Washington was on the main road in antebellum
Arkansas, but isn't anymore. The town sits along
AR 195 & US 278 northeast of Hope.
Visit Historic Washington State Park to learn more about this amazing place.
Capital of the Old Southwest:
Washington, Arkansas
Washington, Ho!
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
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.

Manifested Destinies
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.  
The Southwestern Trail reached from Little Rock through Washington, and terminated in Fulton. Thousands of feet and hooves sunk the
roadbed as it ascended into Washington. Today, the trail between Washington and Fulton can be easily traveled; however, the old path between
Washington and Little Rock is still dirt and not well marked. The building on the right is the 1836 courthouse, in which the Arkansas state
legislature convened in 1864.
Washington's old jail is now a bed and breakfast.
The old tavern at Washington had to be rebuilt. (Library of Congress).  
The old Washington tavern has been restored to its original footprint.
Downtown Washington at the turn of the 20th century. (Arkansas Historical Commission)
Downtown Washington in the 21st century.
Read about the history of Washington and its environs in my book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas!
The magnolia tree in Washington, planted in 1839, is the state's largest specimen.
Though the citizens of Washington built a new courthouse in 1874, the county seat was moved to Hope by 1938.
Nice porch on a restored home in Historic Washington State Park.
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com
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