One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.
There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…
I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.
This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.