Capitol for a New State 1833-1859
In the 1820s, westward migration increased the population of Arkansas until it approached the threshold required for a territory to apply to become a state. Construction on the building began in 1833 and was declared complete in 1842. The building was commissioned by Territorial Governor John Pope, who selected Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock (who previously designed the Kentucky state capitol building) to create plans for the Arkansas capitol. Shryock chose the Greek Revival style, then a popular design for public buildings, for Arkansas's new capitol. The original plans were grand and too expensive for the young territory's finances. Consequently, the plans were changed by George Weigart, Shryock's assistant, who oversaw construction at the Little Rock site.
In 1829, President Andrew Jackson appointed John Pope, a prominent lawyer and former U.S. Senator from Kentucky, as the third territorial governor of Arkansas. When Pope arrived in Little Rock, he found a town of approximately 976 people. Trees covered the area, and trails rather than streets led from house to house. About 60 buildings were situated in what would now be considered the immediate downtown area, with the majority being log cabins. Government buildings were actually wooden shacks and were in terrible condition. For several years before Pope's arrival, the Territorial Legislature and Superior Court met primarily in rented rooms. Shortly after assuming the post of territorial governor, Pope submitted a request to the U.S. Congress for aid in financing a territorial capitol. Granting his request, Congress passed an act which gave Arkansas ten sections (6,400 acres) of land which could be sold to raise funds for site selection and construction. The Territorial Legislature was responsible for the sale, and received three proposals concerning the ten sections of land. The most popular was a proposal submitted by Robert Crittenden, a leader in Arkansas politics and an influential man among many members of the legislature. Crittenden offered to trade his two-story brick house (located on the block where the Albert Pike Hotel now stands) for the 6,400 acres of land. He assured the Legislature that this would provide immediate and suitable quarters for the territorial capitol. Crittenden's followers quickly passed a bill in support of the exchange. However, Pope vetoed it on the grounds that the ten sections were worth far more than Crittenden's home, and that Congress donated the land to enable the territory to secure a state house, not a dwelling house as a temporary arrangement. Time proved the wisdom of the governor's veto. Within two years, Pope sold the ten sections for $31,700, and in the same year, Crittenden sold his home for $6,700. By this time, Congress had given Pope authority over the matter.
Gideon Shryock of Lexington, Kentucky, who designed the state capitol for Kentucky, was asked to draw the plans for the building. He prepared the plans but was unable to come to Arkansas himself to supervise the work, and instead sent George Weigart in his place. The plans were splendid, but far too elaborate and expensive for the funds and land available. The plans were modified before work began, presumably by Pope and Weigart. Construction on the building began in 1833. There were to be three buildings—a main building with two buildings on each side and covered walkways to connect the buildings. The main building was to have two fronts—a river facade and a street facade. Advertisements were run in the Arkansas Gazette weekly requesting bricklayers, stonemasons and laborers (preferably slaves and boys from the country) to whom $10 to $12 would be paid.
By 1836, when the building opened its doors for the first general assembly, Arkansas had become a state. Six years later, in 1842, Governor Archibald Yell declared that the building was complete.
When Arkansas became a state, government officials moved into the new building, despite ongoing construction. In fact, Arkansas legislators threatened workers with bodily harm because of construction noise during the session.
Land speculators grew rich during the settlement of frontier Illinois and Missouri in the 1820s. Similar-minded entrepreneurs expected to fare likewise in the new state of Arkansas. To facilitate this, the new state government created state banks. Unfortunately, these were chartered on the eve of the Panic of 1837, one of the worst depressions in the nation's history.
Founded on the unrealized expectation of a rise in land values, these banks faced a crisis from the start. Dispensing blame for the failure of the state banks became the most contentious political issue of the day.
This was the climate in 1837 when State Rep. Amos Kuykendall proposed a bill to award a bounty on wolf hides. The discussion stalemated on the issue of how the bounty would be dispensed. Were cash-strapped local magistrates to pay and then be reimbursed? Would they be required to hang onto the smelly pelts as proof? Someone suggested that the hunters be issued some sort of certificate.
At this point, Rep. J.J. Anthony of Randolph County rose and suggested the hides be signed by the president of the Real Estate Bank. The implication was that this would make them legal tender, a subtle criticism of the alleged value of the banknotes in circulation. The joke was so subtle, in fact, that no one understood it, least of all Speaker of the House John Wilson - who happened to be the president of the Real Estate Bank.
Wilson asked Anthony if he intended an insult.
Anthony refused to clarify his remark.
Wilson declared Anthony out of order and ordered him to be seated.
Anthony refused to yield the floor. According to one witness, he supposedly opened his coat at this point to reveal his knife. Other versions indicate it was Wilson who first brandished a weapon.
Events quickly escalated and the two antagonists rushed toward one another in the aisle. Rep. Grandison Royston thrust a chair between the two men, hoping to separate them. Anthony and Wilson each grabbed the chair and began to duel with their knives.
Anthony slashed Wilson's wrist, but Wilson then rushed forward and plunged his knife to the hilt directly into Anthony's heart. Death was instantaneous.
Because Wilson's political enemies controlled Little Rock, he was able to obtain a change of venue for his trial to Saline County, where he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
Much material for the building was obtained locally, even bricks which may have been made on-site with slave labor. The State House served as the state capitol until 1911, when construction was completed on a new building, located at what is now Capitol Avenue & Martin Luther King Drive. For more on the history of the building, see the Pillars of Power exhibit.
The capitol remained basically the same architecturally for the next 43 years. On the inside, however, the building needed constant repairs. Problems appeared as early as 1837, when the beams in the roof of the main building (what is now the House of Representatives) began to shrink and fall as much as eight inches. Two years later, the main walls in the west wing gave way in several places. The plaster in the ceiling of the senate chamber also began to fall. The grounds were in poor condition as livestock from a nearby stable often wandered through the yard. Also, windows were repeatedly broken by vandals, and the furniture was basically stark and bare, with sawdust covering the wooden floors. Yearly, the secretary of state asked the legislature to allocate money for patchwork repairs. While lawmakers were not blind or insensitive to the conditions, Arkansas was far from a rich state, and there was simply not enough money left over after attending to pressing financial matters.