Weather and work have conspired to keep me off of the water this spring. I can’t do much about the weather, but I vow to rectify the situation regarding work over the next few weeks. But neither weather nor work have kept me from thinking about Beaver Lake and the White River. Back in January, I agreed to make a presentation about Beaver Lake and our water supply at the Pettigrew Days annual pot luck supper and community meeting down toward the headwaters of the White River. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’d drive to Pettigrew, eat some good country cooking, give the standard presentation and head home. Then I learned that this event had been going on for over 30 years and that the first speaker was one Orval Faubus! Man, now the pressure was on.
While doing some research to update the presentation, I started wondering just why “White River” is “White.” It should have been an easy question. I grabbed my journal and headed down to the U of A library to find the answer. Four hours later I had lots of interesting material, but not a clue as to the origin of the name. So I turned to the source, Susan Young at the Shiloh Museum in Springdale. Susan directed me to the journals of Henry Schoolcraft. From there, a few quick clicks on the computer and I was sitting at the website of the Lower White River Museum where the material was there for the taking. The story goes way back.
The first European to encounter the White River was the Spaniard Hernando de Soto. De Soto arrived in south Florida in the 1530s supposedly looking for the legendary fountain of youth. After a few years wandering around in the swamps, de Soto turned his thoughts to more practical matters and headed west to find oro, which in Spanish means gold. In 1541, his travels brought him to the banks of the White River just downstream of present day Batesville, Arkansas. The Native Americans living in the region referred to themselves as Casqui. De Soto therefore referred to the river as “Rio de Casqui” or river of the Casqui. While de Soto had taken a fortune in gold from the Inca a decade earlier, he didn’t find the gold he was searching for on this trip. About a year later, he died of a fever someplace in southeast Arkansas or northeast Louisiana.
The Casqui themselves did not refer to the river as “Casqui.” According to the Lower White River Museum, the Native Americans referred to the river as “Niska” or white water. Today, the term “white water” conjures up a vision of raging rapids challenging rafters and kayakers. The White River is a great place to kayak or raft, but not for the white water. Niska had another meaning. The water of the White River has always been crystal clear, especially as it flowed across the Springfield plateau of Northern Arkansas and Southern Missouri. The water also flows over limestone that has a grayish white color. So the name Niska actually referred to the color of the river.
Marquette and Joliet explored the Mississippi River for France in 1673. When they arrived in Arkansas, an alliance was formed with the Quapaw marking the start of a hundred years of French dominance. The French trappers and settlers spread out into the region. As they settled, they adopted the Native American name for de Soto’s Rio de Casqui, calling it “Riverie au Blanche” or White River.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold French Louisiana to the United States. The White River watershed was a part of the purchase. Henry Schoolcraft then explored the region in 1818. Schoolcraft made perhaps the first recorded canoe float of the White by a U.S. citizen. However, English-speaking settlers were already in the region. Schoolcraft canoed down the “Great North Fork of the White” out of Missouri. The Great North Fork is now referred to as simply the North Fork River. The Cherokee who lived in the region referred to the river as “Unica,” which also means white water. The white settlers had also adopted the name White River. The name has stuck ever since. So the name White River goes back at least hundreds if not thousands of years.