LaHarpes' Arkansas Expedition

La Harpe’s Arkansas Expedition


By Cary Bradburn

North Little Rock History Commission


To raise money for John Law’s financial schemes in 18th Century France, his publicists crafted fantastic stories in the popular journals of gold and silver west of the Mississippi and of a certain rock of topaz or emerald that arose from the waters of the Arkansas. Sprung from a slightly older legend of a red stone cliff on the Missouri, where the inhabitants supposedly fired arrows to chip off a porphyry-like rock, the Arkansas emerald shone far brighter through the handiwork of Law’s writers.

These and other tales circulated from 1717 to 1720 and helped to swell the Mississippi Bubble. Law, an economist and gambler from Scotland who killed a man in a duel and fled to France in 1716, befriended the Duke of Orleans, the Regent to seven-year-old King Louis XV. Reeling financially from the ruinous wars of Louis XIV, who died in 1714, the French crown sought Law’s expertise to remedy its debt. Appointed controller-general of finances, he formed a national bank, which issued paper money and stock certificates in return for gold and silver. While this temporarily eased the crown’s debt, it inflated the French currency and incited reckless speculation.

In 1717, Law set up a stock company, the Western Company, which was granted a royal monopoly over trade in Louisiana, including the Mississippi River Valley as far north as St. Louis. Required by charter to recruit colonists for settlement in Louisiana, the company sold land grants along the Mississippi to concessionaires who contracted to pay expenses after the first year. One concession near Arkansas Post (founded in 1686) went to Law himself. At his peak in 1718 and 1719, Law took over the slave trade of France’s Senegal Company as well as the Asian trade of the China and East India companies, consolidating all under the India Company.

By 1720, however, with the bank over extended, he made the India Company a subsidiary. Still, he had no Louisiana colonies or gold or silver to rescue his banknotes. Drowning in inflation, the French crown withdrew from Law’s bank, which collapsed in late 1720. The bubble had burst and shaken France. The India Company went into receivership for the next three years. Once more on the run, Law gambled until he died of pneumonia almost nine years later in Venice, Italy.

Fallout from Law’s economic policies shattered confidence and nudged France down the road to revolution, but it didn’t dampen illusions of fabulous wealth in the New World. Rumors of jewels abounded in the imagination. Spain, after all, had struck it rich in South America, so Louisiana might yet become a “French Peru.” The press let it be known the Arkansas flowed from the same mountain range that yielded silver in New Mexico. In July 1721, the French Colonial Council at Biloxi, having obtained a map that showed the fabled emerald rock on a river thought to be the Arkansas, decided the time had come to find it. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, le Sieur de Bienville, governor of Louisiana, tapped an experienced explorer, Jean-Baptiste Benard de La Harpe, to lead an expedition up the Arkansas.

Born into a middle class family in 1683, La Harpe followed in the footsteps of his seafaring father, sailing while in his 20s on board a merchant ship bound for the Pacific. He made some money selling goods before visiting Chile where he traveled inland to inspect mining operations. In Lima, Peru, he courted a rich widow 22 years his elder, Dona Maria de Rokaful. Concealing his true financial worth, he wooed her with love poems and stories of South Sea adventures. But after they married, she discovered the truth about his finances. Lawsuits followed which brought out accusations and denials that, among other things, she had paid his debts. Dona Marie questioned La Harpe’s veracity, recalling that he made up a story about a porpoise saving him from a shipwreck. He claimed he grabbed onto the mammal’s tail, she said, and was taken to an island of cannibals who didn’t eat him because he was too handsome. If true, she countered, it was because he was too skinny. After her death in 1709, La Harpe remarried but never mentioned his second wife in his memoirs.

La Harpe acquired a concession on the Red River in 1718, arriving in Louisiana with 46 colonists only to learn that flooding made settlement there impossible. Instead, Bienville sent him out to explore the Red River, learn about the native tribes and open up a trade route with Spanish New Mexico. Returning to France in 1720, La Harpe was back in Louisiana the next year with another assignment from Bienville to establish a trading post on the Texas coast. Hostiles, however, drove him away.

Whether La Harpe believed in a rock of emerald is a matter of conjecture, but he was eager to accept Bienville’s Arkansas commission in late 1721. Years later, La Harpe denied reports of his expedition’s engineer, Dumont De Motigny, that he had gone in search of “a cargo of jewels.” Although Bienville expressed confidence that La Harpe would find mineral deposits, his official orders stated, in part, that “LaHarpe shall . . . go up the branches of the Arkansas as far as he can, for discovering the quality of the land, the tribes that inhabit their borders, with whom he shall enter an alliance . . . he shall record the course of the rivers, their rapidity, width and depth, the quality of the timber and rocks, if there should be ores, and shall bring back as much native material as he can . . .” With 16 soldiers, an interpreter and two others, including Bertrand Dufresne, who had been appointed to oversee the John Law colony in Arkansas, La Harpe left Biloxi on December 16, 1721, to pick up additional provisions and the flat boats in New Orleans for the journey up the Mississippi to the Arkansas.

