Photo above: Florence McCormick with daughter Karen and son Jim, Buffalo River, 1950s. Karen McCormick Weiss Collection (S-2000-111-8)
Native Americans once lived in, farmed, and hunted in what’s now Newton County. In Boxley Valley, archeologists have found prehistoric home and work sites dating back almost 7,000 years. When the Cherokee were forced to leave their eastern U.S. homes, they were relocated in part to northwestern Arkansas before being pushed into present-day Oklahoma in 1830.
Arkansas became a state in 1836. When Newton County was carved out of Carroll County in 1842, it was named for Thomas Willoughby Newton, then U.S. Marshal for Arkansas. One year later Jasper became the county seat. The first whites entering the area prior to statehood were hunters, trappers, and a few eager homesteaders. Some had Cherokee spouses and came with the first migration of Cherokees. They stayed in the area when the tribe was forced further west.
Settlers used the forest to build their homes and selected rich bottomland to grow their crops. By 1850 there were 288 families in the county, numbering 1,711 people. Most were small-time farmers, without economic reason for holding enslaved workers. At the beginning of the Civil War there were about 25 African-Americans in the county, just a fraction of the overall population. Like much of Northwest Arkansas, loyalties were divided within communities and families—some sympathized with the Union while others were for the Confederacy. The county suffered its share of privation from bushwhackers, guerrilla bands, and skirmishes. Its valuable chemical and mineral resources were used for making gunpowder and bullets.
After the war, the economy grew due to increased zinc and lead mining in the northern half of the county. Mines with colorful names like “Belle of Wichita” popped up everywhere, leading to boomtowns that flourished for a time. The rough terrain and remote location caused early railway planners to bypass the county entirely, making it the only county in Arkansas never to have a railroad.
By 1900 the population had swelled to 12,538, due in part to land speculators and new homesteaders from out-of-state. Timber harvesting joined mining as a major economic force. Large lumber companies and many local individuals bought thousands of acres of timber land. Numerous sawmills and logging camps sprung up to harvest and process logs into railroad ties, mine props, barrel staves, pencils, dimensional lumber, equipment handles, furniture, and the like. It wasn’t long before the county’s extensive virgin forests were cutover.
At the turn of the 20th century, cotton was a primary source of income for area farmers, but boll weevils decimated the crop. Other important agricultural products included livestock, wheat, corn, oats, and fruit. But without reliable and inexpensive transportation, these industries failed to thrive as long-term sources of revenue.
Newton County experienced a brief industrial boom during World War I, fueled by the need for metals in the manufacture of cartridge and shell casings. Land rich in zinc and lead fostered the establishment of mines in Ponca, Pruitt, and Bald Hill. But a drop in prices and the inability to easily export these resources after war’s end lead to their demise.
The population of Newton County dropped steadily from 1900 to 1960, with an all-time low of around 5,700 residents. It began a slow recovery beginning in the 1960s with the influx of newcomers arriving with the back-to-the-land movement. This growth continued into the 1980s.
The county’s rugged geography has had a significant impact on its history and people. The progressive changes brought about in the past 100 years for most of the U.S. were late to arrive. Rural electrification was introduced as late as 1937; the first high-power lines weren’t installed until about 1949. The first modern roads didn’t come until the 1950s, preventing sustained growth in manufacturing and industry.
However, it is the very nature of Newton County’s geographic seclusion which is largely responsible for the preservation of the natural beauty which attracts visitors from all over the world. Today tourism is the county’s major industry. Attractions include dude ranches and the Buffalo River, which draws over 800,000 visitors each year. Ecotourism activities like hiking, camping, caving, outdoor cookouts, rock-climbing, and zip-lining in the Ozark National Forest and Lost Valley are popular. Many retirees come to the county to enjoy an easygoing lifestyle and beautiful scenery.
Timber continues to play an important economic role. While production has dramatically decreased over the decades, small-scale sawmills and other wood-product companies are still found among the hillsides.
The 2010 census reflects the relative isolation of Newton County. With 8,330 residents it is the 7th least-populated county in the state. Its population density is just 10 people per square mile. The largest city is the county seat of Jasper, with 466 people. Countywide, the median income is about $17,000 per person. More than 8,000 people self-identify as white, 9 as African-American, 90 as Native American, 25 as Asian, and 141 as Hispanic or Latino.
Newton County’s rural past is still evident in the small, isolated communities tucked among its hillsides and valleys. This way of life is recognized and treasured in many ways, from the designation of the Buffalo as the country’s first National River in 1972 to the creation of the Big Buffalo Valley Historic District at Boxley in 1987. Fayetteville author Donald Harington immortalized the long-gone community of Murray via his mythical and magical “Stay More” novels. In them he blended the speech and manners of rural Newton County with plenty of tall tales involving six generations of the Ingledew clan.