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Fayetteville History

Northwest Arkansas was originally Native American country. Used as a hunting ground by the Osage and later inhabited by the Cherokee, the first permanent settlers came into the area in the mid-1820s when Arkansas was still a Territory. Fayetteville was established as the county seat on October 17, 1828. Fayetteville has long been known for its innovative spirit, as an academic center-"the Athens of the Ozarks"-and it is a "hilly area" known for the seven hills around and within it.


Over the years, Fayetteville has been home to many notable people including Senator J. William Fulbright, President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and renowned architects Edward Durell Stone and Fay Jones. It is also home to dozens of properties on the National Register of Historic Places, many dating to before the Civil War. Among these are Headquarters House, used by both Union and Confederate forces, the Sarah Ridge House and Governor Archibald Yell's law office. Sections of both the Trail of Tears and the Butterfield Overland Stage Route traverse the city and are part of the National Trails System.

The area that would become the City of Fayetteville was founded in 1828, when pioneers settled near a spring at the base of Mount Sequoyah. The George McGarrah family was the first to establish a homestead near Big Spring (Spout Spring) at what is now the corner of Spring Street and Willow Avenue. The McGarrahs were followed by the James Leeper family and their daughter-in-law Lucy Washington. The Leepers owned all the land on the south side of Mount Sequoyah to the White River, as well as lots around the Fayetteville Downtown Square.

On October 17, 1828, Washington County was established out of Lovely County, which had been established the previous year. Originally named Washington Courthouse, the City of Fayetteville was given its name in 1829, when Postmaster General William T. Barry ordered the name changed to avoid confusion arising from another town in Hempstead County already named Washington. County commissioners chose the name Fayetteville because two of the commissioners, James Buchanan and John Wooddy, hailed from Fayetteville, Tennessee.


In 1829, a crude 20-foot-by-20-foot-long building with puncheon floors was erected as the first permanent courthouse. It sat where Block Avenue now passes between the present-day Bank of Fayetteville on the corner of Center Street and Block Avenue and the Old Post Office located in the center of the Square. About 1830, John Nye opened a store on the west side of the Square and the next day another store, run by the Sevier Brothers, sprang up nearby. In 1833, Alfred Wallace opened a general store on the west side and shortly thereafter William McGarrah opened a grocery at the corner of East and Center streets where the University of Arkansas Continuing Education building now stands.

On February 27, 1835, President Andrew Jackson issued a patent for 160 acres forming the original settlement of Fayetteville. This land was bound by what is now College Avenue on the East, Gregg Avenue on the West, Dickson Street on the North, and South Street on the South. All of the lots except the Square, were auctioned off between 1835 and 1837, raising $6,339 in the course of 169 sales. The money was used to erect a courthouse and clerk's office. In 1836, Fayetteville's first brick house, a school house, was built on what is now called School Avenue, between Meadow and Center streets, and a military road was cut through Fayetteville en route from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort Smith, Arkansas.


When Arkansas was granted statehood in 1836, Judge Archibald Yell, a Fayetteville resident originally from Tennessee, was elected the State's first Congressman. Yell also served as the State's second Governor, serving as Governor from 1840 to 1844. He built a home, law office, and a guesthouse in Fayetteville on an estate he named Waxhaws in honor of President Jackson's South Carolina birthplace. Only Yell's law office remains, which was moved in 1992 to the Washington County Historical Society grounds. This law office is one of the oldest structures in the State of Arkansas.

On November 3, 1836, the first state legislature passed an act to incorporate the town of Fayetteville. In 1837, a new brick county courthouse was built in the center of the Fayetteville Square, and in 1839 Archibald Yell contracted for the construction of a two-story jail, with a dungeon and debtors cell in the lower story. The jail was built by Mathew Leeper on the southeast corner of College Avenue and Rock Street for $4,460. Fayetteville was officially incorporated in 1841.

On December 14, 1852, Arkansas College, which was located where the First Christian Church now stands at 220 N. College Avenue, became the first degree-granting college in the State of Arkansas. The College operated until the outbreak of the Civil War. In June 1854, a contract was awarded to build yet another new county courthouse in the center of the Fayetteville Square. This third courthouse was burned during the Civil War.

There was little military activity in Fayetteville until February 25, 1862, when Confederate troops moving south were ordered to destroy an arsenal in the Van Horne school building (located at the northwest corner of College and Dickson where the First Baptist Church now stands.) Soldiers were ordered to burn and loot all commercial buildings, military stores, and vacant houses in Fayetteville rather than let any material fall into the hands of Union forces. After setting torch to the City, the Confederates retreated beyond the Boston Mountains, only to pass through a week later on their march north to the battle at Pea Ridge.


During the Civil War, the town was alternately possessed by both sides. Although there were skirmishes, the "Action at Fayetteville" or "Battle of Fayetteville" was the only major conflict. On the morning of April 18, 1863, the city awoke to Southern forces attacking Union troops headquartered within the city limits. Backed with cannon fire from the lower side of East Mountain (near Olive Avenue and East Dickson Street today), Confederate cavalry charged up from Big Spring but were repulsed by Union infantry and cavalry. Most of the battle raged near the intersection of Dickson Street and College Avenue, giving rise to its name as "Bloody Corner." Judge Jonas Tebbetts' home near the intersection of College Avenue and Dickson Street was used as Union headquarters by Colonel M. Larue Harrison. The battle centered on Tebbetts' home while Confederates attempted to take back the town. The battle-scarred house, known today as Headquarters House, still stands as a museum and the headquarters of the Washington County Historical Society. In the end, Confederate troops were unsuccessful and withdrew into the sheltering mountains.

