Camden is a city in and the county seat of Ouachita County in the southern part of the U.S. state of Arkansas. Long an area of American Indians villages, the French also made a permanent settlement here because of its advantageous location above the Ouachita River.
In 2000, Camden had a population of 13,154, but it lost 7.4 percent of its residents and recorded 12,183 in 2010. The municipality in 2010 was 56 percent African American. Camden is the principal city of the Camden Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Ouachita and Calhoun counties.
Indigenous peoples of various cultures had lived along the rivers of Arkansas for thousands of years and created complex societies. Mississippian culture peoples built massive earthwork mounds along the Ouachita River beginning about 1000 AD.
In 1783, this area was part of New France. A French trader named Fabre settled on a bluff above the Ouachita River and called the settlement Écore Fabre (Faber’s Bluff). This was the first European permanent settlement of what would become Camden. He traded with the Ouachita and other American Indians who inhabited the area.
The city of Camden marks its founding as 1824, after the Louisiana Purchase brought a wave of migrants from the Southern United States. They developed farmlands as cotton plantations and transported thousands of enslaved African Americans into the area for labor. The city was not incorporated and officially named “Camden” until 1844. Some controversy exists over the origin of the name, but most agree it is named for Camden, Alabama, the hometown of General Thomas Woodward, another early city founder. Prior to the name change from Écore Fabre to Camden, the location was simply known as "The Bluff".
During the American Civil War, Camden was occupied for several months in 1864 by Union soldiers as part of the Union army's ill-fated Red River Campaign. The Confederates won the Battle of Poison Springs west of the city on April 18, 1864.
In pre-Civil War days, Camden was a bustling river port served by frequent scheduled steamboats carrying passengers and freight. Most traveled between Camden and New Orleans, but some passengers also went upriver to St. Louis, Missouri. Camden was a mercantile center at the headwaters of the Ouachita River. The town remained an important cotton shipping depot through the early decades of the twentieth century, although agriculture suffered a decline. In the early 20th century, the spread of the boll weevil devastated many southern cotton crops and turned thousands of workers out of the fields.
Before the steamboat era faded, Camden had become a railroad town—served by the mainline of the Texas and St. Louis (Cotton Belt) and by branch lines of the Missouri Pacific and the Rock Island railroads. A major economic infusion accompanied the South Arkansas oil boom of the 1920s. In 1927 the International Paper Company built a processing mill at Camden, following development of south Arkansas' lumber industry.
For several decades, Camden was the headquarters of the Clyde E. Palmer newspaper chain, which included The Camden News, the Texarkana Gazette, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, and the Magnolia Banner News. Later the company shifted to Little Rock, when it acquired the Arkansas Democrat. It merged its acquired assets from the Arkansas Gazette to establish the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The daily newspaper in Camden is the original flagship publication of WEHCO Media.
Palmer's son-in-law, Walter E. Hussman, Sr. (1906–1988), and Palmer's grandson, Walter E. Hussman, Jr. (born 1947), were successive publishers of the Camden News and chief executive officers of the Palmer properties. Hussman, Jr., is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, home of the Palmer-Hussman management.
Near the end of World War II, thousands of new jobs were created with the 1944 construction of a Naval Ammunition Depot across the Ouachita at Shumaker. The Korean War brought a resurgence of jobs and activity at the depot. It was closed following the Korean War. The city and county redeveloped its facilities and grounds into an extensive industrial area. This was the site of some major defense establishments and multiple smaller industries. A technical campus of Southern Arkansas University also located there.
In the 1990s, post Cold-War downsizing of the defense industry brought severe job losses—and resulting population decline—to the Camden area. This was followed by the closing of the International Paper Co. mill a few years later. But in recent years a partial resurgence of defense contracts and a diversified mixture of small business and professional activity have stabilized the town's economy. As one of Arkansas' most historic towns, the city attracts considerable heritage tourism.
Among the many historic homes in Camden is the Richie-Crawford House at 330 Clifton Street built in 1909 and featuring four Corinthian columns and a two-story porch. On March 2, 1957, the Camden attorney Maud Robinson Crawford (born 1891) disappeared from the house that she shared with her husband, Clyde Falwell Crawford (1894–1969). Her disappearance remains officially unsolved.