Arkansas College (1851-1852) Cistern Discovered at First Christian Church in Fayetteville
Few people realize that when driving down College Avenue in Fayetteville the name of the thoroughfares’ origin is for a college that preceded the University of Arkansas by twenty years. Today, the property is owned, as it was when the college was built, by the First Christian Church. On December 14, 1852, the Arkansas legislature granted Arkansas College the state’s first charter to a degree-granting institution. Robert Graham, a Church of Christ evangelist and Fayetteville’s First Christian Church permanent preacher who arrived here in 1848, began the Christian college and was its first president. At this time the First Christian Church was located on Mountain Street on the town square. Graham remained the president of the college until he left in 1859 to accept a teaching position in Kentucky. The next and final president of the college was William Baxter. The school closed after the 1860-1861 year as many students joined either the Union or Confederate forces.
Arkansas College housed Confederate troops in the spring, summer and fall 1861 up to mid-late February 1862. Both the Hempstead Rifles and some members of the Third Louisiana Infantry were stationed here. A number of buildings were set fire or accidentally burned during the Confederate march south through Fayetteville on February 22, 1862, including the Fayetteville Female Seminary (located just west of College Avenue and across from Arkansas College) and much of the south side of the town square. Both Arkansas College and the Christian Church were spared, however, only to be consumed by fire later that year. Arkansas College was burned on March 4, 1862 during the Confederate advancement through Fayetteville in the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Christian Church, used as a hospital after the Battle of Prairie Grove, burned later that December (1862).
What became known as the Battle of Fayetteville was fought around the Tebbetts and Baxter home and probably near or on the site of Arkansas College on April 18, 1863. After the war the site became the home of the Christian Church, construction began in 1869 and the church was finished in 1872. In 1901 the building was renovated with additions. This second church building – the first was on Mountain St. – burned on December 18, 1912. Soon thereafter, the church was rebuilt on the same site and remains today. Although the specific building footprint of Arkansas College is unknown, it may lie partially underneath the current building or in the surrounding parking lots.
In 2008 we were notified by Wesley Stites, Property Chairman, and Cheryl Sybrant, the Secretary of First Christian Chruch about an up-coming repaving project on the church lot. They were very interested in what, if anything existed under the current pavement relating to the history of the church or former site of Arkansas College. Early on the morning of October 14, 2008 Wesley called me and said workers uncovered some foundation remains on the south parking lot while using a track-hoe to remove paving and fill underneath to prepare a base for the new pavement. I quickly organized our crew who consisted of Jared Pebworth, Mike Evans, Aden Jenkins and myself.
When we first arrived we observed a foundation wall built of native stone, hand-made brick with a thick concrete plaster on the interior. We worked most of the day with a track-hoe operator exposing the partial plan of the basement of a house that included a cistern. The upper walls of the hand-made brick cistern had been incorporated into the walls of a much later house. We removed an early to mid-20th century fill from the “basement” of the house. Shovels were used to clean the concrete floor of the basement.
We had the track-hoe operator then “bust” through the concrete floor in the area of the cistern. Below the concrete floor the lower walls of the cistern were evident. The cistern measured 2.7 meters in diameter and about 3.5 meters deep from the graded surface to the bottom of the cistern. Fill in the cistern was removed by the track-hoe and consisted of very wet, sloppy red clay, and large rock.
We discovered the original diggers excavated through a 25 – 40 cm. thick sandstone rock lens down to solid bedrock. They then lined the circular hole with brick and mortar. We feel confident the cistern was built as part of Arkansas College. After the college burned use of the cistern continued. When the house was built ca. 1870 or later in the 19th century, the cistern was incorporated into the house plan. It was probably during this period when it was lined with the thick concrete mortar. When it was no longer needed, after city water became available, it was capped with concrete and became part of the basement floor. Renovations to the house were probably completed at this time also. Before it was capped it may have been drained by removing a small section of the lining and brick near the bottom. We observed a small square section in lower wall where the brick had been removed perhaps for this purpose.
The earliest Sanborn Insurance Company map of the lot in 1908 shows a house at the site of the foundation and cistern. This confirms the archeological evidence of a domestic residence dating at least to around 1900 or earlier. Furthermore the last Sanborn map (1930) shows a structure here as well, although at this time its plan is slightly different and it is designated as a “flat” as opposed to the earlier “dwelling” as noted on the Sanborn Insurance Co. maps. Obviously the residence was razed sometime after the 1930s, the lot cleaned and eventually made into a parking lot.
To learn more about the history of Arkansas College, see the following:
Copyright ©2008, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - December 2008