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A day in Washington


Some of the most famous figures in the history of the Republic of Texas spent time at Washington in Hempstead County before making their way west.

Stephen F. Austin, known as the Father of Texas, lived in Arkansas after leaving Missouri. Austin, who was born in November 1793 in southwest Virginia, grew up in southeast Missouri in a lead mining region.

“Austin’s father not only mined, smelted and manufactured lead but also established a general store that young Austin managed after finishing school,” Susan Martinez Heinritz writes for Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Austin’s father wanted him to receive a good education so he sent him at age 11 to the Bacon Academy in Colchester, Conn., from 1804-07. Austin continued his education at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., for another two years. After finishing school at age 17, Austin worked in business with his father, first running the general store in Potosi, Mo., a town Moses Austin had helped create. Stephen F. Austin later managed his father’s mines.”

The younger Austin later was a director of the Bank of St. Louis. The failure of that bank led him to live on a tract of land along the Red River in southwest Arkansas in what’s now Lafayette County.

“Although he didn’t stay in Arkansas long, he established a farm with some of the merchandise he brought from Missouri,” Heinritz writes. “Having experience in politics in Missouri, Austin ran for election as a delegate to Congress from the new Arkansas Territory in November 1819. He was defeated by James Woodson Bates. Austin then was appointed circuit judge of the First Judicial District of the territory by Gov. James Miller in 1820. He only held the position in July and August of that year before heading to Natchitoches, La., and then to New Orleans in December.”

During his time in southwest Arkansas, Austin spent a number of days at Washington, which was the leading town in that part of the state.

Sam Houston, who was twice the president of the Republic of Texas, lived among the Cherokee in Arkansas from May 1829 until November 1832.

Houston, who had been born in Virginia in March 1793, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee and then was elected governor of that state. When his marriage to Eliza Allen fell apart, Houston resigned as governor in April 1829 and headed to Arkansas.

“Traveling in disguise by the steam packet Red Rover, by flatboat and by steamboat to Arkansas Territory, Houston arrived in Little Rock on May 8, 1829,” Samuel Pyeatt Menefee writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Houston apparently had heard rumors that he was contemplating a filibustering expedition (an unauthorized military incursion to foment or support a revolution) to Texas and obliquely denied them in a letter. He was, however, in good enough spirits to try to mend bridges between Andrew Jackson and Robert Crittenden, the acting governor, and to report that he intended to engage in a summer buffalo hunt.”

Houston then went up the Arkansas River to what’s now Oklahoma to visit John Jolly’s band of Cherokee, with whom he had once lived.

In a September 1829 letter to Jackson, Houston said of living in Arkansas: “I have concluded that it would not be best for me to adopt the course. In that Territory there is no field for distinction — it is fraught with factions; and if my object were to obtain wealth, it must be done by fraud, and peculation upon the Government, and many perjuries would be necessary to its effectuation!”

Houston received citizenship in the Cherokee Nation the following month. He wore native dress and often refused to speak English.

In December 1829, he traveled to Washington, D.C., as a Cherokee representative. Between June and December 1830, Houston wrote five articles for the Arkansas Gazette about the removed tribes and the activities of federal Indian agents. Menefee says these articles represented “the first defense of Native American rights and exposure of government corruption written by a well-known Westerner.”

Houston spent the summer of 1833 at Hot Springs, hoping the mineral waters there would help him recuperate from an old shoulder wound. He often would spend time in Washington, Ark., on his trips to and from Texas.

In their 1967 book “Sam Houston with the Cherokees,” Jack Gregory and Rennard Strickland said many Houston’s ideas were formulated during his time in the Arkansas Territory.

Another visitor to Washington was the legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett, who stayed there on his way from Tennessee to Texas in 1835.

It was at a banquet in Little Rock that Crockett stated: “If I could rest anywhere, it would be in Arkansas, where the men are of the real half-horse, half-alligator breed such as grow nowhere else on the face of the universal earth but just around the backbone of North America.”

Crockett had served in Congress from Tennessee from 1827-31 and 1833-35. He published an 1834 autobiography titled “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee” and became a popular figure across the young country.

“To derail Crockett’s political plans, Andrew Jackson and William Carroll, governor of Tennessee, engineered Crockett’s defeat in his bid for re-election to Congress,” Jeff Bailey writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Crockett was defeated by 252 votes. Crockett hoped to revive his political career in Texas and left Tennessee for good in November 1835. Crockett and his party were well received during a stop in Little Rock.

