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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service National Historic Landmark FORT SMITH NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Fort Smith NHS

Location: Sebastian County. The visitor center is located on Rogers Avenue between Second and Third Streets, city of Fort Smith. Address: P.O. Box 1406, Fort Smith, Ark. 72901.

Fort Smith, one of the first U.S. military posts in the area of the Louisiana Purchase, was one of those making up the "Permanent Indian Frontier" in the first half of the 19th century. For nearly fourscore years, from 1817 to 1890—first as a military post and then as the seat of a Federal district court—it was a center of law and order for a wide expanse of untamed western frontier. At the fort, soldier, Indian, lawman, and outlaw played their parts in the drama that changed the face of the Indian country; blue-clad troopers marched out to carry the U.S. flag westward; and U.S. deputy marshals, the men who "rode for Judge Parker," crossed the Poteau River to bring justice to the lawless lands of Indian Territory beyond. Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves the site of the small first Fort Smith (1817-33), the remains of the enlarged second fort (1839-71), and the building that housed the Federal district court (1872-90)—all reminders of the day when civilization and security ended on the banks of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers and when men were carving the Nation out of the wilderness.

Fort Smith was one of a series of forts founded along the frontier by the U.S. Government after the War of 1812 (1812-14), when the normal pattern of westward expansion resumed, to protect settlers, control the Indians, and foster the growth of the fur trade. The first Fort Smith was established in 1817 in Missouri Territory, which at that time included present Arkansas, on a rocky bluff at Belle Point—which French traders had named La Belle Pointe—at the junction of the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers. Completed in 1822, the first fort was a simple wooden stockaded structure with two two-story blockhouses.

Fort Smith
Sketch of Fort Smith in 1865, from the October 7 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. (Library of Congress)

The fort's primary mission was to keep peace between the Osage and Cherokee Indians and to prevent white encroachment on Indian lands. The restless Cherokees, who in 1808 had begun crossing the Mississippi River and moving into present northwestern Arkansas, had penetrated Osage hunting grounds. A threat of war continually existed between the two tribes, but the Fort Smith troops were able to control the situation. In 1819, only 2 years after the post's founding, it was the scene of a peace meeting between Osages and Cherokees, and a bloody war was averted when the Army insisted that the Cherokees return some hostages. In 1824, by which time the frontier had shifted farther westward, the garrison departed and moved 80 miles up the Arkansas River to the mouth of the Grand River, where it founded Fort Gibson, Okla. Small detachments returned sporadically to Fort Smith until 1833 to aid in the construction of military roads and to attempt to curb the illegal liquor traffic into Indian country, but the fort rapidly deteriorated.

In 1836 Arkansas became a State and the demands of its citizens for protection against possible Indian uprisings caused Congress 2 years later to authorize the War Department to build a second Fort Smith, a larger and more impressive installation adjacent to the earlier fort. Construction began in 1839 but because of the opposition of Col. Zachary Taylor, appointed the departmental commander in 1841, and other military officials, work proceeded slowly. The Army ultimately modified its plans and made the fort a supply depot. Completed and garrisoned in May 1846, the second Fort Smith equipped and provisioned other forts to the west in Indian Territory.

Fort Smith was also the base for the first two of Capt. Randolph B. Marcy's exploration and military reconnaissance expeditions. In 1849 he escorted a party of gold seekers over the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Route and on the return trip pioneered the El Paso-Fort Smith Route, which came to be known as the Butterfield Route and replaced the more northerly Fort Smith-Santa Fe segment of the Southern Overland Trail. In 1850-51 he reconnoitered the Texas-Oklahoma frontier to select sites for an outer string of military posts to safeguard the advance of settlement and protect the Choctaws and Chickasaws from depredations by Plains Indians. This led to the founding of Fort Arbuckle, Okla., and Forts Belknap and Phantom Hill, Tex., the first links in a chain of posts that eventually stretched from the Red River to El Paso. Fort Smith also provided minor logistical support for Marcy's third expedition, along the Canadian and Red Rivers, from Fort Belknap. During the Civil War both the North and South used Fort Smith's supply and hospital facilities, but in 1871 the War Department abandoned it.

That same year the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas moved from Van Buren to the town of Fort Smith, which had grown up adjacent to the fort. The next year it occupied the abandoned barracks building and subsequently added a second story and jail wing. For the next 25 years, the town of Fort Smith was a center of law and order on the frontier. The court had jurisdiction over part of Arkansas, where State courts shared its sphere of authority, but its primary influence and authority were felt in Indian Territory. Although the Indians had their own tribal courts, these had no jurisdiction over white men and no other system of law existed. Thus the area was a sanctuary from arrest or extradition for the most desperate class of criminals from all over the United States. Disorder ruled, and reputable men—white and Indian—urgently appealed to the Federal Government for relief.

Old Commissary Building
Old Commissary Building, Fort Smith National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

In 1875 the youthful and vigorous Judge Isaac C. Parker, who came to be known as the "Hangin' Judge," arrived at Fort Smith and tackled the problem of crime in Indian Territory. For 21 years he dispensed swift justice with an iron hand. Gradually, however, judicial authority in Indian Territory was divided among Parker's court and other Federal courts at Paris, Tex., and at Wichita and Fort Scott, Kans. In 1896 it received its own judicial districts and courts. That same year, 6 years after Parker had moved his court to a new building near the fort, his court was dissolved. The passing of the Parker court followed closely on the vanishing of the frontier.

No surface remains of the first Fort Smith are extant, though archeological excavation has revealed its exact location and stone foundations of one blockhouse and the walls. Visible at Belle Point are the quarries that were the source of stone for the second fort. The only significant remains of this post are the old commissary building and the altered barracks building that later housed the Federal district court and is now the Fort Smith Visitor Center. The former, used by the Army until 1871 and now housing a museum, was built of stone between 1839 and 1846. Originally intended as the north bastion of the fort, before completion it was converted into a commissary. Except for minor alterations, it appears much as it originally did. Soldiers erected half of the second building in the early 1850's for a barracks, on the foundations of a larger barracks building that had been destroyed by fire in 1849. In 1872 the Federal district court occupied it. The other half of the two-story brick building is a later addition.

Of special interest is Judge Parker's courtroom, in the visitor center, which has been restored to its original appearance. In nearby Fort Smith National Cemetery, established during the Civil War, rest a number of Federal and Confederate dead from Civil War battlefields of northwestern Arkansas, as well as the remains of Judge Parker.

NHL Designation: 12/19/60

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005