Duck wars an overlooked part of Arkansas history


A segment of Arkansas history that is largely unknown across the state is that of the duck wars.

This centered around Big Lake in northeast Arkansas. It’s in Mississippi County west of Blytheville and east of Jonesboro, with the region extending north into Missouri. Today as well as a century ago, the area is a mecca for migrating ducks and for other wildlife as well.

Big Lake was a creation of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-12.

When all the shaking stopped, and the Mississippi River recovered from running backward for a while, several large tracts of land had sunk. Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee was one result. Another was what we call the St. Francis Sunken Lands today. This is along the St. Francis River from near Paragould all the way south to near Marked Tree.

Big Lake was another result. It is essentially a wide, shallow area with extensive bottomland hardwoods. Ducks love it, especially mallards. From pioneer days, both residents and visitors made use of the ducks. There was disagreement and even armed conflict in places, highlighted with the legendary “war” at Big Lake that lasted off and on for about 40 years.

The Big Lake conflict reached the chambers of Arkansas’ Capitol and the U.S. Capitol. It was a fight between local residents (“natives” in some of the writings) and wealthy sportsmen from outside the state who bought land, built club facilities and hunted ducks.

Local residents, sometimes but not always market hunters, bristled at being closed off from places they and their fathers and grandfathers had hunted ducks. They were irritated by somebody in Washington, D.C., trying to tell them when and how to hunt ducks and how many they could kill. The wealthy sportsmen used their wallets extensively and not to just buy hunting supplies and gear. Club caretakers in some areas had semi-official law enforcement status.

But the wealthy outside sportsmen did not vote, and the local residents did. Sheriffs and judges understood this. Attempts were made, and most were failures, at barring the outsiders from the prime duck areas by legal means.

Duck and goose hunting took place all through the three-state area, with Missouri’s Bootheel and northwest Tennessee included with northeast Arkansas. The people who lived in the area shared the duck hunting, willingly or unwillingly, with the monied segment. The residents were “swamp angels,” a term often used for praise and for derision.

Many of these residents lived off the land and water. They and their families ate wild game of all sorts, fish of many varieties, and this was their basic year-round food. They knew the swamps as well as most people know their living rooms.

And they offered this knowledge and their time and effort for money to the wealthy outsiders, the forerunners of today’s hunting and fishing guide enterprises.

About the time World War I was cranking up, the Big Lake violence and conflict brought other results. One was that President Woodrow Wilson ordered units of the U.S. Army to the scene to put a stop to the conflicts.

Another was the creation of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 1915. The Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge was also created by Congress and Wilson in 1915, one of the nation’s earlier wildlife refuges.

It is a stretch to saw the AGFC resulted from the Big Lake duck war, but the northeast Arkansas troubles were a contributing factor. Declining populations of wild game and the need for regulation and supervision of hunting and fishing were the roots of forming the AGFC.

Big Lake Wildlife Management Area of the AGFC is adjacent to the national refuge but came later. The WMA was established in 1950, with several additions in the years that followed.

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