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Arrow Rock Village

A look at Arrow Rock’s unique history and why it is important to Missouri’s natural heritage.

Arrow Rock is a historic village located near the Missouri River in Saline County, Missouri and is “recognized as the birthplace of historic preservation in Missouri.” The entire village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1963 and is known in this context as the Arrow Rock Historic District. The historical significance of Arrow Rock comes from the fact that it was an important location for quite a few American enterprises, the most notable being those undertaken in the 19th-century, such as Lewis and Clark’s early exploration of what is now the western United States, the westward expansion that followed this exploration, and, most notably, the Santa Fe Trail transportation route. Other than its significance to American endeavors, Arrow Rock is also known for its personal history, in the forms of its many historic sites, such as the Huston Tavern (which, according to Arrow Rock’s website, “marked the beginning of historic preservation in Missouri” with its 1923 restoration), and legacies of notable residents, including 19th-century artist George Caleb Bingham. While its historical significance was Arrow Rock’s claim to fame, modern day Arrow Rock also offers a lot to those who visit, including performances at “Missouri’s oldest regional professional theatre,” the renowned Lyceum Theatre.

As a National Historic Landmark, the Arrow Rock Historic District is composed of both the village of Arrow Rock and the open-air Arrow Rock State Historic Site museum. As previously mentioned, the most notable piece of history that is associated with the Historic District is the fact that it was a significant part of the Santa Fe Trail. This significance comes from the fact that Arrow Rock was where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Missouri River, making it “a key stopping point during the settlement of the American West,” in that it provided travelers a place to relax and enjoy themselves with the Huston Tavern, as well as a place to “fill their water barrels with fresh water with ‘the Big Spring,’” before hopping on the Arrow Rock ferry and continuing their westward journeys. During this time of peak importance, Arrow Rock transformed from the restored village we know today to, at one time, a small city that was described as “one of the busiest river ports between Kansas City and St. Louis.” However, as traffic on the Santa Fe Trail slowly decreased throughout the 19th century, so did the overall importance of Arrow Rock and, once the American Civil War hit, the village-turned-small-city entered “an economic decline from which it never fully recovered.” As a result of its dwindling significance to the U.S economy, Arrow Rock underwent a gradual restoration that returned it to the village it once was, only this time around with a focus on preserving and showcasing its historical importance.

Aside from this significance to national history, Arrow Rock has a rich personal history that some may find even more interesting than its past national importance. This exciting personal history is preserved in both the village’s many historic site, as well as the legacies of its past notable residents. Arrow Rock bluff, which the village is named after, is one such historic site associated with the village’s personal history, with the bluff having been an important landmark for both people living in and passing through the area before the village was established. Native Americans that lived in the area before the village came to be gave the bluff its name, as they used the bluff for thousands of years “as a manufacturing site for flint tools and weapons,” most frequently to “point their arrows;” later on, both early explorers and westward travelers used the bluff as a landmark on the Missouri River for their journeys out west. A more recent, much less important, yet more impressive, historic site of Arrow Rock is an area bought by the state’s Department of Conservation that once was farmland, but, with no assistance, was naturally restored to “a sea of trees,” giving us a true look at Missouri’s natural heritage by showing a glimpse of what the area may have looked like before human intervention. Unlike the historic sites, however, the legacies of Arrow Rock’s notable residents allow us to see how the village influenced those who lived in it. As previously mentioned, once such individual who lived in Arrow Rock was 19th-century artist George Caleb Bingham. Bingham and his moved just outside of Arrow Rock in 1827 and, in 1837, he built a brick home in Arrow Rock that he stayed in until 1845, which is still standing and now a designated National Historic Landmark, known simply as “George Caleb Bingham House.” During Bingham’s time in Arrow Rock, he developed his painting skills through painting portraits of local residents, the most notable being Dr. John Sappington and his wife, Jane B. Sappington. As Bingham’s skills improved, his opportunities and notoriety grew and he eventually sold his home and left Arrow Rock to travel the country to paint portraits of prominent citizens, as well as scenes from the frontier; despite leaving Arrow Rock, however, Bingham returned to the village throughout his life to visit relatives and pay homage to the place that helped make him what he became. Another notable resident of Arrow Rock was the previously mentioned Dr. John Sappington, who moved to Arrow Rock in 1819. Throughout Sappington’s life in Arrow Rock, he “established two stores that sold goods, loaned money, processed salt, and milled lumber,” but his most notable work came when he achieved financial success; upon Sappington’s financial success, he began pursuing more experimental medical practices, leading to his eventual creation of “a quinine pill to treat malaria in the Missouri area,” a prominent disease at the time. Had Sappington taken up residence somewhere else during this time, it’s likely that the treatment wouldn’t have been created for some time, adding to the historical significance of Arrow Rock.

As a result of its rich history, modern day Arrow Rock is, for the most part, considered a relic of the past. Despite this consideration, however, it is still possible to find entertainment throughout the village. One such place where it is possible to find entertainment in Arrow Rock nowadays is the Lyceum Theatre, where both modern day plays and musicals are performed. Other than the Lyceum Theatre, entertainment can be found at Arrow Rock’s many museums, one of which is the Dr. John Sappington Museum, which “houses exhibits which interpret the life and medical contributions of Dr. Sappington.”

In conclusion, the village of Arrow Rock is known for its historical significance, personal history, and many modes of modern day entertainment. While the village’s historical significance is limited to its importance to American endeavors dealing with the settlement of what is now the western United States, its most notable personal history to sites associated with those American endeavors, and most of its modes of modern day entertainment to museums dealing with the two former topics, the joy found when experiencing such unique opportunities is not limited to any specific group; as all who explore Arrow Rock leave having come into contact with some form of enjoyment, which is the very least anyone can expect when visiting such a special place.

Works Cited:

Wikipedia contributors. “Arrow Rock, Missouri.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 February 2017. Web. 18 March 2017.

“The Village of Arrow Rock, A National Historic Landmark.” Arrow Rock, Missouri- A National Trust for Historic Preservation. Village of Arrow Rock, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

“Arrow Rock State Historic Site.” Missouri State Parks. Missouri State Parks, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

“Arrow Rock State Historic Site.” Missouri Department of Economic Development, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Washington University in St. Louis’s Missouri’s Natural Heritage 2016-2017 Class

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