Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Newspaper Opens Door to State’s Territorial Past

William E. Woodruff, age 35

Newspapers are often the best source to learn Arkansas history. Among the state’s oldest newspapers was the Arkansas Gazette, which was founded by William Woodruff during the state’s territorial days.

William Edward Woodruff was born Dec. 24, 1795, in Suffolk County, New York, to Nathaniel and Hannah Woodruff. He was the first of five children. Woodruff was 12 years old when his father died in 1808. Two years later, he started a seven-year apprenticeship with Alden Spooner, editor and publisher of a newspaper in Long Island.

After his apprenticeship, Woodruff worked for book publishers in New York. Then, in 1818, he headed west, where he worked as a newspaper printer in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Nashville, Tennessee. 

When Arkansas became a territory in March 1819, Woodruff realized territorial residents would need a newspaper. He bought a small printing press and made plans to move to Arkansas Post, the territory capitol. The trip was arduous and took about six weeks by river. Once he arrived, Woodruff spent about a month building his living quarters and setting up his printing press. The capitol had few buildings or amenities. 

Finally, he was able to publish the first edition of the state’s first newspaper Nov. 20. For the next two years, he published the Gazette weekly.

Woodruff moved his press to Little Rock when the territorial capital moved in 1821. For the next 20 years, Woodruff worked in the newspaper business but not always as the owner of the Gazette.
Woodruff also served in the War of 1812 and started the first circulating library in Arkansas. He owned a steamboat, ferry and land agency and was elected to public office at the local and state levels. Woodruff sold the Gazette and bought it back several times. At one point he started another newspaper, called the Arkansas Democrat, in 1846. The newspaper was completely separate from another newspaper, renamed the Arkansas Democrat in 1878.

Woodruff died June 9, 1885 at his home on Eighth Street, which remains standing. He was 90 years old. Woodruff is buried at Mt. Holly Cemetery.

The Gazette merged with another daily newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat, in 1991. Until the merger, the Gazette was the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River.

Information about the Gazette is available in the Archives’ online collection at archives.arkansas.gov. Microfilm is available at the Arkansas State Archives headquarters at 1 Capitol Mall, suite 215. The Archives, in partnership with the Central Arkansas Library System, also has digitalized at least 24 Arkansas newspapers through a joint newspaper digitization project with Newspapers.com. The website includes Gazette articles from November and December 1819.