With provisions for 45 days that included colored beads and red and blue cloth for the native trade and 48 jugs of brandy for his men, Jean-Baptiste Benard de La Harpe started up the Mississippi on December 24, 1721, from New Orleans in flat boats and pirogues (long canoes hewn from logs) to find the legendary emerald rock on the Arkansas. Stopping at Yazoo to pick up the expedition’s engineer, Dumont De Montigny, the explorers entered the first branch of the Arkansas on February 27, 1722. In his journal, La Harpe complained of weather “so severely cold that all of our clothes have frozen.”

On March 1, La Harpe arrived at a Quapaw settlement of 41 huts and 330 people. Known to the French as the Zautoouys, the Quapaws called the Arkansas the Negite or Red River and estimated a journey of 20 days to “the Rock.” But the natives discouraged La Harpe from going up river, he wrote, “by assuring us that one Pichart and five Frenchmen . . . have been killed by the Osages. The men and the women, knowing our resolution, wept, and have sought to intimidate the detachment there.”

La Harpe also visited the John Law colony between the Arkansas and the White rivers on March 1, where he met 47 people living a meager existence. Before Law’s financial collapse in late 1720, he had arranged for the passage of some 300 German colonists to settle in Arkansas, but they migrated instead to the German Coast north of New Orleans by early 1722. Law’s colony had attracted few takers. In a later journal entry, La Harpe noted that de Bienville, the Louisiana governor, had sent the beleaguered colonists 30 quarts of flour in the nick of time, before the eventual abandonment of the site.  

Having two pirogues for the Arkansas trip, La Harpe needed a third boat for his contingent of 29 men, so on “finding occasion,” he stole a Quapaw pirogue on March 9 and sent it upstream with seven soldiers for a later rendezvous. On the next day, however, an overload sunk La Harpe’s pirogue and delayed the mission. Then on March 12 La Harpe learned that four “arrogant” Quapaws, who had threatened him the previous day, saying they were “hungry for killing Frenchmen,” had reclaimed their pirogue. Out of necessity, his men built a third one after a few more days.

The French pushed off again against the current on March 18, enduring over the next month rain and wind, even snow on April 5, subsisting on additional provisions, the edible plants and mushrooms they gathered and the buffalo, deer and turkey they shot. On April 7 they encountered four Quapaw hunters, who “had constructed a great pirogue in this place from bear skins, in which they were able to descend with the meat,” La Harpe wrote. “They assured us that it was only one day’s voyage for us to reach the Rock, which is the beginning of the mountains, where they had waited two days to trade with us for powder and balls, of which they were having need.”

About three miles downstream from Big Rock Mountain, La Harpe on April 9 noticed “rocks sticking out of the ground” from the south bank. By 1800 this rock outcropping was known as “little rock”, which 18th century writers likened to five fingers reaching out into the river. But when La Harpe spied the Big Rock bluff on the north side, he had found what he came for – only there was no emerald. Naming his discovery French Rock, he described a “bluff of mountainous rock” with three steep peaks, “suitable for making lime . . . One finds there a stone which has a relationship to marble, being very much like jasper, but it is hard as flint.” He further mentioned “very beautiful black stones” of all sizes excellent for construction.

“We climbed up this mountain and engraved on a tree upon the top the coat of arms of the King (Louis XV),” La Harpe reported. “We perceived to the westward several mountains and beautiful country. At the foot of this rock, there is a waterfall which forms a very pleasant basin, whose water is very clear and fresh.” Ten days later, having gone up river about 50 miles above Big Rock, La Harpe turned back due to illness of a majority of his men and the threat of mutiny. On the 19th he wrote, “it would be very wise to establish a post near the Rock.”

Law had inspired the legend of the emerald rock and stories of other precious metals to solicit investors and colonists for the East India Company’s Louisiana venture. Although La Harpe later denied that emerald was the purpose of his quest, De Montigny wrote of his own futility in a memoir a generation after the Arkansas expedition. “How many things do grow out of self-interest,” he rued. “How often a man will believe what is false . . . After many trials, many labors, with the ground for a bed, after sufferings, snowstorms, frosts, rains and so forth, we found nothing.”

Nevertheless, De Montigny, who claimed to know a technique for extracting gold dust from the Arkansas, left a fanciful poem of his Arkansas experience: 

“We passed beside the spot where the wild cattle drank
And mines of marble lay along the river bank,
And crystal mines and mines where slate was to be had.
It is too bad
Nice people do not go in numbers to suffice
To populate a land that they would think so nice.”