A Birthday in Pocahontas

20060921_0070No one in Pocahontas, Arkansas, seems to know why its 150th birthday was celebrated in 2006, when the town, as everyone knows, was given its current name, and chosen as the county seat for Randolph County, in 1835.  Nor does anyone know for sure why it was named “Pocahontas,” although it may be because it was a “daughter” county that split off from Lawrence, and the county seat of Lawrence is Powhatan.  Neither of these questions stopped the town from celebrating whatever event it was celebrating, for three consecutive weekends.

What everyone does know is how it came to be the county seat.  Town-founding was a major speculative pastime in the early 1800s, as the country’s population spread across the West and Southwest.  Men who could manage to acquire a large piece of property in a likely spot—say,  on a major emigration route, or a navigable river, or a place where one of those crossed the other—would quickly subdivide their land into town lots, advertise for settlers, and then exert whatever influence they could muster to have the new town named as the county seat of a new county.

And what kind of influence did Ranson Bettis and his son-in-law Thomas Drew, the founders of the town, have to exert?  The location of the county seat was to be chosen by the vote of the inhabitants of the county, and voters could vote anywhere in the county they wanted.  What they wanted, of course, was to come to Pocahontas, then called Bettis Bluff, for the great barbecue that the Bettis family was putting on, with plentiful food and an amount of liquor more than sufficient to get everyone drunk.  At the end of the feast the guests, “much invigorated,” voted, not surprisingly, for Bettis Bluff.

This story, the town’s favorite, was presented as one of the scenes of the Pocahontas history pageant, entitled “No History Happened Here,” on the weekend I was there.  As part of the sketch, Ranson’s daughter Cinderella Bettis Drew suggested to her father that he ought to try the same tactic that her mother used so successfully on him.  Other scenes covered slave life, the Civil War,  the discovery of the giant rock on the courthouse lawn that may or may not be a meteorite, the town’s most famous murder, and episodes from the 20th century, interspersed with period songs and gospel songs.  Outside, a series of small tornadoes was wandering through the area, but everyone agreed that it was safer to stay in the auditorium than to risk driving home.

The sixth grade represents the 60s

The sixth grade represents the 60s

Other features of the weekend were the grand opening of the Randolph County Heritage Museum (speech by descendant and visiting Thomas Drew expert C. Rabinowitz,) and the grand Friday night parade, featuring a huge birthday cake, the early history of the Methodist Church, a Black River steamboat, mule-drawn wagons, Confederate re-enactors, a 1880s community dance, and a group of sixth graders in tie-dyed T-shirts and carrying protest signs, representing the 1960s.  And that was just the first of three weekends.  In a town of six thousand people a thousand, organized into 40 subcommittees, had worked to put the event together, and at least 50 women must have worked to create the historically accurate costumes.  My own little New England town ought to be able to do something like this, I thought.  And we did.

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