Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


235 years of Dr. Matthew Cunningham, a founding father of Little Rock

Future Little Rock Mayor Dr. Matthew Cunningham was born on July 5, 1782, in Pennsylvania. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he ended up in New York City.  He also served in the Army during the War of 1812.

It was there he met and married a young widow, Eliza Wilson Bertrand. After a brief stint in St. Louis, Dr. Cunningham was one of the first settlers of Little Rock in February 1820. With his arrival, he became the first physician in Little Rock.

In September 1820, Mrs. Cunningham and her children joined him. She became the first female in the Little Rock settlement. Dr. and Mrs. Cunningham had a son, Chester, who was the first white baby born in Little Rock. (Though not supported by any public records, there is some unsubstantiated thought that one of the African-American slaves they had gave birth to a child before Chester was born.) The Cunninghams had several other children.  One daughter, Matilda, would marry Little Rock businessman Peter Hanger.  (The Hanger Hill neighborhood is named after Peter Hanger.)

In 1831, Dr. Cunningham was elected the first Mayor of Little Rock. He won the race 23 to 15 over Rev. W. W. Stevenson. The first City Council meeting took place at the Cunningham house on the block which is the southwest corner of what is now 3rd and Main Streets. Records are incomplete as to where on the block the Cunningham house was located, but a plaque is on 3rd Street near Main on the side of the Fulk Building which CJRW now calls home.

Dr. Cunningham served one year as Mayor. He lived until June 15, 1851, and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery. His wife, son, and the Hanger family are buried next to him.  Because he lived for two decades after serving as mayor, he was able to see Little Rock continue to grow.

His stepson – Charles P. Bertrand – also served as Mayor of Little Rock.  While there have not been any Little Rock father-son combinations serve as mayor, Dr. Cunningham and Mr. Bertrand certainly shared a kinship.

Through Matilda Hanger and also the Bertrands, descendants of Dr. Cunningham still reside in Little Rock.

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Mother’s Day Look Back: Little Rock’s first mother – Eliza Cunningham

Eliza CunninghamEliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock, as well as several other children with Cunningham.  When he became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.  Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.

Born in Scotland in December 1788, she emigrated with her parents to the United States as a young girl.  In 1804 or 1805, she married a French businessman, Pierre Bertrand in New York City.  She lived in New York City, while he traveled to his various business ventures.  He never returned from a trip to his coffee plantation in Santo Domingo and was presumed to have died in 1808 or 1809.  She and Bertrand had three children, Charles Pierre, Arabella and Jane. (Jane may have died in childhood, because records and lore only indicated Charles and Arabella coming to Little Rock with their mother.)

Eliza married Dr. Matthew Cunningham in New York City.  He later moved to Saint Louis and settled in Little Rock in early 1820.  Eliza and her two children came to Little Rock in September 1820.  In 1822, she gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first documented baby born in Little Rock.  (There are unsubstantiated reports that at least one slave child may have been born prior to Chester.)  She and Matthew also had Robert, Henrietta, Sarah and Matilda.  The latter married Peter Hanger, after whom the Hanger Hill neighborhood is named.

Dr. Cunningham died in June 1851.  Eliza died in September 1856. They and Chester (who died in December 1856) are buried in the Hanger family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery.


Women’s History Month: Eliza Cunningham, first First Lady of Little Rock

Eliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock.

When her husband, became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.

Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.


Mother’s Day Little Rock Look Back: Eliza Cunningham, Founding Mother of Little Rock

Eliza CunninghamEliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock, as well as several other children with Cunningham.  When he became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.  Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.

Born in Scotland in December 1788, she emigrated with her parents to the United States as a young girl.  In 1804 or 1805, she married a French businessman, Pierre Bertrand in New York City.  She lived in New York City, while he traveled to his various business ventures.  He never returned from a trip to his coffee plantation in Santo Domingo and was presumed to have died in 1808 or 1809.  She and Bertrand had three children, Charles Pierre, Arabella and Jane. (Jane may have died in childhood, because records and lore only indicated Charles and Arabella coming to Little Rock with their mother.)

