Arrow Rock History

Historic Overview Of Arrow Rock

by Michael Dickey, Site Administrator, Arrow Rock State Historic Site

For generations, the Arrow Rock bluff was a significant landmark on the Missouri River for Native Americans, explorers, and early westward travelers.  This flint-bearing, high limestone bluff first appeared on a 1732 French map as “pierre a fleche,” literally translated as “rock of arrows.”  Archaeological evidence shows that for nearly 12,000 years indigenous cultures used the Arrow Rock bluff as a manufacturing site for flint tools and weapons.

Following the War of 1812 and the subsequent peace treaties with Indians in 1815, large numbers of immigrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia began pouring into the fertile “Boone’s Lick Country,” so named for the salt spring or “lick” across the river.

The Big Spring in 1915

The Big Spring in 1915

In the 1820s, the earliest travelers on what became the Santa Fe Trail crossed the river on the Arrow Rock ferry and filled their water barrels with fresh water at “the Big Spring” before heading west.  In 1829, the town of Arrow Rock was founded on the bluff above the ferry crossing.  Originally named Philadelphia, the town’s name was changed in 1833 to coincide with the better-known landmark name, Arrow Rock.

Many citizens prominent in state and national affairs were closely associated with Arrow Rock including Dr. John Sappington of quinine fame and George Caleb Bingham, Missouri’s preeminent artist of the mid-1800s. Three 19th century Missouri governors also came from Arrow Rock.

When the Civil War began, Arrow Rock had reached its peak population of 1,000.  The region had a decidedly southern character evidenced in its culture, politics and architecture. One-third of Saline County’s population was enslaved African Americans.  The Civil War precipitated an economic decline from which Arrow Rock never fully recovered.  Steamboats and river commerce gave way to railroads that bypassed the town.  Two fires devastated the business district, and the population dwindled to 400 by 1910.  Today, 45 full-time and 33 part-time residents call Arrow Rock home.

While the village is small, don’t be fooled by its size.  Arrow Rock remains a vital community. The restoration of the Huston Tavern in 1923 marked the beginning of historic preservation in the state of Missouri and set the stage for Arrow Rock’s future. In 1963, the entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark because of its association with the Westward Expansion. In 1968, the home of artist George Caleb Bingham was listed separately as a National Historic Landmark. Arrow Rock is also a certified site on the Lewis & Clark and Santa Fe Trails.

Residents participate in a variety of organizations that sponsor Arrow Rock activities and projects: The Friends of Arrow Rock, founded in 1959, maintain thirteen historic structures; the Lyceum Theatre, Missouri’s oldest regional professional theatre, presents Broadway-caliber plays; the Historic Arrow Rock Council sponsors one of Missouri’s oldest heritage craft festivals; a Merchant’s Association continues to provide hospitality and services to the traveler; and an elected Town Board runs the affairs of the village.

The Village Scene in Arrow Rock

Many factors contribute to the village of Arrow Rock that we see today, not the least of which is the town plan that was laid out in 1829 when Arrow Rock was founded.  The nearly sixty-acre original town was platted in a grid pattern with one-acre square blocks, four lots to each block.  Today, First Street forms the eastern boundary, but early plat maps of 1876, 1896, and 1916 show a Commons or Water Street parallel to the bluff. It is unclear if the street ever existed because there is no evidence of it today.  

Arrow Rock’s Main Street in the early 20th Century

Prior to the Civil War, supplies, merchandise, people, and animals followed the route of the Santa Fe Trail from the Missouri River through Main Street, Arrow Rock’s primary east-west artery.  Consequently, commercial businesses were concentrated on the river end of town on both sides of Main Street while churches and other institutional buildings were scattered throughout the community.

Most property in Arrow Rock was devoted to residential use, which in the 19th century meant that many back and side yards contained a multitude of outbuildings, animals, and activities.  Frequently, these included a garden, various animals (most certainly chickens, a milk cow, and possibly a horse, with the attendant shelter for each), a cistern or well, an outhouse, a separate kitchen, a smokehouse, and, in a few instances, a slave house.

To accommodate all these uses and activities, many property owners acquired multiple lots, their property extending the full depth of a block.  This distinctive ownership pattern had a major impact not only on the functioning and visual appearance of Arrow Rock in the 19th century, but also on the Arrow Rock that we see today.  Over the years, as these backyard activities became outdated and outbuildings were removed, Arrow Rock’s landscape gradually acquired the park-like quality that characterizes the village in the 21st century.