Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to see what Native Americans referred to as the Valley of the Vapors when he and his men reached the area in 1541. Members of many Native American tribes had been gathering in the valley for over 8,000 years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. Around the 18th century the Caddo settled in the area, followed by the Choctaw, Cherokee, and other tribes. There was agreement among the tribes that they would put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley. The Quapaw lived in the Arkansas River delta area and visited the springs.
In 1673 Father Marquette and Jolliet explored the area and claimed it for France. The Treaty of Paris 1763 ceded the land back to Spain, however in 1800 control was returned to France until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
In December 1804 Dr. George Hunter and William Dunbar made an expedition to the springs, finding a lone log cabin and a few rudimentary shelters used by people visiting the springs for their healing properties. In 1807 Jean Emmanual Prudhomme became the first settler of modern Hot Springs, although after he regained his health following two years of bathing in the hot water and eating local foods, he returned home to Louisiana. Not long afterward John Perciful and Isaac Cates arrived.
Having been placed in a reservation southeast of Hot Springs in the 19th century, on August 24, 1818, the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States in a treaty. After Arkansas became its own territory in 1819, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation. Twelve years later, in 1832, the national reservation was formed by Congress, granting federal protection of the thermal waters and giving Hot Springs the honor of being the first “national park” to be designated for such government protection. The Hot Springs Reservation was set aside for public use as a park on June 16, 1880.
In 1921, by act of Congress, the site's name was changed from the Hot Springs Reservation to the Hot Springs National Park.