Washington County, Arkansas

Washington County, Missouri

  • Formed: October 17, 1828
  • County Population 1860: 13,179
  • Slave Population 1860: 1.493
  • Civil War Engagements-The Battle of Cane Hill, November 28, 1862-Battle of Prairie Grove, December 7, 1862
Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas, 1865
Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection


Washington County, Arkansas has abundant timber resources, grasslands, and wild game. The soil is suitable for growing wheat, oats, corn, hay, strawberries, beans, and tomatoes. Sandstone is common and used for building stone and the clays in the area are conducive to brick manufacture. Natural mineral springs drew the first settlers.

Traditionally, the Washington County area belonged to the Osage. As the white population in the eastern United States continued to grow, tribes from the east were pushed west. Forcibly relocated to Arkansas and Oklahoma, the Cherokee shared territory with the Osage, resulting in many conflicts between the tribes. The first non-Native American settler to the area was Samuel Latta and his family in 1820s from Charleston, South Carolina. They settled in Cherokee territory. The United States Army ordered the Lattas and other early settlers—John Alexander and William McGarrah, and families with the surnames Shannon and Simpson—out of the area, as it was designated territory for Native American Tribes.

Eventually the area’s abundant timber resources, grasslands, and wild game attracted the attention of more settlers. The soil allowed for the growth of wheat, oats, corn, hay, strawberries, beans, and tomatoes. Sandstone and clay within the region was used for construction and brick manufacturing. Ultimately the Native American Tribes were pushed further west into Indian Territory, modern day Oklahoma, and Washington County was established on October 17, 1828. The county originally included parts of modern day Benton, Madison, and Carroll Counties. Prairie and Cane Hill were the earliest townships in Washington County, which was named after President and Revolutionary War General George Washington. The county seat was named Fayetteville.

Settlers continued to pour into Washington County after its official formation. These included: John Fitzgerald, Sr., who settled near Shiloh, Eli Boyd, from Maryland, David Walker, from Todd County, Kentucky, Reverend Andrew Buchanan, from Warren County, Kentucky, and Archibald Yell, from Tennessee. Yell fought in the War of 1812, the Seminole War of 1818, became circuit judge in Washington County, and served and died during the Mexican War. Settlers to the area came from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, and Missouri. They raised pigs, chickens, oxen, apples, corn, wheat, beans, cotton, and tobacco. By 1840, the population was over 7,100 people.

Bordering Native American territory, Washington County residents had many interactions with the Native American tribes, including intermarriage. Washington County woman Sophia Sawyer opened a school for Cherokee girls. The Trail of Tears passed through the area causing a boom in the economy and population because of the government officials and Native Americans Trail traveling in region. As the tribes of the southeast moved to new lands in the west, they entered into an economic system that made land a commodity with a monetary value. In 1840 a missionary described the Choctaws in Indian Territory as living in log cabins, raising corn, pumpkins, peas, melons, and yams. Their farms generally ranged from one to ten acres, and black slaves were generally used as field hands on larger farms. Men worked the fields, and hunting was limited to small animals such as rabbits and squirrels to supplement the family diet. A favorite settling place for wealthier tribal members was by waterfalls that would run their grist mills for their grain.

By the 1850s, the population had reached almost 10,000 people. The census did not include the men in California mining for gold. Although not counted in the U.S. National Census, there was a recorded slave population in the county of 1,439 slaves. Several educational institutions formed, including Cane Hill College. From the mid 1850s until the beginning of the Civil War, debates over whether Washington County and all of Arkansas should secede dominated politics in the area. Because most residents were from other southern or slave states, the majority of the sentiment fell with secession. The Washington County landscape is very mountainous and large slave plantations were not numerous, but a slave economy helped the county’s prosperity. When the state held a convention to vote on secession, Washington County voted by a narrow margin to remain in the Union, but the other counties in Arkansas overruled them.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Confederate Regiments formed quickly in Washington County. Company C, First Regiment, Arkansas Confederates formed October 19, 1861, followed quickly by Company E, First Regiment, and Arkansas Confederate Cavalry. Cane Hill College students and teachers joined these regiments, and fought in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Greene County, Missouri. Confederate General Ben McCulloch was in charge of all troops in Northwestern Arkansas, and the few abolitionists that remained in the county were suppressed. Most men enlisted in Home Guard Units to defend their towns. Fayetteville was very important to the Confederate Army, and became a supply and storage center.

The Confederates had a victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Greene County, Missouri in August 1861, but the triumph was short lived as Union troops began to push into Arkansas in February 1862. On February 22, fearing Union takeover, Confederate troops burned their own supplies in Fayetteville, together with most of the town, to prevent Union troops from using them. The Confederates left the area and the Union army took control. On March 6-8 the Battle of Pea Ridge took place in Benton County, the Confederates suffered severe losses including the death of General McCulloch, and was forced to retreat into the mountains.

In May 1862, General Thomas Hindman took command of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi. He demanded all able men volunteer for the army, which resulted in the formation of several new regiments. In April, the Confederacy was desperate for soldiers and issued the Conscription Act stating that all able bodied men in the Confederate States must fight for the Confederate army, receive an age or heath exemption, or leave Arkansas. To aid Confederate forces General Hindman issued General Order 17, on June 17, 1862, which allowed for the formation of independent, or guerrilla forces that were not necessarily attached to a formal regiment of the Confederate army. Shortly after this order was issued, Union troops began recruiting in Washington County and the First Arkansas Volunteer Cavalry formed in response to the Union recruitment. The Native Americans living in the area played a vital role as soldiers in both armies. Members from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek all participated in the Civil War. The Cherokee Commander Stand Watie, who fought for the Confederacy, rose to prominence during the war.

The Battle of Cane Hill occurred on November 28, 1862 between Confederate troops under General John S. Marmaduke and Union troops under General James G. Blunt. Losing initially, Blunt called for reinforcements. Union General Francis J. Herron and his troops answered, securing a Union victory. Just a week later, on December 7, 1862, the Battle of Prairie Grove took place. Confederate troops under Hindman attacked Herron’s Union troops. Blunt came to Herron’s aid, and the battle again resulted in a Union Victory. The Confederate troops retreated to Fort Smith, Arkansas. After the Battle of Prairie Grove, skirmishes between both armies and guerrilla units were the most notable happenings for a few months. Then on April 18, 1863, the Battle of Fayetteville took place. Union troops attacked to control Confederate forces in Arkansas. Confederates under General W.L. Cage were defeated by the First Arkansas Cavalry under Colonel Marcus LaRue Harrison were defeated, and the battle was a Union victory. In September, 1863, Confederate troops burned the town of Shiloh, hoping to prevent Union troops from using the supplies there. Union troops burned Cane Hill College in November of the same year. Guerrilla warfare was constant in Washington County, which led to the establishment of Post Colonies. Starting in 1864, if a group of men enlisted in the Union army, their families were allowed to move to an area of land set aside for homes near military forts.

After the war, Washington County was totally devastated. Industry slowly began to reemerge. Brick manufacture hit a boom because residents were afraid to build wooden homes, most of which were burned during the war. Sheep farming and wool milling picked up, as did saw mills, and tobacco farming. In 1880s, Washington County began commercial fruit crops and canning industries. Railroad construction began in the county in 1881, aiding reconstruction.

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