City & Culture
Our city began as a small town along the mighty Mississippi River called Helena. However, our history is centuries old dating back to the days of explorer Hernando DeSoto when he crossed the Mississippi River near Friars Point in 1541. Spaniard Hernando DeSoto, likely the first white man to visit what is known as Eastern Arkansas, observed a flourishing Native American civilization including Casqui and Pacaha Indians.
During the next century the French appeared and in 1763 Father Marquette and Joliet visited the Indian settlements along the river which were now a part of the great Louisiana empire LaSalle had taken in 1682 for his emperor, King Louis XIV of France.
In the summer of 1800, William Patterson built a rude warehouse for storing goods and provisions for the accommodation of the barge shipping—the first river terminal. The Mississippi River has always played an important part in the growth of the city. In 1811 the steamer New Orleans, the first built for western waters, came by Helena en route to New Orleans, and that began the change on the mighty river. A year or more later steam boating was born and in 30 years it grew to a full sized important activity.
home of the blues
The origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta are as deep, wide, and muddy as the river that gives the area its name. These origins are the culmination of hundreds of years of slavery, pain, prosperity, and revolution, and dealing with many races and creeds. Their sound was three-chord laments born of a history of oppression — simple dirges wailing upon the hardships of life.From humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta’s black community, the blues would migrate to become a dominant musical genre, influencing not only Americana but also leaping across the Atlantic to inform the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others so much so that the British Invasion would effectively sell back to American teens part of their own heritage in the rapidly expanding vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll.
civil war history
For generations, Helena’s Civil War history has focused on the seven Confederate generals from the town, most notably General Cleburne, and the July 1863 Battle of Helena. Three of these generals’ headstones can be viewed in Helena’s Maple Hill and Confederate Cemeteries. While this is an important part of the community’s history, in 2008 a Civil War Helena Interpretive Plan was developed that revealed that Helena had a much richer Civil War story than anyone had known. Helena is one of the most compelling sites in the nation to learn about African American experiences during the war. Freedom Park is a site dedicated to interpreting these experiences and is the first location in Arkansas designated by the National Park Service as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
The Perry Street Historic District encompasses a fine collection of early-20th century architecture. It includes fifteen buildings, arrayed on the single city blocks stretching south and west from the junction of Perry and Pecan Streets. The buildings on these blocks represent a cross-section of private and public architecture spanning 1880-1930, including two churches, the only synagogue in Phillips County (the 1913 Temple Bethel), and the county's oldest public building, the 1879 Helena Library and Museum. Most of the residences in the district were built between 1900 and the 1920s.
the mississippi river
Mark Twain, widely recognized as an expert on the subject of the mighty Mississippi River and its environs, wrote, “Helena occupies one of the prettiest situations on the river.” Adorning the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and tucked along the wooded hills of Crowley’s Ridge, Twain’s description of Helena remains as true today as when he penned those words well over a hundred years ago.