Onset of the Historic Occupation
The historic era begins with the entry of the first Europeans into Arkansas. During the winter of 1541-1542, members of the de Soto expedition entered Arkansas. These first Europeans brought with them distinctive artifacts (i.e., glass beads and bells) and possibly diseases that adversely affected the aboriginal population. There followed a period of exploration and exploitation that brought traders and trappers, primarily French, into Arkansas.
It was not until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that Euroamericans began exploring and settling this area. The early settlers were predominately "hunter-herders", who divided their time between minimal agricultural activities, tending livestock, and hunting the abundant wildlife.
Following the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, federal officials promoted the removal of southeastern Indians to a "permanent Indian frontier" in the new western possession. In 1809, Osage Indians forfeited their traditional hunting territory for resettlement of their eastern neighbors. In a few years, thousands of displaced Cherokees occupied land on the White and Arkansas Rivers. Friction developed along the new Cherokee-Osage boundary, and clashes between the two nations occurred frequently. To deter further hostilities, the United States Government established Fort Smith on the disputed boundary.
The site of the new fort was Belle Point, a prominent bluff overlooking the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers. On December 25, 1817, Major William Bradford and 64 men of the Rifle Regiment, Company A, landed at Belle Point. In eight days, temporary shelters had been hastily erected and work initiated on a permanent fortification. Construction progressed slowly, and upon completion, the fort was a simple log stockade with four sides of 132' each and two blockhouses at opposite angles. Barracks, storehouses, shops, a magazine, and a hospital were located within the walls.
In February 1822, Colonel Matthew Arbuckle and five companies of Seventh United States Infantry garrisoned the post. Quarters for the additional troops were erected outside the original fort. Increased hostilities between the Osage and Cherokee prompted the additional troop strength. The location of the post on the eastern border of the newly redefined Indian Territory, however, was too far removed from the arena of hostilities. Consequently, the military departed from the Fort Smith in 1824 and established Fort Gibson some 60 miles up the Arkansas River..
Fort Smith was not forgotten. According to the terms of the treaty of 1825, the Choctaw Indians were to settle on lands set aside in Indian Territory, and Fort Smith was to serve as the agency for the western Choctaw. In February 1827, Choctaw agent William McClellan found the post buildings in ruinous condition. Four years passed, however, before the government could repair the structures. On April 26, 1831, Lieutenant Gabriel Rains and a detail of Seventh United States Infantry arrived at the post. Over the next few months, Rains labored to repair the public buildings. By August, Choctaw Indians began trickling into the area.
Just east of Fort Smith and adjacent to the Choctaw boundary line, a sizeable civilian community had emerged on lands owned by John Rogers. Six taverns dominated the community, the closest only a "few paces" from the Choctaw line. Enterprising merchants supplied the emigrating Choctaws with cheap whiskey. Many of the displaced tribesmen settled nearby and became a source of sustained exploitation. Lieutenant Rains positioned his men on the line to keep peddlers and Choctaws separated. The situation worsened so that in March 1833, Captain John Stewart and a company of Seventh Infantry garrisoned the post. Stuart's efforts to control the contraband trade, known as the "Arkansas whiskey war," met with little success. The merchants operated under Stuart's very nose. Whiskey smugglers could slip across the Indian Territory line almost at will. As a result, Stuart abandoned Fort Smith in June 1834 and established Fort Coffee at a more suitable location in Indian Territory.
As additional tribes were relocated in Indian Territory, fearful residents of the new State of Arkansas requested that a permanent military garrison be placed on their western border. Fort Smithites launched a successful campaign to re-garrison Fort Smith. In 1838, Congress authorized construction of a new fort and purchased from John Rogers a 296-acre reservation adjacent to the old fort on Belle Point.
Did You Know?
Lady Bird Johnson came to Fort Smith National Historic Site to dedicate the park on October 27, 1964.