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The Truth Behind Washburn Park

Washburn Park is often visited but the person it is named after is primarily unknown even to many of the residents of Russellville, where the park resides. Russellville is a small college town now, but it was originally the home of the Cherokee people before railroad tracks were built and coal mining was established, which led to it becoming an official town in 1870.

Washburn Park is located at the intersection of west main street and lakefront drive, with a view overlooking the Illinois Bayou to the north and quick access to Intersate-40. It is a small park sitting atop a hill that is also to the Bona Deal Trail for additional leisure activities. With a park viewed by so many travelers and residents, it might be worth knowing who the city of Russellville named this park after.

For those unfamiliar with the park, there is a plaque near a clearing at the park that offers a biography of Cephas Washburn, detailing some of his evangelical work around the state beginning with his missionary work to the Cherokee people. According to this plaque, the park appears aptly named after a noble man with obvious religious convictions to proselytize whomever he could. Giving in to curiosity, there are still questions about what kind of person Washburn was aside from what the plaque provides, like many other persons in history context matters and there is very little context provided by the plaque.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System, Cephas Washburn was born in Vermont in 1793. In 1814, Cephas transitioned from farming to teaching after a leg injury, but later decided to become a missionary to Native Americans. By 1817, he graduated from Vermont University to work as a missionary and trained in Massachusetts afterward, before becoming licensed to preach by the Royalton Congregational Association one year later. Washburn married Abigail Woodward, a first-cousin in October of 1818, who later become the mother of their five children. Before the year ended, the Washburns would move to Georgia to work with the Savannah Missionary Society to Eastern Cherokee until 1819. From there, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions hired Washburn to establish the Dwight Mission for Western Cherokee in Russellville, where at least 4,000 Cherokee people were forced from their homeland. At this point in time, it was the work of Washburn, his wife and his brother-in-law to provide education and spiritual support to these Cherokee people.

Around 1829, Washburn worked as a superintendent at the newer Dwight Mission near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, along with his wife who worked with him. Cephas remained employed as the superintendent of this new Dwight Mission until his retirement in 1840. After retiring, Washburn moved his family back to Arkansas where he pastored several churches and established a temporary school for Native American and white children. This work continued until he died in Little Rock in 1860. As part of his legacy in Russellville, the city has named a park after him and a school after the mission he established.

Now that we are aware of the life of Washburn, there ought to be some attention given to his profession for which he is known. Native American mission schools and boarding schools began in the 1800s, and in the late 1800s they increased exponentially due to the Louisiana Purchase that gave Americans legal access to lands inhabited by its indigenous people. According to many sources, including the University of California in Santa Cruz, mission schools and boarding schools shared the end goal of "cultural genocide," although they retained some differences in how they operated.

Boarding schools were primarily funded and managed by the federal government and many of them operated as a military-style school that focused on assimilating Native American children to European culture and gender-based roles and expectations. Mission schools were centered around converting the Native American children to Christianity without consent, along with assimilating them by force to European culture. These schools were created as a follow-up to the "Indian Civilization Act Fund of 1819" and the "Peace Policy of 1869," which these schools were designed for the systematic destruction of Native American culture. In fact, it was Captain Richard Henry Pratt, a United States Army officer known as the founder for the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania who was quoted for the phrase, "Kill the Indian, save the man." This sentiment remained with Pratt even during his time as superintendent of the Carlisle School. This ethnocentric and racist mentality was also apparent in the treatment of the Native American children who were forced to attend these schools by government officials and churches.

For instance, these children were banned from speaking their languages, wearing their cultural attire, or practicing any of their cultural rituals or behavior. Aside from the forced assimilation, the harsh punishment and being ripped away from their families, these children were regularly subjected to abuse, neglect, and torture while attending these schools, including sexual assault. Ironically, the very idea of kidnapping indigenous children from their families to "civilize" them, led to well-documented experiences exposing these European institutions as inhumane and savage. Despite the horrific behavior and traumatic experiences, many of these schools continued until the 1970s.

With missions and mission schools having such a dark and inhumane history, Russellville should definitely reconsider the name of this public park paid for with taxes. After all, does Russellville need to celebrate a man who participated in "cultural genocide?"


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Andrew Barrett
Andrew Barrett
2023년 4월 29일
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Nice to learn the real history of our town, thanks for this article! I’m sure we can come up with a more relevant person to honor with a name for this beautiful park.

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