As an undergrad history major, my honors thesis was on Sans Souci Plantation in Mississippi County. Part of my thesis revolved around the Civil War in the county, and Big Lake was home to several skirmishes and bushwhacking activity. I had located Big Lake on a map and knew some of its history, but I had no idea what it really was.
The area now called "Big Lake" was once part of a free-flowing river system inhabited by local Native Americans, but during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, the Big Lake area was changed into a lake/swamp environment. During the Civil War, Confederate guerrilla forces inhabited its shallow swamps, which were the sites of many skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops as the Union continued its struggle to shut down the Confederacy.
In the late 1800s, timber in the area was rapidly disappearing because it was cut and used for a growing transportation system – fuel for the steamboats, then ties for the railroad tracks. As land was cleared, it was drained and planted in cotton. In 1915 an executive order by Woodrow Wilson established Big Lake to provide a habitat and protection for native birds.
Today, the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Manila on Highway 18, is 11,038 acres of wooded swamps and open water. It is shallow – the average depth is only 3 feet. Big Lake has numerous islands and is an oasis for wildlife and vegetation, with approximately 5,000 acres designated as a National Natural Landmark. It is one of eleven wilderness areas in Arkansas and is the only one in eastern Arkansas. The refuge is open to the public March 1-October 31, and controlled hunting and fishing are permitted.
Even though the last fish I caught was when I was 7, what Big Lake is and what it means for Northeast Arkansas can be appreciated by anybody, even those of us who don't consider ourselves hunters and fishermen. Arkansas is the "Natural State" for many very very BEAUTIFUL reasons - Big Lake is one of them!