Craighead County was part of the territory claimed by France on 9 April 1682 by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle who laid claim to all of the land drained by the Mississippi River and its assorted tributaries. LaSalle's claim was named Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV, King of France.
In 1762 the Treaty of Fontainbleau was signed between France and Spain and ownership of the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River was transferred to the Spanish crown as a result of the Seven Years War and Craighead County became a Spanish possession.
Spain remained in control of the territory encompassing the county until 1 October 1800 when Napoleon Bonaparte forced Spain to return the lost territories to France under the Treaty of Ildefonso. Napoleon maintained grandiose plans to establish a vast French Empire in Louisiana but the British Navy prevented him from transferring troops or settlers to the acquired territories.
Fear was high in the United States that Napoleon would attempt to close the Mississippi River to American trade. President Thomas Jefferson inquired about purchasing an area near the mouth of the river to ensure that it would stay open to American goods. Napoleon, having realized that his plans could not come to fruition, offered to sell the United States the entire territory of Louisiana, including Craighead County, for $15,000,000.
Craighead County remained in the Louisiana Territory until the State of Louisiana was admitted to the Union. At that time the territory that includes modern day Arkansas was attached to the Missouri Territory
In 1813 the area was included in a new political subdivision known as Arkansas County which was a political subdivision of the Arkansas District of the Territory of Missouri. In 1815 the county was further subdivided and Lawrence County was formed with its seat at Davidsonville. This new county included most of what is now northern Arkansas. The modern Craighead county lay partially within Arkansas County and partially within Lawrence County.
Residents of the Missouri Territory soon began petitioning Congress for admission to the Union. Their request did not include the District of Arkansas and Arkansas residents petitioned for separate territorial status for their district. In 1819 the Arkansas Territory was formed.
In 1838 Poinsett County was formed and included most of present day Craighead County. This situation persisted until 1850 when residents of the area complained about the distance to the Poinsett County seat.
In 1858 State Senator William A. Jones campaign platform included a promise to seek the formation of a new county for the area. His election was successful and helped push legislation for the formation of the new county.
The new county was to be formed from lands taken from Greene County, Poinsett County, and Mississippi County and would be named "Crowley County" in honor of Crowley's Ridge which runs through the center of the county.
Senator Thomas Craighead represented Mississippi and Crittenden counties and opposed the taking of land from counties in his district. On his recommendation the motion was defeated.
The bill was later reintroduced with the name of the county changed to "Craighead County". It is assumed that the naming of the county was a humorous joke at Senator Craighead's expense by his fellow legislators. The bill passed despite Senator Craighead's best efforts to stop it and Craighead County was officially formed 19 February 1859.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 1,847 km² (713 mi²). 1,841 km² (711 mi²) of it is land and 6 km² (2 mi²) of it is water. The total area is 0.30% water.
Crowley's Ridge is the county's most prominent geological feature.
As of the census2 of 2000, there are 82,148 people, 32,301 households, and 22,093 families residing in the county. The population density is 45/km² (116/mi²). There are 35,133 housing units at an average density of 19/km² (49/mi²). The racial makeup of the county is 89.27% White, 7.78% Black or African American, 0.33% Native American, 0.60% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.93% from other races, and 1.06% from two or more races. 2.12% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 32,301 households out of which 32.30% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.30% are married couples living together, 11.40% have a female householder with no husband present, and 31.60% are non-families. 25.20% of all households are made up of individuals and 9.10% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.46 and the average family size is 2.96.
In the county the population is spread out with 24.10% under the age of 18, 14.00% from 18 to 24, 28.70% from 25 to 44, 21.40% from 45 to 64, and 11.80% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 33 years. For every 100 females there are 93.80 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 90.50 males.
The median income for a household in the county is $32,425, and the median income for a family is $40,688. Males have a median income of $30,366 versus $21,109 for females. The per capita income for the county is $17,091. 15.40% of the population and 11.60% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 19.40% are under the age of 18 and 13.40% are 65 or older.