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story.lead_photo.caption John Deering

In 1955, Doubleday & Co. published a collection of essays about the South titled James Street's South. Street, who was born in Mississippi in 1903 and died of a heart attack in North Carolina in 1954, became a well-known novelist in the 1940s. Before that, he was a Baptist minister and a newspaperman, working for a time in the late 1920s at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock.

The only essay in the collection that had not been published previously dealt with the Gazette.

His son, James Street Jr., said: "He had written it as a labor of love at a time when he couldn't write fiction. He always thought of the Gazette as his school and of its editors as his teachers. He thought of it as an embodiment of the qualities of Arkansas that are to be admired, and he was quick to defend."

Here's how the elder Street described the Gazette: "For more than 100 years, the popular symbols for the state of Arkansas were a fiddler, a slow train, a razorback hog and a hillbilly. But that's not so these days, and a lot of credit for the change goes to a sedate newspaper that seldom changes, a fussy old lady of a newspaper whose brass knucks never are visible under her prim white gloves. She is the Arkansas Gazette, oldest paper west of the Mississippi River and published every morning in Little Rock, usually a quiet guardian who watches her state like an old Dominiquer hen scratching for her mixed brood while taking a few juicy worms for herself.

"Her virtue is never flaunted. Her scoldings are so sharp that some folks cringe at her slightest frown while others find comfort in her motherly cluckings. She's a Southern lady from any angle, her Confederate limbs hidden under a Victorian petticoat and seen only in stormy weather when she kicks up her heels in an eye-scratching crusade for her principles or goes on a sassafras-tea jag of cautious liberalism. Her tenets have made her one of the most successful journals in the world and yet her tenets are simple: What is best for humanity as the Gazette sees it, an honest profit is not evil, change is not always progress but never fear change, and lay not a greedy hand, sir, on the fair breast of Arkansas, point not a dirty finger."

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Gazette. The first issue was published on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1819, at Arkansas Post. The newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821 and stayed there until the Gazette published its final issue on Oct. 18, 1991. The first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

During the remainder of the year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will celebrate the Gazette's 200th anniversary with articles and events. The newspaper will reprint a historic page each day for 200 days. The celebration will culminate with a dinner on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 21, in the Wally Allen Ballroom of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

The Gazette was founded by William E. Woodruff, born in December 1795 on a small farm on Long Island, N.Y. His father died when Woodruff was 12. Two years later, his mother apprenticed Woodruff to Alden Spooner, a printer who published the Suffolk Gazette.

Woodruff's apprenticeship ended when he was 21. He worked as a journeyman printer for book publishers in New York before heading west in 1818. He worked for newspapers in Louisville and Nashville before being encouraged to move to Arkansas when Congress created the Arkansas Territory in March 1819.

"He aimed to get in on the ground floor," Street wrote.

Woodruff knew there would be business opportunities as a government printer. In 1821, he published the first book printed in Arkansas, a 152-page volume titled Laws of the Territory of Arkansas.

"Young Woodruff got himself some type and a press, loaded them on a keelboat, and took off," Street wrote. "Down the Cumberland River to the Ohio, down the Ohio to the Mississippi, down the Mississippi to the mouth of the White River, and there he unloaded his stuff and rested long enough to figure out his next move. The Territory of Arkansas (sometimes spelled Arkansaw in those days) wasn't even organized and its temporary capital was at Arkansas Post, 50 miles up the Arkansas River. He might have waited for another keelboat, but Woodruff was a man in a hurry, so he lashed two dugout canoes together, stored his equipment aboard and started poling.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is reprinting from its archives one page a day from each of the 200 years since the first issue of The Arkansas Gazette appeared Nov. 20, 1819. Click here to see a new page each day.

"He grunted his way from the White to the Arkansas, thence up that river, keel hauling where he could, shoving and poling through the shallows, and reached Arkansas Post in October 1819. The trip had taken three months, and now he was a long, long way from nowhere. A month later, however, the first copy of the Arkansas Gazette came off his press. The weather was fine. The Gazette said so."

In that first four-page edition of what was then a weekly newspaper, Woodruff wrote: "After a series of delays, in transporting our materials to this place, and in arranging our office since our arrival, we have at length succeeded in issuing the first Number of the Gazette. The present size and complexion of our paper does not exactly suit us; but this we intend to remedy as soon as our patronage will justify our procuring new materials, and enlarging its size.

