Old Washington in Hempstead County, Arkansas
To get to Washington, Arkansas today, you'll need to WANT to go to Washington, Arkansas. This quaint village has been set up as a state historic park amongst the scenic, gentle hills of the Red River Valley, and is very much out-of-the-way for today's travelers. But the near-ghost town used to be THE place for those venturing into the Southwest- either on the road to Texas or Indian Territory, or as a place to set up a business to accommodate such visitors. So much history is contained within the former seat of Hempstead County and the last capital of Confederate Arkansas that telling it can be hard to do, but it is nonetheless very important to do so, since without Washington, there would be no southwestern history.
Arkansas Territory once spanned from the Mississippi River westward to the 100th Meridian at the Texas Panhandle. Settlers began pouring into Arkansas to populate the newly acquired lands, which had been purchased from the French in 1803 and then wrestled from the Caddos, Shawnees, Osages and Quapaws through a series of land deals, treaties, and outright intimidation. By the late 18-teens, Arkansas Territory created two counties around the Red River to accommodate the many settlers who made the southwestern border region - New Spain lay just beyond the river- their new home: Hempstead and Miller. While Miller County would dissolve within less than two decades due to boundary disputes, Hempstead County thrived.
Washington became the county's seat and one of the busiest towns inside the Louisiana Purchase lands. Interestingly, though, the town boomed mainly as a conduit for further southwestern migration. By the 1820s and into the 1840s, the Choctaws and Chickasaws walked through Washington on their way into Indian Territory after exchanging their homelands around the Mississippi River for those in western Arkansas Territory. Their new lands would eventually become part of Indian Territory, which was carved out of Arkansas by 1828. During the same period, many American pioneers had their sights set on Texas. Until 1836, Texas was a province of New Spain and then Mexico, but that didn't necessarily faze the Americans any. They were ready to take over the fertile lands southwest of the Red River, come hell or high water or revolution. So many people passed through Washington on their way to Texas that the road between Little Rock, Washington and Fulton became known as the Chihuahua Trail (today, it's called the Great Southwestern Trail).
Washington accommodated the travelers with a large tavern, which hosted people like Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin, Benjamin Milam and Jim Bowie. The town also had a blacksmith shop where, according to legend, James Bowie commissioned his eponymous knife. Two subscription-based academies served boys and girls separately. The town had a post office, a newspaper, several stores, and a courthouse. Several plantations around the Red River brought economic prosperity, in both the slave trade and the cotton trade. When secession was put to a vote, Hempstead County voters rejected it, but nevertheless joined the Confederate army when Arkansas seceded. During the Civil War, Washington hosted the Arkansas legislature after the Union had captured Little Rock, and nearby Rondo (Lafayette County) held the state's archives. Confederate forces from Hempstead County, including Choctaw regiments mustered from nearby Fort Towson, pushed back the Union army at the Battle of Prairie d'Ane in 1864.
Washington, No More?
The end of the Civil War brought big changes to Washington. Though in the 1850s the route of the proposed southern transcontinental railroad line was supposed to run through the city, the re-chartered Cairo & Fulton Railroad instead laid its tracks about eight miles to the east. By 1874, a new town called Hope formed around the railroad. As more and more people left Washington to find jobs in Hope and the other new railroad city, Texarkana, even the road-builders bypassed the old town; the Bankhead Highway veered into Hope, not Washington, and the Hempstead County seat became an outpost. Hope became the county's new capital in 1938.
Washington wasn't dead yet, but it definitely needed life support. This came in the form of a few women and men who refused to let the unique history of Washington fade away. In 1958, the Community Improvement Club of Hempstead County and the Foundation for the Restoration of Pioneer Washington joined forces to create a "colonial Williamsburg" in southwestern Arkansas. With grants and genereous donations, the volunteers moved and/or restored antebellum homes and outbuildings, spruced up the courthouses, and re-built the historic tavern. Eventually, the Washington State Historic Park opened, and in 1978, the park became the repository for the Southwestern Arkansas Regional Archives, run by the Arkansas Historical Commission.
Beginning its life as a way-station for migrants bound for Indian Territory and Texas, and continuing its post-county seat life as a destination for historic-minded travelers, Washington
was and still is the gem of the Red River Valley.