How to Get There
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
Questions or comments?
E-mail me:
robin@redriverhistorian.com
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 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.

Manifested Destinies
Washington became the county's seat and one of the busiest towns inside the
Louisiana Purchase lands. Interesting, 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 Chihuahua Trail (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.