A Brief History of El Dorado

This brief history of El Dorado was kindly provided by Rachel Silva, of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, as part of the "Walk Through History Tour" of the Murphy-Hill Historic District that she did on 4 April 2009.

El Dorado, nicknamed the “oil capital of Arkansas” and the “City of Gold,” is the largest urban area in south central Arkansas. Though its reputation and fame are linked to the discovery of oil in the area in the 1920s, the city’s history began long before the first derrick.

Most historical accounts of Union County begin in November 1541 with the local legend of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his force of 500 men camping on a hill near present-day El Dorado. (He came to Florida in 1539 in search of gold and worked his way west.) Arkansas was part of the Louisiana Territory purchased by the U.S. from France in 1803. In 1812, the Louisiana Territory was reorganized as the Missouri Territory, and Arkansas was established as a territory in 1819. Union Co. was formed in 1829 from parts of Hempstead and Clark counties (Union Co. received its current boundaries in 1852).

According to local folklore, El Dorado was founded around 1830 by Virginia-born Matthew F. Rainey whose wagon broke down in the area. Unable to travel any further, Rainey was forced to sell his goods on the spot. It is said that Rainey was so impressed by the local farmers’ eagerness to buy that he sent for more goods and opened a store. Rainey is generally regarded as El Dorado’s first citizen and businessman. However, El Dorado was formally founded in 1843 when county commissioners chose 160 acres of land owned by Matthew Rainey for a more centrally located county seat (previous county seats had been at Ecore de Fabre, now Camden, and Scarborough’s Landing, now Champagnolle). Rainey deeded 160 acres of land to the county and kept 4 acres where his cabin stood.

The exact origin of the name “El Dorado” (“the gilded road” in Spanish) is not certain. Some stories say that the three county commissioners who chose the town site as the new county seat, Robert Johnson Black, John R. Hampton, and John Reynolds picked the name. Others say that it came from a slang expression addressed to wagon trains going west: “Where are you going? To your El Dorado?” Still others suggest that Matthew Rainey and a Judge Davis named the city and christened it with a bottle of whiskey from Rainey’s store.

In the mid-nineteenth century, El Dorado was an agricultural community with an economic base in farming and to a lesser degree lumber operations. Popular crops included cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Before the discovery of oil, timber was the county’s most plentiful resource with forests of yellow pine, oak, gum, and other hardwoods. The most significant event in the latter years of the 19th century was the arrival of the railroad in 1891 [3 railroads in El D. by 1912—St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern RR, Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific RR, and the El Dorado & Western RR]. This made the markets of Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans easily accessible and allowed for the timber industry to really take off. The arrival of the railroad allowed the sleepy agricultural town to prosper, but nothing could have prepared El Dorado for the oil boom.

People searched for oil in the area as early as 1914 when the first oil leases in Union County sold for 10 cents an acre. Most efforts were extremely costly and unproductive. However, Dr. Samuel T. Busey, a physician turned geologist, financed an oil well about 2 miles west of town in 1920 with a group of other investors. On Monday, January 10, 1921, the Busey No. 1 Well was drilled to a depth of 2,233 feet and struck oil. The oil sprayed the area for more than a mile around, causing Monday’s wash lines to drip with oil. The next day unscheduled trains were running to El Dorado, and soon, 22 trains were running in and out of El Dorado. Within 6 days of the discovery, air service was established between El Dorado and Shreveport, Louisiana.

The town was inundated with people trying to make a quick fortune. El Dorado was completely overwhelmed—hotels were full, and desperate people rented barber chairs for $2 a night or resorted to sleeping in the Presbyterian Cemetery (south of square). Tents and shacks sprang up overnight throughout the city, and crime became a problem. In just four years, El Dorado changed from a sleepy county seat with 4 paved roads to a bustling cosmopolitan city. The population of El D. was just under 4,000 people in 1920, and by 1925, there were 30,000 people here. The population stabilized by 1930 at 16,000 because many oilmen moved on to east Texas where oil had been discovered, but this period of rapid population growth was reflected in El Dorado’s built environment. New homes and high-end apartment housing were constructed to accommodate the influx of new wealthy residents and oil speculators.