In 1867, a National Cemetery was established on the south side of Fayetteville. It was one of the original fourteen Federal cemeteries authorized by President Abraham Lincoln. On June 10, 1872, a group of Fayetteville women organized the Southern Memorial Association to secure a site for proper burial of Confederate soldiers who perished at the battles of Fayetteville, Prairie Grove, and Pea Ridge. The Confederate Cemetery was eventually established on three acres of land on the southern edge of Mount Sequoyah (East Mountain) near the eastern end of Rock Street.

In 1866, Fayetteville was organized as District No. 1, the first public school district in the State. The American Missionary Society built a brick building to school the City's African American students. Later named Henderson School after its first superintendent, it was the first public school in Fayetteville and perhaps the State. It still exists today as part of a private home. On March 20, 1871, an independent school district was organized, and the first meeting of a Fayetteville school board was held.

The Morrill Act, passed by Congress during the Civil War, provided land grants to each state to establish agricultural and mechanical colleges. Upon re-entering the Union, Arkansas became eligible for such a grant. Washington County approved a $100,000 bond issue, and Fayetteville offered another $30,000, including individual land donations, to build a college. Fayetteville's proposal was selected and the Arkansas Industrial University opened on January 22, 1872. In 1899, the Arkansas General Assembly changed the name to the University of Arkansas. In the early twentieth century, attempts were made to move the University of Arkansas to a more central location in the State. The primary argument was the distance students from other areas of the State had to travel to attend school in Fayetteville. Attempts made in the Legislative sessions of 1909, 1915, and 1921 all failed. While the Arkansas University System now has colleges and universities around the State, The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville remains the flagship campus of the  University of the Arkansas System.

Advances in communication, transportation, and the transportation infrastructure eased the remoteness of Fayetteville. When wireless telegraphing became a reality around the turn of the twentieth century, the University of Arkansas erected a 125-foot wooden tower for sending coded messages. In 1924, the university erected a wireless apparatus and began broadcasting as KFMQ radio, later changed to KUOA which soon began broadcast of "The Voice of the Ozarks" It is now recognized as one of the oldest radio stations in the world. In 1926, the University of Arkansas School of Business Administration was established, becoming the fifth college of the university. It was later renamed in honor of merchandising entrepreneur Sam Walton.


On June 8, 1881, a track of the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway reached Fayetteville. When the first train arrived, carrying the president of the rail company, a crowd of thousands greeted it where North Street crosses the line. On July 4, 1882, the first regularly-scheduled passenger train of the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway arrived in Fayetteville.

Fayetteville's efforts to apply hard surfaces to streets began in 1917. In 1918, Fayetteville's first streets were paved, including West Lafayette, Rollston, Highland, St. Charles, Ida and Dickson from St. Charles to Willow, as part of the West Lafayette Improvement District No. 1. In the next ten years, twenty-five miles were paved at a cost of $500,000.

In 1937, Fayetteville residents approved a $20,000 bond issue to build an airfield that would eventually become Drake Field. In 1943, during World War II, the "White Hangar," as it came to be known, was built at Drake Field to provide a home for the University of Arkansas' College Training Detachment. War-time shortages of metal forced Fayetteville officials to think of a way to build a hangar using only wood. Henry George, an assistant City engineer, came up with a design that was used in its construction. The building later served as headquarters for Scheduled Skyways and in 1986 became home of the Arkansas Air Museum, which is now the Arkansas Air and Military Museum. The state's first commuter air service began on August 10, 1946. South Central Air Transport flew flights between Fayetteville and Little Rock. In 1947, Fayetteville's municipal airport was named in honor of Dr. Noah F. Drake, the person most responsible for acquiring land for Fayetteville's first airport, and the airport is recognized as the first Northwest Arkansas regional airport.


Throughout Fayetteville's history, the population has steadily and sometimes rapidly grown. In 1940, the federal census reported 8,212 residents but by 1950 that number had more than doubled (17,071).

Over the years, Fayetteville has experienced growth in ways other than population. In 1954, for example, the Fayetteville School District Board was the first in America's "Old South" to vote for integration of its high school. Fayetteville High School peacefully integrated in September of 1954, with elementary schools integrating in the 1960s. On June 4, 1962, on land donated by Gilbert Swanson, a new public library was dedicated on East Dickson Street. The building was designed by noted architect Warren Seagraves and named the Roberta Fulbright Library in honor of the successful newspaper owner and publisher, bank president, civic crusader and mother of long-time U.S. Senator J. W. Fulbright. In 1966, nearby Beaver Dam was completed by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, thus creating a reservior for power generation, flood control, and the area's water supply. In 1972, uptown Fayetteville's commerce area grew with the building of the Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville. In 1992, the Walton Arts Center opened in the popular entertainment district of Dickson Street, featuring Broadway shows and nationally-acclaimed performing artists. And, in 1997, the Downtown-Dickson Enhancement Project was established, helping to revitalize the downtown economy and furthering the entertainment district as a premiere hot spot for locals and tourists. 

  • Credit for this brief history of Fayetteville, Arkansas, goes to the research, writing of Veronica Mobley and J. B. Hogan.