In my experience National Historic Sites are a bit of a mixed bag. Some are amazing but others could definitely use time and attention. So I wasn’t expecting much when we entered the Fort Smith area. It didn’t look like much from the outside and I also didn’t know much about why Fort Smith was important at all. What a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. It turns out that Fort Smith was extremely important for a variety of reasons and the location has an excellent museum along with the ability to tour the original jail site.
Several famous movies were also set in Fort Smith including True Grit.
So why was Fort Smith important? The First Fort Smith (1817-1824) was built right on the edge of the frontier. By 1824 the frontier had pushed west and the fort was abandoned.
It changed hands a couple of times in the Civil War due to its strategic location on the Arkansas river. In 1865 the Fort Smith Council was held to establish relations with 15 Native American tribes. Although Native Americans had fought on both sides of the war the United States treated all tribes as defeated enemies and stripped what remaining rights they had away forcing renegotiation. This was also the end point of the Trail of Tears, which pushed the Cherokee (and other tribes) out of Florida and southern US into the Osage and the US soldiers manned the fort to “keep the peace.”
The expanded Fort Smith (1872-1896) was the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas having jurisdiction of Native American territory. US Deputy Marshalls rode from Fort Smith into the territories as the arm of the law. The barracks basement became a primitive jail with two large rooms holding up to 50 men each. Judge Isaac Parker, known as the hanging judge, presided over the court and heard over 13,000 cases sentencing, 344 were for capital crimes and of those 160 people were sentenced to hang.
The jail was indeed hellish and finally was stopped by a young women reporter. She wrote about the conditions which forced the government to change the jail.
There were lots of young gangs in the area and some famous names were either caught near or brought to justice in Fort Smith. These included the Cook Gang, Dalton Gang, Cherokee Bill, and Belle Star the Lady Desperado.
The lawmen who brought these folks to justice were US Marshalls and I was surprised to learn that in the early days they were little more than Bounty Hunters. They were paid $2 (and expenses) for the people they brought in alive and $1 if they were brought in dead. Most, if not all of them were as brutal as the men they retrieved they were just on the right side of the law.
Overall the museum was great and packed a ton of information into the space they have. I will say that the literature could use a bit of a refresh though because it felt a little slanted towards the white perspective. One of the most interesting areas was a recreation of Judge Parkers court room where he ruled for many years.
Overall a great historical site and I really recommend a stop if you are in the Fort Smith area.
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