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Sequoyah Research Center

David Rorer

David Rorer was born May 12, 1806 in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. He was well educated and studied law with Nathaniel H. Claiborne. He was admitted to the Virginia Bar at the age of twenty and elected to congress from 1825 to 1837. In the fall of 1826, Rorer moved to Arkansas. He settled on the North side of the river directly across from ‘the little rock’ and began to practice law. He married Martha Daniel Martin on March 29, 1827, who had been widowed in 1826. On February 8, 1832, Rorer opened a ferry about a quarter mile below the old ferry at Little Rock. He began to use a new method of ferrying, ‘Brown’s patent improvement in the propulsion of ferry boats,’ which cut down on the time of travel by half. Next he lowered the price of tickets on his ferry by half that of his competition, Robert Crittenden. In no time he had cornered the market on travel across the Arkansas River to and from Little Rock. In the Spring of 1838, Rorer moved to Iowa Territory where he became a well known Judge until his death in July 7, 1884.

Source: Arkansas Gazette, May 21; 28, 1967.


David Rorer (1806-1884), a Virginian, was a licensed lawyer when he went to Arkansas in 1826. The following year he married a widow, Martha Daniel Martin, whose father owned a large farm on the north side of the Arkansas River opposite Little Rock. Rorer ran a ferry and obtained contracts for improving the road from Memphis to Little Rock. He and his partners rerouted the road to his ferry, allowing him to drive a competing ferry, run by Robert Crittenden, out of business. His ferry was used by Choctaw removal parties who took the route from Little Rock to Fort Towson, Indian Territory. In 1835 he moved to a part of Michigan Territory that later became part of Iowa and became a successful attorney and a recognized writer of legal tracts.

Source: Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 16: 153-154.


Mr. Rorer has just procured a ferryboat propelled by horses to use at his ferry across the Arkansas. Great improvement. Facilitate crossings.

Source: Arkansas Gazette, April 8, 1834.

David Rorer’s Ferry was established early in 1832, at a point directly opposite the Little Rock (at the foot of Rock Street, Little Rock). It was touted as “Brown’s patent improvement in the propulsion of ferry boats,” which used buoy boats and pulleys that allowed crossing the river in half the time as old-style ferries.

In June of 1833, the ferry was destroyed by flood, but in the spring of 1834, Rorer reestablished his ferry. The steamboat Arkansas arrived from New Orleans with the new horse ferry in tow on March 31, and the next day Rorer announced that the ferry was again open for business.

Source: Arkansas Gazette, May 21; 28, 1967.

The Military Road ended at the ferry of Robert Crittenden, on the north bank of the river. In 1832, David Rorer opened a ferry directly opposite Little Rock with a tavern and stable as a public house for accommodation of travelers who arrived too late to be ferried across the river (operated only in daylight).

The tavern was one big room, where all guests, men and women slept. Rorer allegedly had the eccentric habit of going about the room jerking covers from people’s faces to see who was in bed.

Rorer was said to have parties that lasted all night, with a fiddler who could only play one tune, “Roaring River.”

This place had been occupied as early as 1812 by Edmund Hogan, who had operated a ferry, and later by James and Martha Daniel Martin, the latter of whom Rorer married after Martin’s death. Rorer had 632 acres of land with a large frame house. Big Rock Farm, which had been owned by his father-in-law, Wright Daniel, and which Rorer administrated, was a mile and a half above the ferry.

Colonel Alexander S. Walker lived about two miles from Rorer.

In June of 1833, flood damaged the plantations on the north side of the river and destroyed Rorer’s ferry.

Source: Arkansas Gazette, May 28, 1967.

In 1832, when money was appropriated to repair the military road, Governor Pope, a good friend of Rorer’s let the contracts in segments. The segment nearest Little Rock went to Rorer, Samson Gray, and Samuel M. Rutherford. Instead of repairing the old road, they cut a new one from Crittenden’s ferry along the riverbank to Rorer’s Ferry and then northeasterly toward Samson Gray’s, intersecting the old road near Wiley Beasly’s home. This gave Rorer a decided advantage because the traffic from Memphis reached his ferry first, and he offered rates at half what Crittenden had offered.

Source: Arkansas Gazette, May 21, 1967.

In construction it (the ferryboat) differed but little from those now in use on our smaller streams, consisting of a long flat bottomed hull, with two bows. It was the method of propulsion that made it unique. This was accomplished by means of buoys or buoy boats, as they were called. These buoy boats were about twelve feet long and some four feet wide amidships, the two ends coming to a sharp point. These buoy boats were some fifteen or twenty in number and were staunchly built, and entirely floored over. In the center of each of them was a post, varying in height from three to ten feet, according to the location of the buoys. At the top of each of these posts was a large pulley, through which a large rope, one and one-half inches in diameter, ran. This rope was attached to a large cottonwood tree on the north side of the river, opposite the foot of Main Street and about fifty feet above the ground. The other end of the rope was passed through the pulleys on the buoy boats. These boats were distributed along at regular intervals, the last on being located about one hundred and fifty feet above the ferry landing on the Little Rock side. The rope passing through the pulleys on the last buoy boat had a slack of about fifty feet. To this part of the large rope a pulley was attached, through which a smaller rope ran and was fastened to each of the upper corners of the ferry boat. At each end of the boat was what was called a leeboard, some fifteen inches wide, and which was raised or depressed by a lever. On starting from either shore this leeboard was so depressed as to swing the end of the boat quartering upstream, the buoy boats assuming the same position. The action of the water against the leeboard gave the necessary impetus to the ferry boat to carry her across the river. On coming to within forty or fifty feet of the shore a vigorous pull upon the rope would straighten the course of the boat directly across the river and bring it to the landing. To prevent the buoy boats from drifting together a smaller rope was tied to the same cottonwood tree lower down, and attached to the bottom of the posts on the buoy boats. The speed of a ferry boat propelled in the manner I have attempted to describe was very rapid, indeed, almost equal to that of steam.

Source: William F. Pope, Early Days in Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark., F. W. Allsopp, 1895). pp.74-75

Updated 9.27.2010