Robert Crittenden was once a giant in Arkansas politics. As the first territorial secretary, he laid the foundations for the beginnings of Arkansas government and the establishment of Little Rock as the capital. But he would see all of his gains slip away and die at a young age.
Crittenden was born in central Kentucky, in 1797. His father was a Revolutionary War veteran and former Virginia legislator. At the age of 17 in 1814, Crittenden joined the army in the midst of the War of 1812 and later served in the Seminole War, a series of campaigns that the army waged against the Seminole tribe of Florida.
His older brother, John J. Crittenden, enjoyed a very successful career, serving three terms in the US Senate, one term as Kentucky governor, and as US Attorney General. He also went on to pen the “Crittenden Compromise” in December 1860 as a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War. In 1819, as the Arkansas Territory was formed, he served in the U. S. Senate and persuaded President James Monroe to appoint his eager younger brother as territorial secretary.
As territorial secretary, Robert Crittenden would be acting as a sort of combination treasurer, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state for Arkansas. The territorial governor, James Miller of New Hampshire, was unimpressed by his Arkansas assignment and took several months to arrive.
However, when Crittenden arrived at the territorial capital at Arkansas Post in March 1819, he immediately became acting governor and began making official appointments and organizing the new government. He also declared that the territory met the population threshold to organize a legislature and called for elections.
By the time Gov. Miller arrived in December, he found a government almost totally controlled by Crittenden. In 1820, Crittenden pushed to have the territorial capital moved from Arkansas Post to Little Rock, where he owned valuable real estate.
Crittenden County, which encompasses West Memphis, was named for him in 1825. Although he had amassed a great deal of influence at a young age, he was increasingly frustrated by being passed over again and again for the position of governor.
His fall began with the territorial delegate to Congress, Henry W. Conway. Since his 1823 election, Conway found himself at odds with Crittenden, who put forward several candidates to try to defeat him. Crittenden floated rumors that Conway stole federal money meant for Arkansas, which sparked a violent feud. The bitter argument escalated until Crittenden challenged him to a duel.
The two met in Mississippi in 1827. Moments after the shooting began, it was over. Conway lay dying, as did Crittenden’s career. The Conway Family immediately organized all their might against destroying Crittenden’s influence in Arkansas. With Andrew Jackson’s election as president, Crittenden found himself out of office altogether in 1829 as Jackson replaced him with William Fulton as territorial secretary.
He hoped to recover his influence behind the scenes, but he brought only further controversy. In 1831, the federal government offered Arkansas land it could sell to finance a capitol building. Crittenden attempted to persuade the legislature to trade the land for his own mansion. Gov. John Pope refused, and ultimately the land proved to be worth more than four times what his house sold for.
In 1833, he ran in his only election, for territorial delegate against Ambrose Sevier, Conway’s cousin, and lost decisively. The Seviers and Conways still blamed Crittenden in Henry Conway’s death and would not let Arkansas forget. The voters were tired of Crittenden. Nevertheless, he continued to work as a lawyer, traveling extensively and hoping to resurrect his political dreams. Weighed down by ill health and disappointments, Crittenden collapsed and died in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in December 1834 at the age of 37.
DISCLAIMER: Emails sent to or received from the College are subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, Ark. Code Ann. Sec. §§ 25-19-101 et. Seq.