William Edward Woodruff (1795–1885)
William Edward Woodruff’s life spanned the years of Arkansas’s territorial days, statehood, Confederacy, and Reconstruction. Although best known today as the founder of the Arkansas Gazette, the state’s first newspaper, Woodruff became one of the state’s most important and colorful historical figures through his other business interests, political connections, and efforts to promote Arkansas.
William Woodruff was born on December 24, 1795, on a small farm at Fire Place on Long Island, New York, the oldest of five sons born to Nathaniel Woodruff and Hannah Clarke Woodruff. His father died when Woodruff was twelve; two years later, his mother apprenticed him to Alden Spooner, a Sag Harbor, New York, printer who published the Suffolk Gazette. His original indenture document still exists, held at the Arkansas State Archives.
After his apprenticeship ended on his twenty-first birthday, Woodruff worked as a journeyman printer for book publishers in New York until 1818, when he headed west. After working briefly for a paper in Louisville, Kentucky, Woodruff accepted a job with Thomas Bradford of The Clarion, and Tennessee State Gazette in Nashville, Tennessee. Bradford encouraged Woodruff to move to Arkansas after Congress approved the long-awaited act creating Arkansas Territory on March 3, 1819. The new territory offered a prime opportunity for a printer who not only would be able to serve the growing population but, as the first printer in the territory, could expect to be named government printer.
Woodruff bought on credit “a small stock of old printing materials,” which included four bundles of paper, type cases, ink, incidentals, type, and a second-hand wooden Ramage press. He transported his equipment overland from Nashville to the Cumberland River, where he took passage on a keelboat down the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, and down the Mississippi River to Montgomery’s Point (Desha County) at the mouth of the White River. There was no public transport to Arkansas Post (Arkansas County), so Woodruff engaged a pirogue—a large dugout canoe—and two boatmen to take him the rest of the way.
Woodruff arrived at Arkansas Post on October 30 or 31, 1819, about six weeks after leaving Tennessee. He published the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette on November 20. In 1821, he published the first book printed in Arkansas, the 152-page Laws of the Territory of Arkansas. Before 1826, he had printed five territorial documents, two “Minutes of the Little Rock Association of Regular Baptists,” and one broadside appeal for a congressional candidate.
At the same time, Woodruff was developing his political and social connections, some of which would have long-term ramifications. Shortly after he arrived at Arkansas Post, Woodruff had his first run-in with Territorial Secretary Robert Crittenden. Haughty, aristocratic, and taking advantage of his almost unlimited power as acting governor, Crittenden was a force to contend with. However, Woodruff refused to allow Crittenden to dictate his editorial policy, and the die was cast. In short order, Woodruff jumped into the life of this new land, embroiling himself in the fiery—sometimes deadly—politics of the times. He chose sides as a Democrat and aligned himself with the powerful lawyer Chester Ashley, who became his close lifelong friend.
On November 22, 1821, an agreement was signed to move the territorial capital to Little Rock (Pulaski County). Two days later, Woodruff published the last issue of the Gazette from Arkansas Post, packed up his operations, and moved to the new capital. The first issue of the Gazette from Little Rock was published on December 29.
Woodruff married Jane Eliza Mills, the daughter of Abraham Mills, on November 14, 1827, in Little Rock. They had eleven children—four sons and seven daughters.
Woodruff made the Arkansas Gazette a success, selling it and buying it back several times. In 1846, when he could not repurchase the Gazette, he founded a new paper, the Arkansas Democrat. A few years later, when the Gazette was again available for purchase, he merged the two papers into the Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat.
Woodruff founded other businesses, too. He sold books, stationers’ supplies, garden seeds, and family medicines out of his print shop. He established the first circulating library in Arkansas in 1826. Woodruff owned a ferry and a steamboat called The Little Rock. In 1823, he formed a land agency that was so successful that it brought him far more wealth than his newspapers ever did.
Woodruff also held local and state public office. He was a Little Rock councilman in 1833 and was town treasurer in 1834. In 1845, he was the Little Rock postmaster. He served as state treasurer in 1836 and, for twenty-three years beginning in 1833, served as agent for paying military pensioners. Although he was never a candidate for a major office, it was said he commanded more political influence than any territorial governor except John Pope.
Woodruff was a great promoter of Arkansas and influenced the final spelling of the name. Woodruff County, formed in 1862, was named for him. He promoted agriculture and viticulture and experimented with silk culturing. In 1863, he served as the first vice president of the Arkansas Historical Society. When Federal troops stormed Little Rock in 1863 during the Civil War, the sixty-eight-year-old Woodruff fought in the trenches to defend the city. During the occupation, he was banished from Little Rock because of his Confederate loyalties, and his property, home, and possessions were confiscated.
Woodruff died on June 19, 1885. The funeral was held at his home on 9th Street in Little Rock. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.
For additional information:
Allsopp, Fred W. History of the Arkansas Press for a Hundred Years and More. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Publishing Co., 1922.
Dougan, Michael. Community Diaries: Arkansas Newspapering, 1819–2002. Little Rock: August House, 2003.
Lucke, Jessie Ryan. “Correspondence Concerning the Establishment of the First Arkansas Press.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 14 (Summer 1955):161–171.
Ross, Margaret. Arkansas Gazette: The Early Years 1819–1866. Little Rock: Arkansas Gazette Foundation, 1969.
———. “The Homes of the Arkansas Gazette at Little Rock, 1821–1866.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 25 (Summer 1966): 128–144.
Speer, William S., and John Henry Brown. The Encyclopedia of the New West. Marshall, TX: U.S. Biographical Publishing Co., 1881.
Mary L. Kwas
Arkansas Archeological Survey
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My passionate hobby is studying art history, particularly American antebellum portraiture. I am absolutely certain that your portrait image of William E. Woodruff (1795-1885) was painted by Kentucky painter Alexander Bradford (1791-1827). That would also change the apparent date from “ca. 1830” to something like “ca. 1826.” He was engaged much of 1825-26 painting the eight members of the Prewitt family, several of whose portraits bear a very close resemblance to this portrait (for example, Levi Prewitt).
Your article on Woodruff mentions the printer Thomas Bradford. The Bradford family in this part of America was headed by John Bradford (1747-1830), who set up the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies and whose several sons followed in the business. This family also had two portrait painters (John V. & Alexander Bradford) who worked in the 1820s.