Friday, April 20, 2012

Crawford County Courthouse - A Civil War Landmark in Van Buren, Arkansas

Crawford County Courthouse
One of the most beautiful old structures in the Arkansas River Valley, the historic Crawford County Courthouse is believed to be the oldest courthouse in active use west of the Mississippi River.

The original portion of the building was completed in 1842 and was just seven years old when Van Buren and neighboring Fort Smith became major jumping off points for "Forty-Niners" heading west during the California Gold Rush of 1849. During the early months of that year the population of Van Buren almost doubled when an estimated 1,000 prospective miners showed up in Van Buren ready to start their journey across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to California.

The land on which the Crawford County Courthouse stands was donated by John Drennan and David Thompson. The two town founders had purchased the site for Van Buren from Thomas Phillips for $11,000 and the town itself was surveyed in 1837. The community actually existed to some degree before then. People had been living in and around what became Van Buren since 1819.

Historical Marker at Crawford County Courthouse
One of the most noted cases considered in the courthouse took place in 1857 when Apostle Parley Parker Pratt, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-Saints (Mormon) appeared there after being arrested in the Cherokee Nation of what is now Oklahoma. A member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of his church, Pratt was accused of various charges related to his marriage to Eleanor McLean. One of his twelve wives, Eleanor had not divorced her previous husband. Pratt was released after being held in Van Buren for five days, but a lynch mob caught up with him at the Wynn farm near Alma and brutally murdered him. (Please click here to learn more about the Murder of Parley P. Pratt).

Crawford County Courthouse
The courthouse was 20 years old when Union troops attacked Van Buren on December 28, 1862. The Confederate army of General Thomas Hindman had marched north from the town earlier that month in a campaign across the Boston Mountains that culminated at the Battle of Prairie Grove. Unable to defeat the Federal army of Generals James G. Blount and Francis J. Herron, Hindman had fallen back across the mountains to Van Buren. When the Union army had recovered sufficiently from the massive battle in Northwest Arkansas, it pursued the Confederates south to the Arkansas River.

One-Room School of Albert Pike is on the Courthouse grounds
On December 28th the Federals emerged from the mountains at Dripping Springs in northern Crawford County. After a sharp skirmish there, they pursued retreating Confederates south into Van Buren. A running battle took place right through the center of town down the street directly in front of the historic courthouse. (Please click here to learn more about the Battle of Van Buren.)

Confederate forces across the river shelled Van Buren that afternoon, but the Crawford County Courthouse survived the battle. Thousands of pages of the county's records, however, were destroyed during the brief Union occupation.

A fire attributed to arsonists gutted the historic courthouse in 1877, sparking a fight between Van Buren and nearby Alma over which should be the county seat. Van Buren won and the courthouse was rebuilt within its still standing walls. It continues to serve the residents of Crawford County to this day.

To learn more about historic Van Buren, please visit

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