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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Our state’s first political cartoonist

by Tom Dillard | May 22, 2022 at 2:19 a.m.


No man in 19th-century Arkansas was better known than William Quesenbury (pronounced Cush-n-bury).

Most people would have known him as Bill Cush, the name under which he wrote popular humor and performed dramatic readings of his original stories and poetry. He was an original and gifted thinker, an artist, a pioneering and innovative newspaperman, an acute observer of and participant in the California Gold Rush, a veteran of both the Mexican and Civil Wars, and a stage performer of wide appeal. Did I mention he was the first political cartoonist in Arkansas?

Quesenbury was born Aug. 21, 1822, in newly created Crawford County in the newly created Arkansas Territory. His father, Henry Anderson Quesenbury, was an early settler in the Van Buren area while his mother, Susan Bean Quesenbury, was a part of the large and prominent Bean family, some of whom were pioneering salt makers from near Fort Smith.

Young Bill attended the first school in Fort Smith. He enrolled at St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Ky. After a year he returned to Arkansas, settling at Van Buren across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith. His first job was as a writer for the Frontier Whig newspaper, and later for the Arkansas Intelligencer, a Democratic newspaper, both published at Van Buren.

Initially, Quesenbury was a feature writer; two pieces he wrote on the Creek Indians were reprinted in widely read national sporting magazine Spirit of the Times. He later published an essay on fishing in Arkansas in the same magazine. He also wrote for the Arkansas Gazette, producing a series of biographical sketches on what historian Michael B. Dougan termed "the exotic characters who inhabited the frontier ..." Dougan concluded, "it is tempting to call him the first regular columnist in Arkansas journalism."

Quesenbury had a knack for drawing and other art forms, and in 1842 he studied under portraitist John Mix Stanley, who was making a tour of Arkansas and Indian Territory. Mostly though, Quesenbury sketched constantly--posting the sketches on the ceiling and walls of his office.

Many of Quesenbury's drawings survive, and some are awfully bizarre--perhaps the most disturbing being a cyclops. Later in the 1870s, Quesenbury taught art at Cane Hill College west of Fayetteville.

Quesenbury volunteered for the Arkansas regiment during the 1846-48 war with Mexico and fought in the Battle of Buena Vista at which the commander of Arkansas troops, Col. Archibald Yell, was killed by Mexican lancers. He wrote a detailed account of the battle, which was reprinted widely.

Following the war, Quesenbury got married, moved to Cane Hill, and taught school for a time. In 1850 he joined the California gold rush, traveling overland and keeping a diary of the journey. Though his journal entries are brief, they dramatically describe the brutal challenges facing the would-be miners. He was staggered by the "vast quantities of animals [which] lie dead on the road. Some are dying, some standing." Two weeks later he counted 454 dead animals in one day.

The trail was also littered with excess baggage dumped to lighten the creaking wagons: "Hats, boots ... tents, wagons, stoves, clothing ...were strewn thick ..." Quesenbury found a "good pair" of much-needed boots in one abandoned wagon.

Quesenbury had no luck finding gold, but found ready markets for his writings in two California newspapers. In 1851 he headed back east and did some of his most important drawings during the return trip. This was especially true in Nebraska, where his detailed drawings of Chimney Rock and Court House Rock are highly valued.

In 1853, Quesenbury established the South-West Independent newspaper in Fayetteville. Though he was a Whig, his newspaper was non-partisan and a venue for much of his creative energy. In addition to published cartoons, the editor experimented widely, publishing the first book review in Arkansas, for example.

In 1857 he closed the paper, attributing it to health considerations, but he was also in desperate financial shape.

It is unclear as to how Quesenbury managed, but we know he wrote a regular column for the Gazette. In 1860 he was well enough to take over temporary management of another Fayetteville newspaper, the Arkansian. It was during this brief tenure that Quesenbury drew and published the first political cartoons in Arkansas history. Though the paper was Democratic, the new temporary editor skewered all the candidates with biting cartoons.

Quesenbury was a vocal critic of the movement to join the Confederacy in 1861. However, once hostilities broke out, he went into Confederate service, working as an aide to Gen. Albert Pike, who was busy ensuring Indian tribal loyalty to the South. Quesenbury had credibility with Indians as he, unlike William Woodruff and other editors, had long editorialized in defense of those who were mistreated. Although Quesenbury ridiculed the overuse of military titles, he was often referred to as "major" following the war.

During the decades preceding his death in 1888, Quesenbury was primarily hailed as a humorist and excellent stage presenter. Newspaper historian Frederick Allsopp described Quesenbury as "a fellow of infinite jest and humor." He was also a poet, though his "pomes" do not appeal to modern readers.

Audiences lined up and usually paid 25 cents to hear "Bill Cush" present his poem "Arkansas," a defense of what he considered a much maligned state. A typical stanza reads:

What stigma rests on Arkansas?

What crime or foul disgrace

upon her?

Where is the hand [which]

would dare to draw

A black line on her shield of honor?

And yet the State has stood forlorn

And friendless, kindredless,

and mute,

And patiently throughout has borne

An humble if not dark repute.

The long poem concludes with what is perhaps his most remembered line: "God loves not him that loves not Arkansas."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.


Print Headline: Our state’s first political cartoonist

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