William E. Woodruff - Pope's Early History of Arkanasas

William E. Woodruff

? - 1898

William E. Woodruff was born at Fireplace, Long Island, New York, the son of Nathaniel and Hannah Woodruff.  At the age of thirteen, upon the death of his father, he became an apprentice printer at the Long Island Star, serving seven years to learn the trade.  With ink on his hands and an urge to go west to seek his fortune, he visited Wheeling, West Virginia, purchased a canoe, and journeyed to Louisville.  He worked for a year as a printer at Russelville, Kentucky, and then went to Franklin, Tennessee.  There William bought a second-hand primitive printing press and a "shirt-tail full of type," which he transported down the Cumberland River to the Ohio and over that river to the Mississippi.  From there he went up the Arkansas River to Arkansas Post, the territorial capital on the bank of the river.

There he built a log cabin with two rooms.  In one room he lived, and the other room was occupied by his press.  He began publishing the Arkansas Gazette on a sheet eighteen inches square and was editor, pressman and his own printer's devil in a one-man shop.  William started his newspaper in a village with a population of one hundred inhabitants.  He ran the newspaper for forty-four years and, except for the interruption of the War for Southern Independence and a short interval during which the press was being moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock, Arkansas, the Arkansas Gazette has been in continuous operation.

A man of slight build, William Woodruff did not give the impression of one likely to cope with the lawless element on the American frontier.  However, he must have had the courage of his convictions in what was at times a riotous community.  One bully who took exception to something Woodruff had published threatened him in his shop.  Cornered, Woodruff shot and killed the ruffian in self-defense.  Exonerated before the bars of justice and public opinion, he retained the respect of the people.

In 1821, Little Rock was made the capital of the Arkansas Territory, which was when Woodruff moved his newspaper to Little Rock. In 1827 he married Jane Eliza Mills.  They had three sons and five daughters.  As late as 1830, the Arkansas Gazette was tone only newspaper published in the territory and was consistently Democratic.  In 1846, Woodruff established the Arkansas Democrat, an opposition newspaper to the Gazette which he had sold three years earlier.  In 1860, he merged the two papers under the name of Arkansas Gazette and Democrat.

In 1843, Woodruff founded the first lending library in the state.  Inside each of the books he put in circulation was a printed label which read in part, "Please read and return in two weeks.  Price $2.00 a year."  During the War for Southern Independence most of these books were lost when a fire broke out next door to the building in which they were stored.  The books were removed to the street and many of them were carried away during the occupation by book-hungry union soldiers.

Editorials from Woodruff, the testimony of his contemporaries, and the record of his useful life indicate that he was a man of integrity and sincerity.  The initial issue of the Arkansas Gazette, preserved in the state museum at Little Rock, is typographically neat and well-written.  As a young man, William E. Woodruff, self-educated, self-reliant and imbued with high purpose, pioneered with a hand printing press on the American frontier to spread the light of truth and understanding.  Called in his day the "grand old man of Arkansas," he died in Little Rock on September 2, 1898.