Eliza married Dr. Matthew Cunningham in New York City.  He later moved to Saint Louis and settled in Little Rock in early 1820.  Eliza and her two children came to Little Rock in September 1820.  In 1822, she gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first documented baby born in Little Rock.  (There are unsubstantiated reports that at least one slave child may have been born prior to Chester.)  She and Matthew also had Robert, Henrietta, Sarah and Matilda.  The latter married Peter Hanger, after whom the Hanger Hill neighborhood is named.

Dr. Cunningham died in June 1851.  Eliza died in September 1856. They and Chester (who died in December 1856) are buried in the Hanger family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery.


Little Rock Look Back: Jesse Brown

Map showing boundaries of original City of Little Rock

Map showing boundaries of original City of Little Rock

This is Teacher Appreciation Week.  In keeping with that, today highlights one of Little Rock’s first mayors, who was also a teacher.

Jesse Brown was Little Rock’s sixth mayor. He was also Little Rock’s first teacher. In the 1820s and 1830s he operated Little Rock’s first school.

On March 10, 1823, he founded the coeducational Little Rock Academy. One of his early pupils was C. P. Bertrand, stepson of Little Rock’s first physician, Dr. Matthew Cunningham.  Cunningham, Brown and Bertrand would each serve as Little Rock mayor prior to the Civil War.

By 1826, Brown had added a second employee.  In his advertisement in the Arkansas Gazette for March 7, 1826, he says: “Jesse Brown, principal of the Little Rock Academy, returns thanks for patronage during the past year and solicits its continuance.” His terms for spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic were $24 per annum. (This is the equivalent of $556 in 2016–a bargain for private school!)  These branches, with geography, grammar, elocution, history, chronology, bookkeeping, and ”Italian method,” were taught for $36. Subscriptions less than a year were $1 per month extra. French was also offered.

In 1829, Brown started offering night classes. He continued to expand his offerings throughout the 1830s.  However, by 1837, he was forced to remind customers who were in arrears to pay up because he “could not live upon the wind.”

Brown served as mayor from January 1838 until January 1841.  He was out of Little Rock recovering from illness from April to November of 1839, but was subsequently elected to a third one-year term commencing in January 1840.


LR Women’s History Month: Eliza Cunningham

Eliza CunninghamEliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock, as well as several other children with Cunningham.  When he became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.  Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.

Born in Scotland in December 1788, she emigrated with her parents to the United States as a young girl.  In 1804 or 1805, she married a French businessman, Pierre Bertrand in New York City.  She lived in New York City, while he traveled to his various business ventures.  He never returned from a trip to his coffee plantation in Santo Domingo and was presumed to have died in 1808 or 1809.  She and Bertrand had three children, Charles Pierre, Arabella and Jane. (Jane may have died in childhood, because records and lore only indicated Charles and Arabella coming to Little Rock with their mother.)

Eliza married Dr. Matthew Cunningham in New York City.  He later moved to Saint Louis and settled in Little Rock in early 1820.  Eliza and her two children came to Little Rock in September 1820.  In 1822, she gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first documented baby born in Little Rock.  (There are unsubstantiated reports that at least one slave child may have been born prior to Chester.)  She and Matthew also had Robert, Henrietta, Sarah and Matilda.  The latter married Peter Hanger, after whom the Hanger Hill neighborhood is named.

Dr. Cunningham died in June 1851.  Eliza died in September 1856. They and Chester (who died in December 1856) are buried in the Hanger family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery.


Little Rock Look Back: LR Mayor W.W. Stevenson

Mayor StevensonOn January 29, 1797, future Little Rock Mayor William Wilson “W. W.” Stevenson was born in South Carolina.

In 1811, he came to Arkansas when his family settled in Batesville.  An ordained Presbyterian minister, he married Ruana Trimble in 1821 and had two children. After she died, he married Maria Tongray Watkins in 1831 and had two more children.

In 1831, he ran for Little Rock Mayor in the first election for the office but was defeated by Dr. Matthew Cunningham.  The next year he ran to succeed Cunningham and was elected.  After leaving the Mayor’s office on December 31, 1833, he continued public service.  He was asked to run for Mayor later in the 1830s, but declined.  He did serve as State Commissioner for Public Buildings in 1839.

In 1849, he delivered the funeral oration at the ceremony for Hon. Ambrose H. Sevier.  Later that year, he was hired as a geologist for the Little Rock and California Association which was created to take advantage of the gold rush.  He and his two oldest sons moved to California and never returned to Arkansas. He died in 1888.