Early Arkansas History was known for colorful figures. Scandals that would ruin a modern politician often went unnoticed in the state in those days. In an increasingly chaotic time, William K. Sebastian emerged to become a judge, legislator, and U. S. Senator. Sebastian was a quiet figure in a time known for its larger-than-life characters and outlandish politics.
Born William King Sebastian in 1812, he came from a modest background. He was raised in central Tennessee. As a young man, he graduated in 1834 from Columbia College. He studied law and was admitted to the Arkansas bar in 1835.
With a law license in hand, he settled in Helena, a prosperous and growing port city on the Mississippi River. Residents elected him district attorney for the fourth territorial circuit court in 1835. After his term ended in 1837 and with Arkansas now a state, he turned his attention elsewhere. He bought a cotton plantation and married in 1838 while tending his law practice. He was elected judge for the six-county First District Circuit Court in 1840. He served for two years on the Arkansas Supreme Court before being elected to the state senate in 1844 and made president pro tempore of the Senate for the seven-week 1845 session. Sebastian had steadily climbed the political ladder and enjoyed a reasonably successful career in elected offices up to this point.
Sen. Chester Ashley died in April 1848. Sebastian, though he had tried and failed to win a U. S. Senate seat in the past, was appointed to fill the remainder of Ashley’s term. At the time, U. S. Senators were elected by the state legislatures. Direct popular elections of Senators were not established until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. Sebastian was elected with wide bipartisan support in the legislature in 1849.
In 1849, he was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Manufactures, a post he held for four years. In 1851, Arkansas legislators established Sebastian County, on the state’s western border, in his honor. As a Senator, he faithfully supported legislation friendly to the South, including components of the 1850 Compromise and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.
Sebastian also served as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee from 1853 until 1861. The state’s position on the border of the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) made the issue a special consideration for Arkansas congressional delegation. Part of Sebastian’s efforts included support for putting the western tribes onto reservations. Sebastian’s committee supported the creation of several, including one in southern California.
The California Superintendent for Indian Affairs named the new reservation for Sebastian. Also called the Tejon Reservation, it was the first in California. Since the 1849 Gold Rush, miners and farmers had put increasing pressure on the tribes to abandon their ancestral lands and for the federal government to take control of the tribes. The plan was for the tribes to become self-sufficient as farmers, and several hundred tribesmen eventually arrived. Like so many other early federal reservation plans, the Sebastian Reservation became a disaster. Officials reported only one to two acres under cultivation for each person on the reservation. These reports were compounded by droughts, crop failures, and food shortages. The reservation was disbanded in 1864.
Legislators re-elected Sebastian in 1860. Arkansas seceded from the Union just a few months later. In response, on July 11, Sebastian and the state’s other Senator, Charles Mitchel, were expelled from the Senate for their support of secession.
Though he was not involved in the fighting, the years of the Civil War were devastating for him. He watched his fortune fall away. Legislators sent others to represent Arkansas in the Confederate Senate. By 1863, with most of the state in Union hands, President Abraham Lincoln was anxious to lure lukewarm Confederates back over to the Union side in order to hasten the end of the war. Though Lincoln was favorable to Sebastian finishing his term, which was originally scheduled to run through 1866, Sebastian sadly concluded that his war-weary former colleagues in the Senate were unlikely to change their minds. After Helena fell to the Union Army in July 1863, Sebastian left Arkansas for Memphis where he struggled to set up a new law practice. In 1864, his wife died. Sebastian died suddenly in May 1865, just weeks after the Confederate surrender. He was only 53.
What role he could have played in Reconstruction is uncertain. As it was, the post-war period was fraught with instability, violence, and corruption aside from the limited rights that newly freed slaves were afforded. Most pre-war southern politicians saw their political careers washed away by the tides of war, and Sebastian was no exception. A new generation of southern leadership was emerging and clashing over what type of South would emerge from the ruins of the Confederacy. Sebastian would fade into obscurity.