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A Brief Overview of the History of the Old State House Museum

  • The Old State House Museum is the original state capitol of Arkansas. Since 1833, when construction began, the building and its grounds have witnessed many of the most important events in Arkansas history. The Old State House has hosted the admission of Arkansas to the Union, a fatal Bowie knife fight between two sitting legislators, the Arkansas vote to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy, pioneering medical research into hookworm and malaria, and two acceptance speeches by the president of the United States.

The story of the building begins with the story of Arkansas statehood. 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. Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock, appointed to design the new capitol, chose the Greek Revival style for the new state capitol to emphasize the connection between the newest state of the young United States and the original democracy of ancient Greece.

In 1836, Arkansas became a state and the new legislators began work in the still-unfinished building. In 1837, the first year after Arkansas statehood, Speaker of the House John Wilson attacked Representative Joseph J. Anthony with a Bowie knife of the floor of the House of Representatives, stabbing him in the heart and killing him instantly.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency, the State House hosted a series of debates and votes about whether to join the new Confederate States of America, culminating in Arkansas’s secession from the United States on May 6, 1861. The building then became the Confederate state capitol of Arkansas until 1863, when Little Rock was captured by Union troops and the State House became the Union military headquarters and capitol of the state.

The State House was also the primary scene for the Brooks-Baxter War, a state-level military struggle for the governorship of Arkansas between two factions of Republicans in 1874. The conflict was only ended when President Ulysses S. Grant intervened with the threat of using the United States army.

The State House underwent a thorough renovation in the 1880s which largely enclosed the three branches of government. The building remained the place of business for the Arkansas governor, legislature, and supreme court until 1911, when construction was completed on the current state capitol and the government moved to the new building.

Shortly after the departure of the state government, the building was occupied by the Arkansas School of Medical Sciences, which headquartered the Crossett Experiment, a pioneering research project that achieved global recognition for fighting hookworm and malaria, two longtime scourges of public health in the South.

The Old State House housed a number of other agencies and functions through the twentieth century. It served as the Arkansas War Memorial, became the first home of the Arkansas State Police, and held the offices of a number of statewide patriotic organizations.

In 1947, the Old State House was made a museum by acts of the Arkansas legislature, a status it has enjoyed ever since. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

The Old State House continues to play a vital role in preserving, sharing, and celebrating the history ofArkansas and its people.