“After leaving Little Rock, Crockett was toasted and celebrated for several days while in Washington, Ark. He then continued the journey to Texas with numerous unconfirmed exploits along the way adding to the Crockett legend. Once in Texas, Crockett and his men joined Col. William B. Travis in the fight for Texas independence. Crockett was killed by the Mexican Army during the last day of the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, adding a final chapter to his colorful life.”

Jim Bowie, who also was killed at the Alamo, had earlier earned notoriety in Arkansas for fraudulent land claims. It’s believed that Washington blacksmith James Black made what would become the famous bowie knife for Bowie at Washington in 1831.

In addition to Anglo settlers heading to Texas, members of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations traveled through Washington as part of the Trail of Tears Indian removal.

“Residents of Hempstead County began petitioning for a new road in 1821,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1828, the Camden to Washington Road was having additional work done. A new courthouse was built in 1836, and many of Arkansas’ most prominent attorneys practiced in Washington during the following 25 years. The Washington Telegraph began to be printed in 1840. It was the oldest weekly newspaper west of the Mississippi River until it ceased publication in 1946.

“A Presbyterian church was established in 1836, and a Baptist church was built in 1845. Washington had both a male and female academy, as well as several smaller schools. In the summer of 1846, 870 volunteers gathered in Washington to form a cavalry unit to serve in the Mexican War. By 1860, Washington included seven dry goods stores, two drugstores, a tailor shop, a watch repair shop and other businesses. Wealthy families built mansions, some of which have been restored and are preserved in Historic Washington State Park. The area had many slaves who served as household servants and worked in the cotton fields surrounding the city.”

Washington was important since the Camden to Washington Road met the heavily utilized Southwest Trail there.

“The first effort to create the Camden to Washington Road began in 1821 when residents of Hempstead County petitioned the Court of Common Pleas to construct a road linking their county with a point on the Ouachita River,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. “This would allow farmers to transport their crops to the nearest navigable river. A map drawn that same year showed a road leaving Ecore Fabre (now Camden), running to the northwest in the direction of Washington. Additional work was done around 1828, and the road had several overseers assigned to it, each responsible for the maintenance of a section of the route.

“The road was constructed by connecting existing roads with new routes. Feeder routes branched off the road to the north and south, but the Camden to Washington Road served as the major transportation route for the area. It’s possible that some members of the Choctaw Nation used the road in the 1830s during Indian removal. The road also appears on a map created by the Confederate Army in 1865. It likely was used by Confederate forces during the Camden Expedition.”

Twelve companies of Confederate soldiers were raised in Hempstead County. A Washington physician named Charles Burton Mitchel had been chosen by the Arkansas Legislature in 1860 to serve in the U.S. Senate. He resigned from the U.S. Senate and served in the Confederate Senate until his death in 1864.

Mitchel had been born in Tennessee in 1815. He received his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1836 and moved to the new state of Arkansas later that year. He was elected to the Legislature in 1848. He lost his race for the state Senate in 1850.

“Mitchel was active in the Masonic lodge and also farmed in the Ozan and Bois d’Arc townships of Hempstead County,” Teske writes. “In 1860, Mitchel ran for Congress from Arkansas’ Second District but was defeated by Edward W. Gantt. More than 30,000 votes were cast in the district, and the margin of victory for Gantt was roughly 2,500 votes. Shortly thereafter, the Legislature met to fill the Senate seat vacated by the retirement of Robert Ward Johnson. With the question of secession weighing on the minds of most government officials, Gov. Henry Rector suggested that the position of U.S. senator not be filled.

“The Legislature chose not to follow Rector’s suggestion and invited five candidates, including Mitchel, to address the assembly. All five spoke of acting cautiously in regards to the idea of secession. Mitchel said the election of Abraham Lincoln was a reason for alarm but not a reason for division. He was elected senator on the ninth ballot on Dec. 20, 1860. His term of office began March 4, 1861. He was in Washington at that time but had returned home to Arkansas by the end of the month. His resignation from the Senate didn’t become official until July 11.”

Mitchel later headed to Richmond to serve in the Confederate Senate. He died at his home in Washington on Sept. 20, 1864, and is buried in Presbyterian Cemetery at Washington.

The Confederate government of Arkansas fled Little Rock just before the city fell to Union forces in September 1863. The Confederate Legislature met at the Hempstead County Courthouse in Washington until the war ended in 1865. That building is now one of the attractions of Historic Washington State Park.