"We cannot omit this opportunity of expressing our thanks to those gentlemen who have so generously volunteered their aid in procuring subscribers for us, and to the citizens, generally, of this village and vicinity, for the liberality with which they have subscribed to the Gazette. We have, also, flattering hopes of a generous support, in the distant counties in this territory, from which we have not yet had time for returns. It has long been the wish of many citizens of this territory that a press should be established here. Their wish is now accomplished."

Woodruff found himself in an isolated place, the western frontier of a still-young nation.

In his book The Arkansas Post of Louisiana, federal Judge Morris "Buzz" Arnold wrote: "Even among Europe's most remote outposts of empire, the Arkansas Post was an exotic standout. For one thing, though not a few such establishments petered out (the Post did about 1941), not many petered in. The tiny settlement would move about uneasily and flicker in and out of existence for the better part of a century before finally coming to rest. Henri de Tonty's outpost was abandoned by 1699 and was not resurrected until 1721, when it became central to John Law's fantasy of a mid-American empire, a fantasy that had captured the attention of Louis XV's government and a whole horde of investors. But this new Post, located at Tonty's old site, was inconsequential and vulnerable."

In 1749, the settlement moved upriver several miles in order to be closer to Quapaw villages. In 1756, Arkansas Post moved downriver again to what's now Desha County,

Arnold writes: "At the time, though it sheltered only about 50 people, free and slave, there was no other European settlement between Natchez and Ste. Genevieve, a stretch of more than 800 miles. ... So the Post was important precisely because it was out in the middle of nowhere."

Arnold, a former professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on Arkansas Post, especially the years it was controlled by the French and Spanish.

Even though Arkansas Post was in a remote location, Arnold says there were "already doctors, lawyers, land speculators and surveyors there when Woodruff arrived. It was beginning to attract a number of interesting people as the territorial capital. The town itself would have been a village of about 200 people. There would have been houses down the river, resulting in a total population of 400 to 500 people in the area. There probably were 50 to 60 black slaves, two or three black freedmen and people of mixed French and Indian ancestry. Cotton production was just beginning to take off, though the first gin had opened back in 1805. The French commandant had experimented with cotton as early as 1766."

Famed naturalist Thomas Nuttall arrived in Arkansas Post in 1819 and was there again in 1820.

"The herald of public information, and the bulwark of civil liberty, the press, has also been introduced to the Post within the present year, where a weekly newspaper was now issued," Nuttall wrote. "Thus, in the interim of my arrival in this country it had commenced the most auspicious epoch of its political existence."

The fact that Arkansas had one of the few newspapers west of the Mississippi River sent a signal to the rest of the country that the territory had, in a sense, arrived.

"It said to people that this was a place that deserved attention," Arnold says. "The fact that there was a newspaper made people sit up and take notice."

It didn't take long for the capital of the new territory to move. Woodruff, who relied on the government printing business, moved with it.

"Legislators began to seek out a place more centrally located in the territory," Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Among the contenders was Cadron (in present-day Faulkner County), which petitioned the U.S. House of Representatives for the honor, and Little Rock. Cadron was designated the seat of Pulaski County in 1820. On Feb. 22, 1820, a bill was introduced to move the territorial seat of government from Arkansas Post to Cadron, but this bill was only approved with an amendment that changed Cadron to Little Rock. In October 1820, the Legislature approved $1,400 to build the county jail and courthouse at Cadron. That same month, Gov. James Miller signed a law firmly designating Little Rock as the territorial capital. ... Miller purchased land in the Crystal Hill area of Pulaski County in March 1821. Some historians have suggested that he intended to profit from the sale of this land to the government for a location of the capital."

Here's how Street described the move: "Arkansas Post, down in the swamps, was a poor place for a capital, and after some weird shenanigans in politics and speculation, the seat of government was moved up the Arkansas River to a spot where a rock was a landmark for trappers. It was called the Little Rock to identify it from a larger rock upstream. Here the capital was built from scratch, and some of the nabobs tried to name it Arkopolis, but the people called it Little Rock and the name stuck. The Gazette moved in with the government and her first Little Rock edition appeared on Dec. 29, 1821. She has been here ever since."

For decades, the mailing address of the Gazette was P.O. Box 1821 in Little Rock to mark the year the newspaper moved.

"From the beginning, the Gazette was a state newspaper rather than a community newspaper," Street wrote. "She took news of the capital to the crossroads, and in this mission naturally brought news of the state into the capital, but her main undertaking was to keep Arkansas informed."

John Deering

Editorial on 05/05/2019

Print Headline: From the beginning: Exploring the origins of the Arkansas Gazette


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