OPINION | REX NELSON: An Italian in Arkansas | Eldorado News (2024)

July 7, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

byRex Nelson

I've written in recent columns about the Italian immigrants who were led by a Catholic priest, Pietro Bandini, from the Sunnyside cotton plantation in southeast Arkansas to the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas in 1898. That led to a question: What happened to the Italians who stayed behind in Chicot County?

"About 35 families remained at Sunnyside Plantation during the late 1890s," Jamie Metrailer writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "One firsthand account states that the Italians present on the plantation in 1898 'did so well under the new regime that they not only remained themselves, but of their own volition sent to Italy for their families and friends.'

"Additional workers arrived in the following years, though they reportedly were recruited in Italy through deceptive practices and worked under unfair labor conditions. Many were forced to shop with scrip at the company store and pay interest on the constantly mounting debt. In 1907, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated Sunnyside and issued a report charging owners O.B. Crittenden & Co. with breaking debt peonage laws.

"Investigator Mary Grace Quackenbos found evidence of peonage at Sunnyside, but the influence that powerful Mississippian LeRoy Percy, who had leased the plantation, had with Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt resulted in her report being buried in the federal bureaucracy. No action was taken. Almost all Italian workers left the plantation by 1910 after the company changed policies and placed the Italian Catholics in a sharecropping arrangement."

Italian surnames remain common in the Lake Village area.

Among the first Italians to arrive in Arkansas was Henri de Tonti, a soldier, explorer and fur trader who sailed under the French flag during the 1680s. In 1686, de Tonti established a trading post that became Arkansas Post, the state's first permanent European-American settlement.

"De Tonti left Fort Saint Louis and headed south in 1686," Lea Flowers Baker writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Instead of meeting Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, as orginally planned, he went to Arkansas to establish a trading post. He left behind six Frenchmen to build a trade house and secure a permanent French settlement, engage the Quapaw in trade, serve travelers between Illinois and the Gulf of Mexico, and establish a presence in the middle of North America to stop an English invasion from the east."

Because he established Arkansas Post, de Tonti is sometimes called "father of Arkansas." He's believed to have been born in 1649 near Gaeta, Italy. The family moved to France soon after his birth because his father had participated in an unsuccessful revolt against the Spanish viceroy in Naples.

De Tonti enlisted in the French army in 1668. He later served in that country's navy and lost his right hand in a grenade explosion. After that, he used a metal hook over which he wore a glove.

Known as the Iron Hand, de Tonti first came to North America with La Salle in 1678 and was placed in charge of several French forts in the Great Lakes region. In 1682, de Tonti accompanied La Salle on a trip south to explore the Mississippi River region and establish alliances with Native American tribes.

In 1682, La Salle gave de Tonti a land grant about 35 miles from the mouth of the Arkansas River near the Quapaw village of Osotouy. La Salle placed de Tonti at the fur trading post of Fort Saint Louis on the Illinois River and then went to France to find colonists to settle Louisiana. After getting the settlement started at Arkansas Post, de Tonti left Arkansas in 1687. He returned a few times in the 1690s to see how things were going.

"The trading post was failing because it was hard to reach and was burdened with a moratorium that King Louis XIV had placed on beaver pelt trade south of Canada," Baker writes. "De Tonti had to enforce this royal edict in 1698, making French hunters and traders angry with him and resulting in further desertion of the post. It wasn't until the early 1700s that the French were able to send more settlers to increase the population of Arkansas Post.

"De Tonti didn't return to Arkansas Post after the 1690s. He fought against the English and Iroquois while helping to conduct treaties with Native American tribes. In 1688, de Tonti returned to Fort Saint Louis and learned of La Salle's death. In the 1690s, he traveled to present-day Texas to find survivors of La Salle's expedition there. He left the area after receiving little help from local tribes."

De Tonti was chosen by Pierre Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, to make peace between the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. Working with Iberville's brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, de Tonti led expeditions throughout the Gulf Coast region. De Tonti contracted yellow fever in September 1704 and died at Mobile.

Back in Arkansas, his name lives on because of Tontitown in Washington County, the town founded by Bandini and Italian immigrants from the Sunnyside Plantation. Bandini had resigned as secretary of the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants in New York to serve as chaplain for Italian families in southeast Arkansas. He soon decided that the mosquito-infested swamps of Chicot County weren't the right place for his people.

Another group of Italian families from Sunnyside founded the town of Rosati in Missouri. It's an unincorporated community these days. Tontitown, meanwhile, is among the fastest-growing cities in Arkansas.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

OPINION | REX NELSON: An Italian in Arkansas | Eldorado News (2024)
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