Earlier this week was the 194th anniversary of the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette, published by William Woodruff in Arkansas Post in 1819. I wanted to take a moment to mark the anniversary, since the Gazette has been such a bountiful source of information as I’ve worked on His Promise True.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Woodruff brought a second-hand wooden printing press and a load of supplies to the frontier of Arkansas Territory, and within three weeks he had put out the first issue of the Gazette. He would have been about 24 years old at the time, and no doubt ambitious to get the official (and lucrative) printing business of the territorial government. I try to imagine what it must have been like to try to put out a newspaper in a world in which every word had to be spelled out by hand and in which “news” wasn’t necessarily that new by the time it got to the western territory. The printing business was tedious, even in the more sophisticated cities of the East; add to that the difficulty that would come with living in an unsettled, frontier area, and it is certain William Woodruff must have been a man of extraordinary determination.
I’m thankful he stuck with the Gazette. One of the struggles I’ve had in writing about the early nineteenth century is trying to find out what daily life must have been like. Most people, especially the class of people who are in my story, were much too busy living and working to keep a diary or journal. Even if someone did keep a journal, the chances of that journal surviving for 200 years are pretty slim. That’s why I’ve found the Gazette to be such a valuable resource. Granted, a lot of what is given as news is recycled from Eastern newspapers that Woodruff must have subscribed to. What is priceless are the bits of local information that take up the edges of the pages with the recycled news. Woodruff wrote a column for each issue in which he gave reports on local news, as well as local weather. The ads are also a rich source of information, both for the price of goods and for the types of products and services people living in the Territory had access to, and how that economy changed over the years.
There is also the occasional novelty or human interest story. In my scans of the newspapers looking for historical information about the Cherokees in early Arkansas, I’ve also read the story of a three-year-old child who was kidnapped by a man on horseback; I never saw another story that told whether the child had been rescued. I read about the mail carrier whose canoe and a few pieces of mail were found on the banks of a rain-swollen river. The mail carrier himself was not found. And I read a small news article that is someday going to turn into another book, about a young woman who accompanied a young man by train to Cincinnati, where he abandoned her. Her uncle had to go to Cincinnati to bring her back home.
Reading the nineteenth-century Gazette is like putting together a puzzle without the picture on the box as a guide. But I’m thankful to have at least the pieces of the puzzle. For that, William Woodruff, I salute you!