Washington County History
By A.D. Poole
Present day Washington County was first claimed by Osage Indians as hunting territory. In 1810s and 20s, Cherokees who were fleeing the push by whites who were taking their lands in the southeastern U.S, gained rights to some of the present County’s area. But by 1828, these Cherokees were moved out to Indian Territory, nearly 10 years before the rest of the Cherokees would be forced out of the southeast along the Trail of Tears. Some of these later Cherokees would cross parts of Washington County in 1837-1839.
In 1816 a Major William Lovely secured a federal grant, called “Lovely’s Purchase,” that included a portion of today’s south Washington County and a large section of eastern Oklahoma. In 1827 Lovely County was created from Lovely’s Purchase and more land. The seat for Lovely County was at Nicksville in Indian Territory, north of present day Sallisaw, Oklahoma. In 1828, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature extinguished Lovely County and created a large Washington County which encompassed parts of present day Madison and Carroll Counties and all of Washington and Benton Counties. After Arkansas became a state in 1836, the present boundary of the County was established.
Fayetteville was recognized early as the seat for the new County. The first post office at Fayetteville was called Washington but the postmaster realized Washington in southern Arkansas already had that name so Fayetteville was chosen, possibly for the town in Tennessee where some local officials had lived. The town was incorporated in 1836.
Springdale began as a settlement around a church called Shiloh in the 1840’s. After the Civil War, a town plat was laid out around the church site. In 1875 a post office was established and given the name of Springdale and the town was incorporated in 1878.
The earliest small communities established in the County include Cane Hill, noted for its large mills and institutions of learning; Evansville and Cincinnati, major trade centers in the early and mid-1800s; Prairie Grove, settled around 1829 and the site of a major Civil War battle; and West Fork, first settled around 1836. West Fork did not become a thriving village until 1875-76 with construction of water and steam mills. Elm Springs also grew after establishment of a water mill in the early 1840s, as did Dutch Mills and Viney Grove. Goshen was known as College Grove when it was founded in 1874. With the building of the St.Louis and San Francisco Railroad(Frisco Line), Winslow prospered and was incorporated in 1881. Elkins was noted for a good school at the turn of the 20th century and was an important stop on the St.Paul Branch of the railroad. Lincoln developed as an apple growing center before the Civil War. Tontitown began in 1898 when an Italian colony, having been driven from southeastern Arkansas by disease and unfamiliar agricultural practices, settled in Washington County and successfully began to grow grapes.
When the Butterfield Stage route from near St.Louis to San Francisco came through in 1858, the County was connected to the outside world. The stage stopped at Fitzgerald’s Station in present northeast Springdale, into central Fayetteville with a station near the 1905 courthouse and stops at hotels. From Fayetteville it proceeded south with a stop at Parks Station west of Winslow, and a flag stop at Strickler. From there was a rugged trip across the Boston Mountains to Van Buren. The stage line was terminated in 1861 after only three years due to the Civil War.
The Civil War devastated most of the countryside as well as the villages and towns that had prospered in the three to four decades before the War. Troop movements and guerilla activities resulted in burning of buildings in towns, destruction of crops and livestock and much loss of life. It has been said Fayetteville largely was controlled by the Union Army and the countryside by Confederate guerillas. The populace was split with loyalties to both sides. Both Union and Confederate military units were formed of County men.
After the war, Fayetteville began to rebuild fairly quickly. Springdale, or Shiloh as it was known, began to grow as did Prairie Grove. Cane Hill recovered and thrived for several years, including Cane Hill College.
Fayetteville had recovered sufficiently in 1871 to compete for, and win as location for the State Land Grant university, called Arkansas Industrial University initially. The name was changed to University of Arkansas in 1899. Initial classes were held in a remodeled farmhouse and a hastily constructed frame building. But by 1875, University Hall, long known as “Old Main” was completed, and is now the center of a large campus.
The first railroad, St. Louis & San Francisco, known as the “Frisco” was built in the 1870s and ’80s. In each town through which the tracks passed, development centered on the railroad. The towns of Springdale, Fayetteville, West Fork and Winslow prospered, at least in part because of the railroad. Other stops were sometimes made at Johnson, Greenland, and Woolsey, south of West Fork. Winslow developed as a considerable resort with several fine hotels. In 1886 a branch line was built east from Fayetteville to St. Paul in Madison County, primarily to facilitate the harvesting of the white oak trees used for railroad ties. Towns along this route included Baldwin, Harris, Hood (Elkins), Durham and Thompson, just into Madison County.The St. Paul Branch railroad operated until 1937. Another rail line was built from Fayetteville through Prairie Grove, Lincoln, Summers and on to Muskogee.
Agriculture was always important to the county, with corn and wheat grown early and ground in the many mills in the area. Fruit and vegetable farms were common around Washington County, with tomatoes, grapes, apples and peaches as most common products. A canning industry grew to preserve some of these with factories in Springdale and West Fork in the late 1800’s. Strawberries were grown commercially and began to be shipped by rail by 1900.
The poultry business began with a small processing operation in Fayetteville in 1916. Feed mills and hatcheries were built in and around Springdale in the 1920s. The University and pioneer businessmen such as Jeff Brown, developed methods for growing better chickens and control of disease. Trucking of live chickens was developed by John Tyson and C L George of Springdale and replaced railroads to move chickens from the grower to the market. Companies descended from these and other local operations have grown and form a significant part of the County’s commercial strength. Tyson has become one of the nation’s largest producers of meat.
As it was in early days, Washington County is connected with Benton County, as a significant piece of a region that has experienced phenomenal growth in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. Development of Beaver Lake on White River which begins in the County, has provided water to support the growing population and industry of the area. Interstate highway 49 runs from I-40 in the Arkansas River valley into Washington and finally Benton Counties, and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Benton County provides the transportation links to the rest of the world that was initially provided by the Butterfield Stage Line.
Washington County Arkansas, League of Women Voters, 1989
Goodspeed’s 1889 History of Washington County
Fayetteville Arkansas in the Civil War, by Russell Mahan
Washington County History, by Shiloh Museum 1989