Considered the longest bayou in the world, Bayou Bartholomew begins near Pine Bluff and meanders approximately 364 miles to the Ouachita River in Sterlington, Louisiana. The bayou serves as the primary border separating the Arkansas Delta from the Arkansas Timberlands.
The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a time when it was constantly changing courses. Approximately 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. With more than 100 aquatic species, Bayou Bartholomew is the second most diverse stream in North America.
The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth. French explorers were next, crossing the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search of the Mississippi River. One of the six men he chose to go with him was “Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.” It is likely that the bayou was named after this young man.
Until construction of railroad lines in the area in the late 19th century, Bayou Bartholomew was the most important stream for transportation in the landlocked interior Delta. It allowed for the development of the richest timber and agricultural industries in the Delta area.
Bayou Bartholomew also played a role in the Civil War. In 1865, Union cavalry, led by Colonel Embury D. Osband, captured a confederate steamboat, used it to transport union troops across Bayou Bartholomew, and then burned the boat. This event’s significance cannot be overstated. Though other areas of Arkansas were largely under Union control by late 1863, with reconstruction in progress, southern and southeast Arkansas, like northern Louisiana, were still dominated by confederate soldiers. But the Union army’s capture of the steamboat meant Union control of this significant stretch of Bayou Bartholomew. And control of Bayou Bartholomew meant a shift in control of the region and the war’s outcome.
After the war, the steamboats once again used the bayou to ship cotton, primarily, until railroad lines were constructed in the area around 1890. Across the eras, the bayou defined social and cultural history in recreation and worship, too. People swam and fished in the stream and held picnics nearby. They even drank its pristine water. Baptisms in the bayou were quite common and drew large gatherings, even by descendants of slaves who had once sought temporary refuge among the bayou’s cypress trees and wildlife.
All that use led to the inevitable challenges, including pollution, logjams, and over-sedimentation. In 1995, the non-profit Bayou Bartholomew Alliance was founded to restore and preserve the natural beauty of the bayou. Projects underway include monitoring water quality, planting trees for buffer zones, restoring riparian sites ruined by clear-cutting, trash removal, removing logjams, bank stabilization, building boat ramps, and encouraging no-till farming. How long it will take for these projects to be completed is anyone’s guess. The founders of Bayou Bartholomew Alliance both passed away not long ago, making the future of these projects uncertain.
If you decide to pay a visit to Bayou Bartholomew, there’s plenty to see, whether you’re in a kayak, in an inner tube, or on the shoreline. Watch for alligators and basking turtles, waterfowl, and migratory songbirds among cypress and tupelo trees. If you’re in the mood for fishing and you toss in a line, don’t be surprised if you snag a crappie, bream, or catfish. They’re plentiful in Bayou Bartholomew.