“In 1824, Washington was designated the Hempstead County seat,” Kayla Kesterson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1835, local officials recognized the need for a new county courthouse. The circuit court had previously met in a one-room building constructed by Tilman L. Patterson, who also supervised the construction of the new two-story courthouse. It was built in 1836 for $1,850. Between the time of its construction and the advent of the Civil War, the building was used not only for circuit court meetings but also hosted meetings of the Freemasons and held the office and records of the county clerk until a separate building for the clerk was constructed in 1839 by Daniel Alexander.

“The 1836 courthouse served as the county seat of justice for almost 40 years. During that time, the condition and size of the courthouse called for a new building. As early as 1859, Judge Milton Holt was urged by citizens to construct a new courthouse. He appointed Robert Gibson, John Ely and R.W. Price as commissioners to inquire into the possible cost of construction of a courthouse, clerk’s office and county jail. They presented their first plan for the buildings in 1860. In January 1861, the country court discussed the need to fireproof the clerk’s office. Before any significant changes could be made, Arkansas seceded from the Union.”

Confederate Gov. Harris Flanagin of Arkadelphia had heard that Union troops were advancing on Little Rock in 1863 and ordered state documents to be gathered and moved out of the city. They wound up in Washington.

“In September 1864, the Arkansas General Assembly, under Confederate authority, met at the courthouse under the pretense that it was important to hold special sessions to show the world that the refugee state government was still active,” Kesterson writes. “It met only a few more times before the end of the war. In 1866, Holt was appointed commissioner of public buildings and ordered to carry out suitable repairs on the courthouse and clerk’s office, which had undergone considerable damage from the 12th Michigan Infantry occupying Washington after the surrender. After the war, the building returned to use as a courthouse until a new one was built in 1874.

“The building served as a schoolhouse from 1875-1914, as a justice of the peace office and residence, and then as a museum. In 1922, the first unsuccessful attempt to preserve the structure was made, followed by a more successful venture by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1928. From that time forward, the building was used as a museum and a place to hold meetings. In 1973, the building became part of the state park.”

The structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1972.

One of the state’s leading figures at the time of the Civil War was a Washington resident, Grandison Delaney Royston. Royston was born in December 1809 in Tennessee and moved to Arkansas in April 1832. He first settled at Fayetteville, where he practiced law and taught school. Later that year, he headed to Washington and spent the rest of his life there.

Royston was appointed prosecuting attorney in 1833. He served in that role until 1835, when he was elected as a delegate to the state’s first constitutional convention in 1836. Royston later served as a member of Gov. Thomas Stevenson Drew’s administration and was a general in the state militia.

“In 1861, Royston was elected to the first Confederate Congress in Richmond and served one term before losing a re-election bid to Rufus K. Garland,” writes Len Pitcock of Hot Springs. “He, like many prominent Southerners of the day, had initially opposed secession but supported the institution of slavery. On July 17, 1865, Royston and fellow former Confederate lawmaker Augustus Hill Garland traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a postwar pardon from President Andrew Johnson. Garland went on to serve as governor and later became the first Cabinet member from the state, serving as U.S. attorney general under President Grover Cleveland.

“The final chapter of Royston’s public life came in 1874 when he was elected to preside over the constitutional convention in Little Rock. He was the only member to have served in both this gathering and the first convention of 1836. Royston, a staunch Democrat, served as a national convention delegate in later life and briefly considered a run for the U.S. Senate before deciding against it.”

Royston, who died in August 1889 at age 79, is buried at Old Washington Cemetery. His home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 1971.

A Freedmen’s Bureau was established at Washington after the Civil War to help freed slaves.

“Washington remained an important city in south Arkansas after the war, building a new courthouse in 1874,” Teske writes. “When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was constructed through Hempstead County that same year, it bypassed Washington and ran instead eight miles south through the city of Hope. Businesses began to relocate to Hope, especially after Washington’s business district was devastated by fire in 1875 and then again in 1883. Proposals to move the county government from Washington to Hope were heard as early as 1879, but the move didn’t happen until 1939.

“Even before the county government was moved, the demise of Washington was visible. Work to restore and preserve historic buildings began in 1929 with a grant of $5,000 from the Legislature to restore the 1836 courthouse. A 1947 tornado damaged parts of the city, destroying the historic Baptist church. Aside from its historic buildings, Washington consisted of only a handful of businesses and a few homes by 1958. The Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was organized that year and began collecting money to preserve the city’s many historic buildings. What was originally known as Old Washington State Park was created by the state in 1973 to continue the restoration work.”

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