Nobody alive today knows how the town of Pocahontas got its name, but historical research brings possibilities to mind. During the recent Founders Day Lecture Series in Pocahontas, historic preservation researcher and expert Joan Gould, of Preservation Matters in Fayetteville, presented a lecture titled “Establishing Randolph County”. The following article is based on the information Ms. Gould presented, as well as comments made by audience members during the lecture.
It’s known that the town of Pocahontas existed before the nearby town of Powhatan was created in Lawrence County. So the name Pocahontas was definitely not given to the Randolph County Seat due to Randolph County being carved out of the larger Lawrence County, whose county seat became Powhatan. More likely, Powhatan got its name due to Lawrence being known as “the father of counties”. Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas, just as Lawrence County was the “father” of Randolph County.
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Meriwether Lewis Randolph appointed Secretary of the Arkansas Territory by President Andrew Jackson
Meriwether Lewis Randolph (1810-1837) was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson, the ninth child of Martha Jefferson Randolph and Thomas Mann Randolph. He was born at Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and named for his grandfather’s secretary, the explorer Meriwether Lewis.
Randolph studied law and moral and natural philosophy at the University of Virginia, 1829-1831, but chose to pursue a career on the western frontier. He worked briefly as a clerk for the Department of State before being appointed Secretary of Arkansas Territory by President Andrew Jackson in February 1835, a position Randolph held through Arkansas’ transition to statehood.
Randolph County formed from part of Lawrence County.
It was proposed that Randolph County be named for Meriwether Lewis Randolph. Randolph, however, stated that he had resided in Arkansas for only a short time and had done nothing to merit such recognition, but, if it was desired that the Randolph name be attached to the county, it should be named for John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, which it was. John Randolph was a direct descendant of Thomas Rolfe, the only child of the Indian Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
Arkansas Gazette reports, “The Seat of Justice of [Randolph] County has been established at Bettis’ Bluff, and a town is to be laid off, to be called Pocahontas.”
Until 1836, the place that’s now called Pocahontas was known as Bettis’ Bluff, which identified the location of the Bettis home and ferry. There was no town then, just “the Bettis place”.
Bettis had lobbied the commissioners of the new Randolph County to place the county seat were he owned property at Bettis’ Bluff. It’s quite likely that Bettis saw an opportunity to profit by selling lots in the new town, and it’s speculated that he needed a “catchy” name to attract attention to make the new town grow.
Since the new county had just been named for Virginia’s Randolph family, it’s quite likely that Bettis and others in the new county were aware of the connection the Randolphs had with Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, so that may be why they chose the name Pocahontas for the new county seat.