November 11, 2011 through December 9, 2012
The Arkansas Traveler was an inaugural exhibition at Crystal Bridges that told the story of the origins of the Arkansas Traveler legend through paintings, engravings, printed material of the time period, and historical objects.
The legend of the Arkansas Traveler has long been central to Arkansas’s mythology. Embraced as a celebration of frontier hospitality and yet rejected as contributing to a poor image of the state, its original meaning became obscured over time. The folktale and song arose as political satire during the 1840 American presidential campaign.
The campaign pitted Whig candidate William Henry Harrison against Democrat and incumbent, President Martin Van Buren. Harrison was chosen for his popularity as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe and because he avoided taking a stand on divisive issues. Eager to discredit the Whigs, one Democratic newspaper noted, “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of $2,000 on him, and our word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin . . . and study moral philosophy.”
The Whigs jumped at the chance to portray Harrison as a simple man of the people. Log cabins, cider barrels, and coonskins came to symbolize the Whigs in a broad array of campaign materials. Log cabin raisings complete with music, hard cider, and parades appeared in towns across the country.
Arkansas Democrat Sanford Faulkner created the tale of the Arkansas Traveler to counter the Whigs’ enormously successful campaign. He portrayed Harrison as an old man sitting outside a log cabin with a hole in its roof, playing a song on his fiddle that he could not finish. The Traveler, representing the Democratic Party, was able to complete the song the old man could not. While the Whigs gained the presidency, the Democrats were victorious in Arkansas. After the campaign, the tale, tune, and image of the Arkansas Traveler remained popular but the political context for the humorous story was lost.