Arkansas has been inhabited for thousands of years. Large villages appeared across the state, and Native Americans built prosperous farms and enjoyed the bountiful hunting and fishing that the region offered over the centuries. However, much of this was lost over time. Because of the efforts and intense curiosity of one driven physician, Dr. James Hampson, information about one group on Northeast Arkansas was recovered and archaeological study was energized in the state.
James Kelly Hampson was born in 1877 in Memphis. In 1879, Hampson’s grandfather bought a large estate near Osceola in Northeast Arkansas. He then sold it to Hampson’s lawyer father who moved the family to what was known as the Nodena Plantation. As a child, Hampson had a deep curiosity about the past and a taste for adventure. He would spend hours exploring the 3,000-acre estate just east of the community of Wilson, finding hints of something very ancient under his feet.
In 1898, he graduated from the Memphis School of Medicine and began practicing in Mississippi County. He spent the next several years moving between Northeast Arkansas, Memphis, and Fort Smith.
In 1900, he helped with the excavation of a mastodon skeleton on a small island in the Mississippi River called “Island 35.” The find illuminated many important facts about the ancient men and women who lived in Arkansas. The mastodon is an extinct species of elephant that was native to North America around 10,000 years ago. Many roamed the forested regions of what would become Arkansas and were sought by early Native Americans for their meat and hides. So thousands of years ago, Arkansas was a haven for hunting elephants for men armed only with spears and their bare hands. The mastodon remains are on display at the Hampson Museum.
As for Hampson, he continued to enjoy a respectable medical career. After a quarter century as a physician, he retired in 1924 and moved with his wife and family to California. After his father died in 1927, his mother split the plantation between him and his two sisters. He returned to Arkansas and began exploring the grounds once again, increasingly finding more Native American artifacts.
Hampson in the process discovered the remains of two Native American villages that once existed at the northern and southern ends of the plantation. The Nodena villages apparently arose in the area around 1400. The villages were no more than 15 acres in size, with more than 100 residents at any one time. These were fenced villages that relied on farming, fishing, and hunting. Corn, beans, and squash were farmed extensively. The nearby Mississippi River not only gave the villagers access to food and water but also to trade with other villages as the river was used extensively as a major trade route.
Earthen mounds had been constructed by the villagers, sometimes hundreds of feet long and up to 15 feet high. Simple houses were arranged in rows, suggesting that the villages had been carefully planned. Some of the mounds were also used for burial with one mound containing hundreds of skeletal remains buried at the site over the years.
Pottery found had very intricate designs, and some it was made with ground mussel shells mixed with clay. The Nodena villagers also had another village at what is now the Parkin Indian Mound some thirty miles to the southwest. The villages still existed at the time of the expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in the early 1540s when he explored Arkansas, but it is uncertain if there was any direct contact between the conquistadors and these particular villages. For some unknown reason, the villages were abandoned by the 1650s, nearly a generation before the arrival of French explorers in Arkansas.
Hampson invited archaeologists from the University of Arkansas and also from Alabama to excavate the plantation in 1932. A treasure of lost artifacts were uncovered in the process.
He built a small museum to display his collection in 1946.
Hampson died in October 1956. At the end, he had 40,000 artifacts from the ancient Nodena villages. He was honored by archaeologists across the nation for his impressive finds. His wife donated his artifacts to the State of Arkansas, leaving archaeologists and other students of history awe-struck by the enormity of the collection. Its value to reconstructing that long-past chapter in Arkansas History was beyond calculation.
The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964. In part due to the work of Hampson (and especially the work of State Rep. John Bethel, an admirer of Hampson), the Arkansas Archaeological Survey was created in 1967 in order to catalog and research the many archaeological treasures of the state. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism continues to operate the Hampson Museum at the site.