river originates in central Colorado on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, where it created the Royal Gorge. The Arkansas River flows into Kansas, then takes a southerly direction, entering Oklahoma in Kay County, traveling through the county and becoming its boundary with Osage County and then the boundary between Osage and Noble and Osage and Pawnee counties before entering Tulsa County. The river continues to flow southeasterly as the border between Wagoner and Muskogee counties before cutting south through Muskogee County, then becoming the boundary between Sequoyah and Muskogee, Sequoyah and Haskell, and Sequoyah and Le Flore counties, before entering Arkansas at Fort Smith. The Arkansas River merges with the Mississippi River in southeastern Arkansas near its border with Mississippi. The Spanish called the river the Napeste, but the French named it the Arkansas, referring to an American Indian tribe living in the region.

An important waterway in the exploration and development of the Great Plains and the Southwest, the river has been utilized by American Indians since human occupation dating to the Paleo-Indian period. The prehistoric Mound Builders and the historic Caddo, Wichita, and Osage settled or camped along the Arkansas River. Early European explorers and traders traversed the river, including Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1541), Andrés do Campo (1542), Hernando de Soto (1541), Jean Baptiste Bénard, Sieur de La Harpe (1719), Pierre and Paul Mallet (1740), and André Fabry de la Bruyère (1750). In 1686 Frenchman Henri de Tonti established Arkansas Post on the river in southeastern Arkansas, trading with the regional tribes. The Deer Creek Site (sometimes referred to as Ferdinandina), along the river in present Kay County, provides archaeological evidence of the interaction between the Wichita and early French trappers and traders. After the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, Americans began to navigate their new lands, with James Wilkinson (1806), Stephen H. Long (1817), Thomas James (1821), Jacob Fowler (1821), Washington Irving (1832), and Nathan Boone (1843) exploring portions of the Arkansas River Valley in present Oklahoma.

In 1824 the U.S. Army established Fort Gibson on the Neosho (Grand) River near its confluence with the Arkansas to maintain peace between the region's American Indians. This was in the fertile Three Forks Area where the Arkansas, Verdigris, and Neosho converge. In 1834 Fort Coffee was located on the river in present Le Flore County to stem the flow of illegal alcohol into the territory. As the federal government removed the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek into the area, the new immigrants and the military forces demanded supplies, creating a vibrant steamboat trade to the Mississippi River down to New Orleans or upstream to points north. At the peak of steamboat commerce, in the 1840s and 1850s, there were twenty-two landings between Fort Smith, in present Arkansas, and Fort Gibson, with the most difficult point at Webbers Falls. The falls created a strong current or, if the water was low, impossible shoals to pass, delaying boats for weeks. Pecans were one of the early products shipped out of Indian Territory, as were hides. As agriculture quickly developed, cotton and corn became bankable commodities. The Civil War and then the development of railroads led to the steamboats' decline. Several ferries also served travelers, carrying them and their possessions across the dangerous waters. These included the Nevins Ferry (at the mouth of the Verdigris River) on the military road to Fort Gibson. Others were the Frozen Rock Ferry, Smith's Ferry, Childer's Ferry and Gentry's Ferry.

In Oklahoma the Arkansas River is impounded by the Kaw Dam (Kaw Lake), the Keystone Dam (Keystone Lake), the Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam (Robert S. Kerr Lake), and the Webbers Falls Lock and Dam (Webbers Falls Reservoir). The last three contribute to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which was completed in 1971. In 1946 Congress authorized the system, which allows commercial shipping along the Arkansas River to the Port of Catoosa northeast of Tulsa on the Verdigris River. The Arkansas River travels 327.9 miles across the Sooner State, with the Canadian, North Canadian, Deep Fork, Cimarron, Salt Fork, Caney, Verdigris, Neosho (Grand), and Illinois rivers as tributaries.

In 1965 Oklahoma agreed to enter into the Kansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Basin Compact to promote mutual consideration and equity over the basin's water usage between the two states. The compact also created the Kansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Commission, which was charged with administering the compact and reducing pollution. In 1970 the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Basin Compact was drawn, and by the next year both states had approved it. The Arkansas-Oklahoma River Compact Commission Oklahoma has since regulated the agreement.

In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw owned the Arkansas riverbed and banks from the Three Forks Area to Fort Smith. Oklahoma paid the Cherokee Nation $8 million for resources it had collected from the riverbeds. Not until 2002 did the federal government settle with the tribes. That year Congress passed the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Nations Claims Settlement Act, which paid $40 million over four years to the nations for past damages and the dry river beds, allowing the tribes to retain custody of the active river channel.

Larry O'Dell


Kenneth S. Johnson, "Mountains, Streams, and Lakes of Oklahoma," Oklahoma Geological Survey Informational Series No. 1 (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Survey, 1998).

Kenneth S. Johnson and Kenneth V. Luza, "Rivers, Streams, and Lakes of Oklahoma," Earth Sciences and Mineral Resources of Oklahoma, Educational Publication 9 (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Survey, 2004).

Anna Lewis, Along the Arkansas (Dallas, Tex.: Southwest Press, 1932).

Ruth B. Mapes, The Arkansas Waterway: People, Places, Events in the Valley, 1817–1971 (Little Rock, Ark.: University Press, 1972).

Oklahoma's Water Atlas (Norman: Oklahoma Water Resources Board, 1984).

Muriel H. Wright, "Early Navigation and Commerce Along the Arkansas and Red Rivers in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 8 (March 1930).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Arkansas River,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AR010.

Published January 15, 2010

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