All photos and renderings provided by the Quapaw Nation.
Like the Quapaw Nation chief who led his tribe back to the fertile lands of what is now Jefferson County two centuries ago, the soon-to-be opened casino in Pine Bluff that bears his name is forecast to bring prosperity back to the area.
The Saracen Casino Resort, an 80,000-square-foot gaming area with more than 2,000 slot machines and several restaurants, is set to open Phase 1 on Oct. 20. It will be operated by the Quapaw Nation and the Downstream Development Authority, which currently run two gaming facilities in Oklahoma. Phase Two of the Saracen project includes construction of a 300-room, 13-story hotel. A date for completion of that project has yet to be set.
“This is a homecoming,” said Joseph Byrd, the newly elected chairman of the Quapaw Nation. “Our Quapaw ancestors’ villages were along the Mississippi River and the Delta. Jefferson County is our motherland.”
He said the area that is now Arkansas was called the “Land of the Ogahpah.”
When fully operational, the casino will employ 1,200 people; more than 300 were hired to help build the facility, located at the intersection of U.S. highways 63-B and 65 across from the Pines Mall on the southeastern edge of town. The Saracen Casino Annex — with 300 slot machines, a convenience store and gas station — opened last year.
“Pine Bluff has the potential to experience a boon,” Byrd said. “Jobs will provide a source of revenue back into the community.”
He said the tribe already has seen success at its Miami, Okla., casino.
“We’ve been looking at a successful business model [in Miami, Okla.] for a while now,” he said. “We can replicate that in Pine Bluff.”
At $350 million, the Saracen Casino Resort is the largest tourism investment project in the state.
“Pine Bluff is on the way up,” said Allison Thompson, the CEO of the Jefferson County Alliance and Chamber of Commerce. “We have a new library and an aquatic center coming in. We have a streetscape program and urban renewal on Main Street, and now the casino. The energy the casino brings is yet another opportunity for existing businesses and new businesses to grow.”
Pine Bluff has been in decline for the past two decades. In 1970, population in the Jefferson County seat peaked at 57,400 but by 2000 had dropped to 55,085. Ten years later, the town dipped to a population of 49,083, and Forbes magazine called Pine Bluff one of America’s 10 most impoverished cities. The population now is estimated at 41,747.
“A resort of this size is not just serving the local area,” Thompson said. “People are coming from all over to the annex.”
Byrd said he’s checked license plates at cars parked at the Miami, Okla., casino and found visitors from several states, not just Oklahoma.
The story of Chief Saracen, like Pine Bluff, is a tale of jubilation and despair. At one point, he was proclaimed a hero for battling British soldiers who attacked nearby Arkansas Post in 1783. The 120 Tory soldiers were turned back at the Post, but not before they killed a handful of Spanish troops and kidnapped several of its residents. A contingent of Spanish soldiers and Quapaw members pursued the Tories, stopping them before they reached the Mississippi River.
According to a Spanish commandant’s report of the skirmish, a Quapaw, later identified as Saracen, threw a tomahawk into the group of the soldiers. The Tories quickly surrendered and were allowed to leave after releasing their captives. Saracen was deemed a hero and savior.
But the moniker didn’t help Saracen and the Quapaw Nation for long.
Besieged by disease, war and later westward expansion, the Quapaw Nation dwindled to only 1,000 members by 1818. The tribe, pressured by white settlers, agreed to the Treaty of 1818 which gave the Quapaw 30 million acres in Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, northern Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. Six years later, the Quapaw Nation was forced to move again, signing a treaty with the United States that ceded its land in Arkansas for a tract of land along the Red River in Louisiana, which was populated by Caddo Indians.
The Quapaw were not well-received by the Caddo and eventually migrated to the flood-prone southern side of the Red River about 30 miles northwest of present-day Shreveport in 1826. A year later, heavy flooding ravaged the fields where the Quapaw had planted crops. Disease and starvation continued to decimate the tribe including members of Saracen’s family. In a desperate and defiant act, Saracen led about 300 remaining members of his tribe back to the Arkansas River near where Pine Bluff is now located.
It’s unknown exactly when Saracen died. But historians know he died in Pine Bluff. His tombstone in the St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Pine Bluff reads the chief passed away in 1832 at the age of 97. However, Saracen signed a treaty in 1833 that relinquished Quapaw claim to their land on the Red River in exchange for land west of the Missouri state line. In 1835, 300 Quapaws moved to the established Indian territory in Oklahoma, but it was not known if Saracen traveled with the group. In a 1909 story about the reburial of Saracen in Pine Bluff, the Arkansas Democrat reported that the chief died in 1839.
Saracen and the Quapaw history and culture will be featured prominently at the casino. A large mural by University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff art professor Henri Linton that depicts Quapaw life in the Delta has been commissioned by the Quapaw Nation and will be displayed at the casino’s entrance, Byrd said. There will be other areas with information about the tribe and the African American culture predominant in Jefferson County.
“This is truly two communities coming together for the economic good of the area,” Byrd said. “Watching this come to life is exciting.”
Byrd, who has lived in the Tulsa area all of his life, was elected the Quapaw Nation chairman on July 25, unseating John Berrey, who held the position for 19 years and who was instrumental in placing the casino on Arkansas land.
Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 in 2018 to expand casino gambling in Pope and Jefferson counties. Two casinos were already operating at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis. The Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved a casino license for Saracen on June 13, 2019. A fourth casino license was awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership in Russellville, which has yet to open.
Byrd said he’s not worried that the Russellville casino, once it begins operation, could take away revenue from Saracen.
“We’ve got a year head start on Pope County,” Byrd said. “We’ve tested the market with our annex, and we have tweaked operational strategies. I think we will offer a truly unique product. We are extremely proud.”
He wouldn’t estimate how much revenue the casino will generate for Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. It will be the largest casino in the state.
In 2018, the latest year available for economic figures, Indian-owned casinos saw gross revenues of $33.7 billion. Since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, 474 Indian-owned casinos have opened. The coronavirus shut down each of them from mid-March to early May. Estimates indicate the casinos lost about $4.4 billion in economic activity and $1 billion in wages during the six-week period.
Despite setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction of the first phase of the Saracen Casino Resort went quickly, Thompson said. It took a little over a year to complete.
The Saracen will offer seven restaurants and lounge bars and recently hired Todd Gold, a chef with more than 30 years of experience in the food industry, most recently as associate dean and South Site director at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College Culinary School.
Gold said in a press release issued by the Saracen Casino Resort that the restaurants will use local honey and wheat at the on-site brewery. Gold added that his team will identify local farmers to provide produce to the Saracen kitchens. “We’re serving Arkansas on a plate,” he said.
Restaurants include the Quapaw Kitchens; the Legends Sports Bar that features a 25-foot video wall and sports book, live entertainment and in-house brewery; Red Oak steak house; The Post, a dining court with quick-service restaurant options; and a Delta-themed kitchen.
Byrd said, “I think we’re going to exceed expectations. When we roll all this out, I feel like it will reaffirm all the partnerships we developed, and it will inject much-needed revenue and capital into the area.
“There’s also a historical component,” he added. “Saracen came here because it was the homeland. Two hundred years later, look what’s happening here again.”