Hot Springs, Historical Memory, Native Americans & 1920s Masculinity

I am in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this weekend for the state-wide meeting of the Arkansas Archeological Society.  Although I have lived in Arkansas on and off since 1995, I have never really paid that much attention to Hot Springs…that is, until I moved to south Arkansas five years ago.  Although Hot Springs is not in my research station territory (it belongs to Mary Beth Trubitt at the HSU Research Station), Hot Springs is both a cultural and historical figure of importance to my region–culturally important because it provides a good place to have “getaway weekends,” visit a books store, eat at good restaurants, and drink a lot of alcohol….historically important as it is a major hub of 20th century leisure time in the region (and nation).  I have become increasingly interested in the history of leisure time and tourism in America…and, to play into Hot Spring’s reputation for gambling and gangsters, this town “has ’em in spades.”

The fountain/statue in the Fordyce Bath House, Hot Springs

The fountain/statue in the Fordyce Bath House, Hot Springs

The area now known as “Hot Springs National Park” first became United States territory in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. According to NPS historian Sharon Shugart, the first permanent settlers to reach the Hot Springs area in 1807 were quick to realize the area’s potential as a health resort.  Dr. George Hunter and William Dunbar visited on an expedition commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to survey the newly acquired territory and make scientific observations. The party arrived at the hot springs on December 9, where they found “an Open Log-Cabin and a few huts of split boards…for summer encampment…erected by persons resorting to the Springs for the recovery of their health…”

To protect this unique national resource and preserve it for the use of the public, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation (not to be confused with the Indian reservations being established around the same time). On April 20, 1832, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation to set aside “…four sections of land including said (hot) springs, reserved for the future disposal of the United States (which) shall not be entered, located, or appropriated, for any other purpose whatsoever.” This makes Hot Springs National Park the oldest national park among current N. P. S. parks, predating Yellowstone National Park by forty years. Unfortunately, Congress failed to pass any legislation for administering the site. As a result, no controls were exerted in the area, and people continued to settle there, building businesses around and even over the springs (Shugart, 2004).

The park would have to wait until the late nineteenth century to get off the ground, but it flourished in the early twentieth century…and today the town is filled with great 1920s architecture (lots of Spanish revival)…but, alas, by the 1960s the bath house industry had declined considerably.

But my colleague Ann Early (now State Archeologist, but former HSU Research Station Archeologist) alerted me to the intersection of Native American history and the history of Hot Springs…Hot Springs, so the legend goes, was a magical place where all tribes declared a “cease-fire” to all hostilities so they could come a take the healing waters…and as a place where a decidedly romantic version of contact between Hernando DeSoto’s expedition and local tribes took place…even that bastion of solid research, Wikipedia, mentions these unsubstantiated facts (note that even Wikipedia is dubious adding the “citation needed” comment at the end:

In 1541, the expedition became the first Europeans to see what Native Americans referred to as the Valley of the Vapors, Hot Springs, Arkansas. Members of many tribes had gathered at the valley over many years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. The tribes had developed agreements to put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley. De Soto and his men stayed just long enough to claim the area for Spain.[citation needed]

woodduck pot

detail of the Fordyce fountain: a wood duck effigy bowl with Winterville-Incised-like designs...it woud sort-of be in keeping with the idea that the Quawpaw used these spings.

This is quite a popular and interesting set of tropes in the historical memory of Hot Springs…it is even mentioned on the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce website, (“Even DeSoto didn’t want to leave…“) and the website of the very hotel where I am staying this weekend (“Since Hernando DeSoto wintered here over 400 years ago, the healing springs and hospitable people of Hot Springs have been pampering guests”).  Even a local  group calling itself the “Mantaka American Indian Council” see themselves as the caretakers of the sacred springs and the traditional that Native Americans have used them for healing….archeologists, however, have found no artifacts or other physical evidence to show how or if Native Americans used the springs during the millennia they lived in the area…and although we once thought DeSoto may have come through the Hot Springs area, recent scholarship is not so sure.  When historians turn their attention to these stories, they often reach dead ends…Like the probably mythical figure of Nathan Dale who claimed to have been born in 1833 on the site of the present Quapaw Bathhouse and testified to the fact that the Qawpaw used a spring in a cave to ritually  heal their ills.  Dale’s name does not appear in any of the local federal censuses, including the earliest one taken in 1840. If Dale had existed, he would have been seven years old at that time and unlikely to be anywhere but at home when the census takers came through. The name never occurs in the sworn testimony on pioneer land use taken from early Hot Springs settlers in 1830s and 1840s, or in the 1884 Congressional hearings on the creek arch that included testimony on area history. The name is absent from the long lists of land claimants in 1875 and 1877. It is also missing from the extant city directories in the 1870s and 1880s (see Shugart’s article on the Qua paw Cave for more details) .

But back to my current visit…what got my mind wandering in this direction this morning was the statue in the men’s side of the Fordyce Bathhouse.  The Fordyce operated from 1915-1962, when it closed due to declining business. It remained vacant until reopening as the park visitor center in 1989.  It was the most elaborate and expensive of the bathhouses, the costing over $212,749.55 in furniture alone.  The Fordyce provided for the well-being of the whole patron – body, mind, and spirit. It offered a museum where prehistoric Indian relics were displayed, bowling lanes and a billiard room for recreation, a gymnasium for exercise, a roof garden for clean air and sun, and a variety of assembly rooms and staterooms for conversation and reading…and in the men’s side of the bath you will not only be confronted by an elegant water-themed stain-glass skylight (giving the patrons an underwater feeling, and reminding them that they are in a spa of European caliber), but a fountain/statue of a kneeling Native American woman offering water to a Spanish conquistador.

The pose is reminiscent of John Smith and Pocahontas…and just as fanciful.  Interestingly some of the details of the Native American pottery ring true, while other do not…but clearly this fountain says a great deal about how the 1920s liked to envision European/Native American interaction–a tantalizing encounter with a compliant, exotic woman.  The fact that this art was installed on the men’s side of the bath house is not without importance either (there are some great art-glass installations on the woman’s side, but no large statuary)…this is especially true given the very sexualized nature of the pose…an image that the hot, steamy, nude male bathers would gaze upon while relaxing and taking the waters…the arch of her back along is telling…but when viewed from a particular angle the statue might be seen to suggest actual sexual acts….

OK…I’m getting carried away…enough…

My point is made that this statue is a fascinating piece of material culture…one that binds up a place and it’s identity (particularly historical identity) with tourism, leisure time, wealth and masculinity in the early twentieth century…

Lacivious angle to the statue to be gazed upon my wealthy, elite males while in the steam bath?  Or a figment of my over active imagination (and dirty mind)?

Lascivious angle to the statue to be gazed upon my wealthy, elite males while in the steam bath?... Or a figment of my over active imagination (and dirty mind)?

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Categories: history, post

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