A Town on the Cotton Frontier of the Old Southwest
The antebellum town of Washington, Arkansas (state site number 3HE236), in Hempstead County was once the county seat, the Confederate state capital during the Civil War and a booming cotton town on the Southwest Trail. It is perhaps the best surviving example of a nineteenth century town in the Old Southwest. Unfortunately, the town's prosperity was short-lived. Several devastating fires and its omission from major railway routes condemned Washington to the role of economic backwater for much of the early twentieth century. Its influence and eventually the county seat (in 1939) was taken by Hope eight miles away on that railroad.
The town's loss was preservation's gain, however, since a stagnant economy meant that very little of the town's architecture changed during the course of the twentieth century. The town became a state park--Historic Washington State Park (HWSP)--in 1973 after many years of stewardship by the Pioneer Washington Preservation Foundation (beginning in 1959). Now the town is a treasure of antebellum Greek Revival houses and 19th century public buildings set in the surviving town plan from 1824 and it has thus been declared a prime candidate for heritage tourism by the statewide preservation organization in Arkansas.
The town is, of course, significant for more than just its architecture--archeological fieldwork has been conducted on some ten blocks in the town, and on four other locations on the edge of the platted town, and we have recovered over 200,000 artifacts relating to life in the 1800s. Almost 20 years of historical archeology has been undertaken at the preserved town by the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Sometimes the work was conducted as volunteer projects (for example, the Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program from 1981-1984), sometimes as part of funded environmental impact work, sometimes in association with the rescue and moving historic houses from the countryside into HWSP.
Dr. Leslie "Skip" Stewart-Abernathy lead the initial testing in 1980 and a series of Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program digs (1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984) conducted excavations at the detached kitchens that had once served the Block and Sanders Houses. Additional work has been conducted by the contract arm of the AAS (directed by Charles Ewen and Randall Guendling) at the Norwood House, the 1836 Courthouse, the 1836 County Clerk's Office and further explorations of both the Block and Sanders House yards.
These excavations have given us valuable insights into not only the elite residents of Washington, but also a glimpse into African-American history and what it may have been like to be Jewish on the southwestern frontier of the 1830s.