The Arkansas Archeologist: Bulletin
of the Arkansas Archeological Society,
Volume 31 (1990 [published in 1992]) 53-63, p. 53.
The Site of the Sulphur Fork Factory
in Southwest Arkansas 1817-1822
BY CLAUDE McCROCKLIN
- In 1817, the United States Government established the
Sulphur Fork Factory, or trading post, at the junction of the Red and Sulphur
Rivers in southwest Arkansas. It was presided over by John Fowler, the
government agent or "factor." The purposes of the factory were
to regulate trade with the Indians, to bring law and order to the Red River
Valley frontier, and to halt Spanish encroachment into U.S. Territory.
There were many problems, and the post was officially abandoned by the
Government in 1822. After that it was occupied briefly by civilians and
Indians, but when they left, the location was forgotten. The site of the
factory has now been confirmed by excavation of a private collection from
the site and brief test excavations conducted in 1988. Two chimney falls
were investigated as well as other areas of the site. Both military and
domestic European artifacts were found, in addition to a few aboriginal
- The Lower Sulphur River basin from the Texas line to the river's confluence
with Red River (Figure 18) is a vast wilderness region even today, with
few access roads and sparse settlement. Almost all of it is presently included
in a wildlife management area which abounds in game of all kinds. Much
of the land on each side of the river is low flat bottoms which are inundated
by seasonal flooding. The bottom land is covered with pin oaks, willow,
and dense undergrowth. Bayous and sloughs lace the area, Mercer Bayou on
the southwest side of the river being the largest and best known. The river
basin is bordered on each side by a series of high hills and bluffs covered
with hardwood and pine. Blackmon's Bluff just south of Highway 237 dominates
the southeast side of the river in that area. A series of 300 foot high
bluffs characterize the southwest bank of the Sulphur River near its confluence
with the Red. Some of the bluffs in this area have picturesque names given
by early settlers and still used, such as "Factory Bluff" and
"Spring Bank." This area, rich in history, was the locus of our
20-mile-long Sulphur River survey.
THE SURVEY PROJECT
- In March, 1988, an archeological survey team from the Kadohadacho Chapter
of the Arkansas Archeological Society was organized to make a survey of
the Arkansas portion of Sulphur River. Dr. Frank Schambach of the Arkansas
Archeological Survey was the professional advisor and the author of this
report was the field director.
- The decision was made to make the survey because the Lower Sulphur
River basin was the least known archeological region remaining in southwest
Arkansas. Sulphur River, by various names, is mentioned in all of the early
reports, from the French explorer La Harpe's 1719 journal to Indian trader
John Fowler's 1817 description of the Red River frontier. Two of these
early reports, "The Red River Valley North of Natchitoches, 1817-1818,
Letters by John Fowler" and "Sulphur Fork Factory, 1817-1822"
also by Fowler, were the principal research materials used by the survey.
Both of the reports are edited by Russell M. Magnaghi of Northern Michigan
University. Another document, an 1841 U.S. Government survey map of the
confluence area, also proved useful in tracing old roads and the river
- A study of these documents soon made it clear that it would be a major
archeological find in the lower Sulphur River area to locate the site of
the trading post known as Sulphur Fork Factory. I thus made finding of
the main factory site the main objective of our survey.
- We are fortunate that John Fowler left a detailed description of the
trading post in his report to the Secretary of War in 1817. This was a
valuable aid in locating the site.
- The Sulphur Fork trading post was not just a single building, but was
a complex of several buildings (Figure 19). The main building was a two-storey
structure 39 feet long and 19 feet wide. It was built of hewn pine logs
and had a gallery running the length of the building on the ground floor.
The fur storage building also had two storeys. In addition to these two
buildings, there was a 16 by 16 foot hewn log cookhouse which was also
used as the laborers' quarters. Temporary cabins used as guard houses were
built of sawed planks. In all, it would take a large area for so many buildings,
and this was kept in mind while looking for this site.
- In addition to the physical description of the post as given above,
we learned something about the people who worked there other than the Factor
himself, John Fowler. Two of these men were Larkin Edwards and Jacob Irwin.
Edwards was a clerk at the post and Irwin was the gunsmith who repaired
the Indians' guns. When Fowler left the post in June, 1820, because of
a dispute with the guards and ill health, Larkin Edwards was put in charge.
Fowler did not return, and a new factor, William McClellan, was appointed
on January 26, 1821. During this interval between factors, Edwards transacted
the business of the post. He was there when Lt. Alfred Mitchell of the
U.S. 1st Infantry Regiment arrived to take over the military garrison in
the fall of 1820. Edward remained in charge until sometime in late January,
1821, when he departed upon the arrival of William McClellan.