History of Petit Jean Mountain
Petit Jean Mountain has a fascinating history. The story of its past dates back well before the idea for the establishment of a park system began, even before pioneers settled here, or tribes of Native Americans visited the area.
Early Native American History
Within Petit Jean State Park is one of the largest bluff shelters in the state. Accessed via Rock House Cave Trail, this bluff shelter was once home to Native Americans well over a thousand years ago. These bluff dwelling Native Americans used the shelter as their house, and lived as nomads, hunters, and gatherers. They hunted with spears, for they had yet to invent the bow and arrow. And, they left behind evidence of their existence. Today, evidence can be seen in pictographs located high on the back wall of the cave. These pictographs were painted using minerals from the rocks in the area. The pictures tell stories important to those who created them. Today, we can only imagine what these images mean. Rock House Cave is an archaeological historical site, protected by state law.
Legend of Petit Jean and French Exploration:
The Legend of Petit Jean, and how the mountain received its name, begins in the 1700s with the story of a young French Nobleman, Chavet, who lived during the period of the French exploration of the New World. He requested permission to explore a part of the Louisiana Territory, and for a grant to claim part of the land. The King granted Chavet’s approval.
Chavet was engaged to be married to a beautiful young girl from Paris, Adrienne Dumont. When told of his plans, she asked that they be married right away so she could accompany him. Thinking of the hardship and danger on the journey, Chavet refused her request, telling her upon his return if the country was good and safe, they would be married and go to the New World.
Adrienne refused to accept his answer, and disguised herself as a cabin boy and applied to the captain of Chavet's ship for a position as a cabin boy, calling herself Jean. The girl must have been incredibly clever in her disguise, for it is said that not even Chavet recognized her. The sailors called her Petit Jean, which is French for Little John.
The ocean was crossed in early spring; the vessel ascended the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River, to the foot of the mountain. The Indians on the mountain came to the river and greeted Chavet and invited the sailors to spend time on the mountain. Chavet, Petit Jean, and the sailors spent the summer atop Petit Jean Mountain until fall approached and they began preparations for their voyage back to France. The ship was readied and boarded the evening before departure.
That night, Petit Jean became ill with a sickness that was strange to Chavet and his sailors. It was marked with fever, convulsions, delirium, and finally coma. Her condition was so grave at daylight that the departure was delayed. During the illness, Petit Jean's identity was, of course, discovered. The girl confessed her deception to Chavet and begged his forgiveness. She requested that if she died, to be carried back to the mountaintop that she had spent her last days on, and be buried at a spot overlooking the river below. The Indians made a stretcher out of deerskins and bore her up the mountain. At sundown, she died.
Many years later a low mound of earth was found at the point we now call Petit Jean's Grave. Her death, and the legend that followed, is said to give the mountain and the overlook an enchanting quality that draws visitors back again, and again.
The settling of the mountain by the English speaking Americans took hold in the 1840s and 1850s with the John Walker and Owen West families moving here. John Walker was a farmer from North Carolina who built a simple log cabin for his family, a cabin which stands today at the entrance to the Cedar Creek trail as a testament to the hardiness of the state's pioneers.
Beginning of a State Park System:
The idea and plan for a recreation area on Petit Jean Mountain had its inception in 1907. In April, a party of officers and stockholders of the Fort Smith Lumber Company came to Fowler Mill to spend a few days inspecting the mill and timber areas. What was intended solely as a business mission became a weeklong holiday filled with riding horseback and log trains through the valleys and over the mountain.
A day was given to exploring the Seven Hollows region, all of which was owned by the company. At one point, the difficulties of logging the region were discussed. The consensus of the group was that it could only be done at a loss, and that the trees might as well be left to live out their life span as unmolested by axe or saw. One of the parties suggested that the area be offered to the government as a national park.
In 1921, the Fort Smith Lumber Company was ready to make a deed to the area whenever the government would accept it. Dr. T.W. Hardison (for whom the park's Hardison Hall was named), the company physician and a naturalist in his own right, headed the campaign. He persuaded our representative in Congress to give it his enthusiastic approval, who introduced a bill in the House of Representatives providing for the acceptance of the area as Petit Jean National Park. The bill was then referred to the Committee on Public Lands.
Dr. Hardison arranged a meeting with Stephen Mather (for whom Mather Lodge was named), director of the National Park Service. In a two-hour conference, Dr. Hardison described the area, showed photographs and answered questions. Mather explained to Dr. Hardison he could not recommend the area be accepted by Congress as a National Park because it was too small to justify the cost of development and administration and, as beautiful as it was, it was probably not unique in the nation. He suggested, however, that Dr. Hardison undertake to bring about its acceptance by the Arkansas Legislature as a state park.
When the Arkansas Legislature of 1923 was in session, Dr. Hardison asked the Road Improvement District attorney to write a bill for introduction in the legislature providing for the acceptance of Petit Jean State Park. When the secretary of the Fort Smith Lumber Company was told of the developments, he explained that the board of directors had voted to give the Seven Hollows region to the government as a national park; thus, he had no authority to offer it to the legislature as a state park. That action would have to wait for the next board meeting.
In the meantime, six men in Morrilton and two from Pine Bluff offered to donate 80 acres of land to be included in the state park. A bill, in 1923, was written to set up only this 80-acre tract as a park, acreage which included the land surrounding Cedar Falls and a portion of Cedar Creek Canyon.
Dr. Hardison finally met with the governor and explained what he was trying to do. Three weeks later the governor signed the bill after it had passed both houses of the legislature without a single dissenting vote. Therefore, the area around Cedar Falls was the first land acquired by the State of Arkansas for state park purposes.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. It was a way to get money into the pockets of Americans during the Great Depression by giving them a government job that would have long lasting benefits to Americans, like building Mather Lodge and some of the cabins.
V-CCC Company 1781 was assigned to Petit Jean State Park.
Being a company of World War I veterans, most of the men were older, with experience in construction work. The CCC worked at Petit Jean from 1933 to 1938. The first project was living quarters for the camp. Soon after, construction of Mather Lodge and the cabins began. Work was also started on the construction of a native stone dam for the formation of Lake Bailey. Once the lake of approximately 100 acres was complete, a water tower was constructed for Mather Lodge and the cabins. During the CCC's tenure at Petit Jean, they made great strides in road building, trail building, and the construction of impressive structures still enjoyed in the park today, including Mather Lodge, the pavilions, and the Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek to Red Bluff Drive.
The work of the CCC here at Petit Jean has been recognized as an outstanding example of CCC work in Arkansas. Petit Jean has three National Historic Districts including over 80 buildings, structures, trails, and bridges. Mather Lodge is the only CCC-built lodge in Arkansas.