Exploring Washington County, Arkansas

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
As the newest setting of the popular TV mystery series True Detective, Washington County, Arkansas may be a relatively unknown place to many viewers. Located in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Washington County is the third most populous county in the state, and possesses a fertile history of agriculture and farming. Here, we’re looking at how Washington County grew into one of the most prosperous counties in Arkansas.

 Early Settlers

 The first known evidence of people in Washington County were early Native Americans, who inhabited the land as early as 8500 BCE. However, between the years 900 and 1600 AD (otherwise known as the Mississippian Period), Washington County underwent many massive changes, beginning with explorations of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. Written accounts from de Soto’s crew reveal there was a massive increase in population and agricultural activities in the area, which led to the development of several small farming communities throughout the Ozarks. The land supported a diverse array of crops: corns, beans, squash, and more.
However, many of the Native American tribes were not pleased with the influx of white settlers. In the early 1800s, the American government enlisted William L. Lovely to oversee relations between the Osage and Cherokee tribes in the area. This decision came as a result of conflict between the two tribes, which posed a threat to settlers. Lovely was mostly successful, but is perhaps better known in Arkansas history for the 1816 “Lovely Purchase” - an unauthorized purchase of land from the Osage tribe that would become today’s Washington County. In 1825, it became Lovely County, and was sparsely settled. The Arkansas legislature took over in 1827 and renamed the area Washington County after the nation’s first president. One year later, the government formally made the territory available to settlers.

The railroad was one of the main drivers of economics in Washington County.

By the 1830s, small villages had formed in what is today Springdale and Fayetteville. Due to favorable living conditions and inexpensive land, large amounts of people migrated to the county through the 1830s and 1840s. Archibald Yell was first appointed by Andrew Jackson as a circuit court judge for Washington County, and then in 1836, he became Arkansas’s first congressman. He later became the state’s second governor in 1840.

From War to Economic Success

Throughout the Civil War, Washington County witnessed a handful of divisive and destructive battles. Because of its centralized location, both Union and Confederate armies wanted control over the county. The Battle of Pea Ridge on March 6, 1862 and the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862 were both attempts by Confederate soldiers to solidify their hold on the land. In April 1863, the Action of Fayetteville further escalated the rift between residents. The battle that ensued left 75 men dead, wounded, or missing. After this, Union troops peacefully withdrew and Confederate soldiers regained hold of the county. By the beginning of 1866, store owners reopened to the public and the region began to get back on its feet. In 1870, the county population was 17,266 and by 1900, it had grown to 34,000.
The construction of the Butterfield Overland Mail route in 1858 invited more families to settle in Washington County. In 1900, it began exporting fence posts, lumber, spokes, posts, and railroad ties, bringing in more revenue and increasing the number of jobs for residents.
But the economy of Washington County in the early 19th century was mostly based on apples. Weather conditions combined with the altitude made an environment for apples to thrive. In 1900 alone, Washington County produced 614,924 bushels of apples according to the United States Census. By in 1888, Washington County had the highest agricultural income of anywhere in the state. Over half of the land in the county today is dedicated to farming. Alongside its agricultural pursuits, Washington County is also home to large corporations like the Campbell Soup Company and Tyson Industries. Despite some moments of stagnation, Washington County has remained a resilient area, and remains today as one of the most profitable farming communities in the country.