Fort Smith National Historic Site
At the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers on the Oklahoma border, Fort Smith was once a far western outpost of the United States. Established in 1817 to mediate Native American disputes and protect the area’s few settlers, it was briefly abandoned and later rebuilt to serve as a military supply depot. The fort’s early years were rough and tumble ones: Out here, on the far edge of civilization, shady characters accompanied westward-bound pioneers, causing considerable trouble for newcomers and Native Americans alike.
Fort Smith also played a role in the Trial of Tears saga. Under the U.S. government’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, Native Americans could be forcibly relocated. Between 1838--39, thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Osage were marched from throughout the southeastern U.S. to new lands farther west. The journey on foot, horseback, and by steamboat was so long and arduous, that thousands of Native Americans died along the way. Today this route is known as the Trail of Tears. The paved ¾-mile River Trail at Fort Smith National Historic Site takes you to spot overlooking a segment of it and the Arkansas River.
Things at Fort Smith were no less turbulent during the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. In 1872, though, it was transformed from fort to court. Three years later, Judge Isaac C. Parker arrived to clean up rampant corruption. He was known for his strict sentences: during his 21-year tenure, more than two-thirds of his almost 13,500 cases resulted in guilty verdicts. He sentenced more than 150 hardened murders and rapists to death by hanging. Though only 79 of them were actually hanged, Parker nevertheless became known as the Hanging Judge. To his credit, he did clean things up. He was also known as an advocate for Native Americans rights and for judicial reform involving criminal cases. It’s even said that he was personally against capital punishment, using it only as prescribed by law at the time. After his death in 1896, he was buried at the National Cemetery in Fort Smith.
Today this 37-acre site preserves fort buildings and the courthouse. Exhibits cover the military; area outlaws; the U.S. Marshal Service; and the Trail of Tears. While exploring the courthouse, be sure to see the dank basement jail. Before citizens demanded that a new one be built, this small space could hold as many as 150 criminals at once and was known as Hell on the Border. There’s also a grisly but compelling reproduction of the 1886 gallows and displays of authentic handcuffs, leg irons, and guns---all testaments to life on the edge of lawlessness.
301 Parker Ave.
- Fort Smith, Arkansas 72901
- 35.38517000, -94.42828400
- Visitors Center: daily 9--5.
- Visit Website
- (479) 783-3961