In 1541, the first Europeans found the valley. Hernando De Soto and his surviving conquistadors - almost defeated by swamps and cane breaks - floundered alongside the Mississippi and Arkansas. We can only imagine their wonder and delight at the first vision of vapors rising against the chill air of autumn. They must have quickly cast aside shields and lances and shed their helmets and armor for the first refreshing bath in months.
Next to come were the Frenchmen, trappers working their way up the Ouachita to search for furs and bear oil. The French left vestiges of their presence here and there with place names. When William Dunbar and George Hunter came to the hot springs in December, 1804, they found an abandoned log cabin and a few split-board shelters that may have been built by trappers, or by French and Spanish plantation owners who had come to take the baths.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, hard up for cash, offered to sell France's half billion acres of America to President Thomas Jefferson for thirteen million dollars. Recognizing a bargain, Jefferson hastily sealed the deal. The springs and their environs, like the rest of the vast Louisiana Territory, cost the United States about three cents an acre!
Jefferson asked his friend, William Dunbar of Natchez, Mississippi, to lead an expedition into the Ouachita Mountains and report on the Indian tribes, minerals, flora and fauna, and the legendary hot springs. Dunbar enlisted Dr. George Hunter, a chemist from Pennsylvania to join the expedition. They found the hot springs, saying that it tasted like spice-wood tea.
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