Petit Jean State Park, Where Natural Beauty Meets Legend
Petit Jean State Park is a state park in Arkansas, USA. In addition to its beautiful natural landscapes, the park is also known for its many archaeological sites, especially rock art sites. Moreover, as the first state park in Arkansas, the story of its creation is also one worth telling.
The Park is situated on Petit Jean Mountain, not far from the city of Morrilton, in Conway County, Arkansas. The park covers an area of 3,471 acres (14.05 km2), and includes a range of natural landscapes, including forests, streams, waterfalls, ravines, and unusual geological formations. The name of the park (and the mountain it is on), which means ‘Little John’ in French, is derived from a popular legend told by locals.
The Legend of Petit Jean
According to this legend, Petit Jean was a young French woman by the name of Adrienne Dumont, who lived during the 18th century. She was engaged to a nobleman by the name of Chavet, who had acquired permission from the king to explore a part of the Louisiana Territory.
When Chavet told Dumont about his plan, the latter suggested that they got married immediately, so that she could accompany him to the New World. Chavet, however, declined as he considered the hardships ahead. He promised her, however, that if he found the area good and safe, he would return, marry her, and bring her to the New World.
The grave of Adrienne Dumont (amanderson2 / CC BY 2.0)
Dumont, however, refused to comply, disguised herself as a boy, and became a cabin boy in Chavet’s ship. To the rest of the crew, Dumont became known as Petit Jean. The ship crossed the Atlantic, and the explorers spent the summer with the Native Americans on Petit Jean Mountain.
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All went well until the day before their return to France. That evening, Dumont suddenly fell seriously ill. After her identity was finally exposed, Dumont asked for Chavet’s forgiveness, and asked to be buried on the top of the mountain if she died. The following evening, Dumont died. Her alleged grave can still be seen on the top of Petit Jean Mountain.
Petit Jean Painted
Of course, even if the legend were true, these French explorers were certainly not the first people to leave their mark on Petit Jean Mountain. This is evident in the numerous archaeological sites scattered across the state park.
At present, there are almost 100 documented archaeological sites in Petit Jean State Park. According to the archaeological record, it is believed that the mountain was occupied by Native Americans as early as 900 AD, which marks the beginning of the Mississippian Period.
The Petit Jean State Park is perhaps most notable for its rock art, which represents the largest collection in Arkansas. In 1978, a pair of archaeologists from the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Gayle Fritz and Robert Ray, conducted the first detailed study of rock art sites in Arkansas.
A result of this study was the thematic nomination of 28 rock art sites in the state in the National Register of Historic Places. Eleven of these sites are located in the Petit Jean State Park, the largest of which being the Rockhouse Cave.
Rock Art at Petit Jean (Donald P. Higgins, Jr. / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Additionally, Fritz and Ray identified a new rock art style called “Petit Jean Painted.” The definition of this rock art style was subsequently re-examined following more data collection by the Arkansas Rock Art Project. Elements of the “Petit Jean Painted,” as identified by Fritz and Ray were expanded upon by this project.
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For instance, it was previously found that “Design elements were usually executed using red iron oxide paint.” The new research, whilst acknowledging that red was the primary color of the images, also noted that a few images were done in yellow or black. It seems that the significance of this difference, however, has yet to be determined.
History of the Park
English-speaking Americans only began to settle on Petit Jean Mountain during the 1840s and 1850s. The idea of turning the mountain into a state park was conceived in 1907. By that time, the area was owned by the Fort Smith Lumber Company.
In that year, officials and stakeholders inspected the company’s operations on the mountains, and determined that logging in the area could only be done at a loss. Therefore, they decided to make a deed to the area to the government.
Although the initial plan was to sell the land to the federal government, and to turn it into a national park, this did not materialize, as the area was deemed too small. Therefore, the state government was approached instead. This resulted in the establishment of the Petit Jean State Park in 1923, the first state park in Arkansas.
Rock House Cave (Brandonrush / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Today, Petit Jean State Park is open to the public. Various facilities were built on the mountain after it became a state park. These include those built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, such as cabins, the Mather Lodge, the Davies Bridge, and a rock water tower.
During the summer, guided hikes, nature talks, and workshops are provided by park interpreters. Additionally, annual events, such as Eagle Awareness (January), Hikes, Hearts, and Hugs (February), and Wildflower Weekend (April) are hosted by the park.
Top image: Petit Jean State Park. Source: Mitch / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/articles/petit-jean-state-parks-archeological-treasures
Arkansas State Parks, 2021. History of Petit Jean Mountain. [Online]
Available at: https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park/about/history
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Available at: https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park
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Available at: https://www.arkansasheritage.com/docs/default-source/ahpp-documents/sandwiching-tour-scripts/petit-jean-ccc-structures-tour-script-201102fa7f0a-9dab-4a95-9271-a12f977b7cc8.pdf?sfvrsn=695a96c7_5
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Available at: https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/petit-jean-state-park-1247/
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Available at: http://archeology.uark.edu/rockart/index.html?pageName=The%20Petit%20Jean%20Painted%20Rock%20Art%20Style