Small South Arkansas Cemetery Big in History
November 5, 2002####
Small South Arkansas
Cemetery Big in History
By Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Arkansas's 43rd state park, Conway Cemetery, preserves the gravesite of the state's first governor, James Sevier Conway. The small, historic park in south Arkansas has picnic tables but no visitor services or other recreational amenities. Conway Cemetery is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Texarkana via U.S. 71 and Ark. 160. For more information, visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.
BRADLEY -- Conway Cemetery State Park may be Arkansas's second smallest state park at 11.5 acres, but it is certainly not small in its significance to the state's history. It is the final resting place for James Sevier Conway, a prominent Arkansan who served as the state's first governor. The half-acre cemetery is in extreme southwest Arkansas at Walnut Hill where the Conway cotton plantation was located. The house and outbuildings are long gone but the family plot remains as a silent reminder of Conway's importance to the early statehood days.
James Sevier Conway became the state's first governor when Arkansas was admitted to the Union as the 25th state on June 15, 1836. Conway (1796-1855), originally from Greene County, Tennessee, moved with his family to St. Louis in 1818 when he was 22 years old. Two years later he and his older brother headed south into the new Arkansas Territory where both found jobs as surveyor supervisors. In 1823, President John Quincy commissioned Conway to survey the boundary between Arkansas and the Choctaw Nation, which is now the state's western border. Conway also assisted in the survey of the Arkansas-Louisiana boundary, and in 1831 President Andrew Jackson appointed him to the office of Surveyor for Arkansas Territory.
As the Democratic nominee, Conway won Arkansas's first gubernatorial election by a substantial margin. During his four-year tenure, he pushed for good roads and schools. He approved legislation that established a banking system. Other accomplishments during his term in office included obtaining authorization for a state penitentiary, convincing the federal government to establish the Little Rock Arsenal (now the Arkansas Museum of Military History), and the completion of the original State Capitol (now the Old State House Museum). He also attempted unsuccessfully to set up a state library and state university.
Because of declining heath and an unstable state economy, Conway decided not to run for a second term in 1840. He returned to Walnut Hill where he was involved in civic affairs and operated one of the largest and most successful cotton plantations in south Arkansas until his death in 1855.
The cemetery, which contains the graves of 40 members of the Conway and Bradley (Conway's wife) families, was initially maintained by local residents. It had long been the desire of many in Lafayette County to secure state assistance in preserving the historic plot. Their hard work paid off when legislation passed in 1975 authorized the development and acquisition of the cemetery. In 1977 it became a state historic site and was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. The state Department of Parks and Tourism took over maintenance and supervision in 1984. Some of the improvements made since then have included a paved parking lot and access road, an appropriate wooden fence and picnic tables.
The park was officially dedicated in 1986 as a part of the state's yearlong Sesquicentennial celebration. Since 1985, the town of Bradley has celebrated its famous citizen with the annual Governor Conway Days festival. The event includes such activities as arts and crafts, a bass tournament on Lake Erling, a dance, twirling and clogging competitions, a large antique automobile show, a parade, musical entertainment, the Miss Governor Conway Days beauty pageant and a teen talent search. Proceeds from the event, which is held the last weekend in March, are used for Bradley's downtown revitalization efforts.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"