Batesville, lying in the southeastern section of the Ozarks, is one of the oldest settlements in Arkansas. It was a major shipping point on the White River when Arkansas was still a territory. Years before statehood, it was a “port of entry” into the interior far upstream. Batesville played a commanding part in the early history and development of the Ozark region. There are many tales from pioneer days to unfold regarding its actual settlement and how “Batesville” became its name.
In historic times, the Osage Nation used the land on which Batesville now stands as hunting grounds. Under a treaty negotiated in 1808, the Native Americans ceded their hereditary tribal lands to the United States. Native Americans never again controlled it, although the Cherokee Nation owned the territory just south and west of the river from 1817 to 1828.
Perhaps the earliest settlement on the present site of Batesville was that of the Trimbles and Laffertys in 1810. Traveling over the old Native American trails, a group of white men arrived at the mouth of the Polk Bayou and established the first white settlement. James Trimble, accompanied by John L. Austin, Henderson S. and Lorenzo Dow Lafferty, came overland from Kentucky driving a herd of stock cattle before them and stopped at the mouth of the Polk Bayou. There they found vast canebrakes, providing a fine winter pasture. In the spring of 1811, John Trimble, father of James Trimble, accompanied by his brothers and their families, left Kentucky in keelboats. Traveling up the White River, they landed at the mouth of Polk Bayou and there joined the settlement.
Other authorities say that by 1812 John Reed had a store at Polk Bayou. With a store of supplies and whiskey, he traded with the local Native Americans for furs and other valuables. James McGarrah claimed that he cut the first tree at Polk Bayou in 1814 to build a house, but there were other, earlier houses built in the area.
As early as 1818 Joab Hardin was living in a log hut and running a ferry across the White River. The ferry consisted of nothing but “two small canoes, lashed together with a few split clapboards laid across”. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft came through Batesville a year later and recorded in his journal that the town had about a dozen houses. Polk Bayou was the name used by Schoolcraft used in referring to Batesville.
During the first fifteen years of settlement, the village existed under three names: Napoleon, Polk Creek, and Batesville. “Napoleon” was the name Charles Kelly bestowed upon the house he built around 1814 a mile down from the settlement at the mouth of the Polk Bayou. There was another more important settlement on the White River near Arkansas Post by that name. In 1824, the settlement still called Polk Bayou was officially named Batesville in honor of Judge James Woodson Bates. Judge Bates was the first territorial delegate from the Arkansas Territory to Congress. After serving in the 16th and 17th Congresses, Judge Bates established his residence in Batesville. His brother, Edward Bates of St. Louis, was Attorney General under President Lincoln. The Bates brothers were originally from Virginia. Although Bates lived in Batesville only three years, he is remembered as one of the most prominent men in Arkansas at that time.
In 1813, Samuel Miller, grandfather to Gov. William R. Miller, came to Batesville and settled on the creek, which bears his name. Col. Robert Bean came up the White River in a keelboat in 1814 and established himself at the mouth of Polk Bayou. In the same year, James Meachum and Samuel Peel came to Batesville. Other pioneers who came to Batesville prior to 1820 were: John Ringgold, Col. Hartwell Boswell, John Redmond and Henry Engles. Among the most prominent of these was John Ringgold, whose home, erected in 1820, was later known as the old Dr. Lawrence place. It stood on West Main Street, the first house west of the railroad. Home to Ringgold and his son-in-law Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, it was one of the finest houses in Arkansas. (The brick from this home was used to build the Chamber of Commerce Building in 1964).
Some time after 1820, Col. Charles Fenton Mercer Noland came to Batesville from Virginia. He later married John Ringgold’s daughter. Col. Noland was one of the great literary celebrities of the 19th century. Other prominent settlers of this time were Judge Townsend Dickinson and Richard Searcy. Mr. Searcy was the first county clerk of the courts.
The town of Batesville was partially laid out in 1821, and on May 23 of that year, the land was granted by Richard Searcy, Thomas Curran and Joseph Hardin to Mark Bean. The above named grantors, on March 3, 1822, executed and recorded a bill of assurance and a plat of the town as it was then laid out. The community extended from Block number one at the foot of Main Street to Spring Street, the street running just above the First National Bank, and from there to the bridge across Polk Bayou.
Batesville became the county seat in 1821, and on November 19, 1821, the first court of common pleas was held with Judge Richard Peel and William Moore presiding. This seems to have been the last court of this nature, for in January 1822, The Hon. Richard Searcy opened the first circuit court. This was the only court in operation until April 20, 1930, when Judge James Boswell held the first county court.
The first post office was established in Batesville in 1822 with Nathan Cook as post-master. Col. Boswell, later Judge Boswell, was made postmaster in 1827.
The principal trade of the community in its early existence was supplying groceries and provisions to the settlers. Hides and furs were taken in exchange. By 1830 Batesville was described as a “busy little village with three brick buildings, three stores, and a courthouse that would do credit to any part of the union.” Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, in speaking of Batesville, said: “So much beef is eaten in this region that, catch a man by the ear, he will bellow like a calf”.
Aaron W. Lyon came to Batesville in 1833 and engaged in teaching the first school for some years but entered the mercantile business in 1842. Mr. Lyon was one of the trustees of the Batesville Academy, the first academy incorporated in the state. Governor Conway approved the bill for its incorporation on September 25, 1836.
Today the principal crops are soybeans, rice, alfalfa, lespedeza, all grains, sorghum, fruit, and vegetables. The livestock enterprises are poultry, beef cattle, hogs, and dairies. At the present time, the city’s economic climate is evenly divided between industry, agriculture, and tourism.
Some of the many industries include Peco Foods, ConAgra, LaCroix Optical, Pro Dentec, Batesville Cold Storage, Atlas Asphalt, Concord Specialty, Flowers Bakery, McBride Stone Quarries, and Bad Boy Mowers.
State Highways 14, 25, 69, 106, 233, 394 and 122, and US Highway 167 serve the city. The Missouri Pacific Railroad provides commercial railroad service as it more or less parallels the White River.