Arkansas: Fort Smith National Historic Site

Fort Smith Commissary
Fort Smith Commissary

Courtesy of James Huckaby through Flickr's Creative Commons

At the turn of the 19th century, as the developing nation expanded into present day Georgia and Tennessee, a group of Cherokee Indians moved into Arkansas, where the Osage Indians lived. The United States government promised the Cherokee and other eastern Indian tribes new homes in exchange for their peoples’ lands, but the movement of eastern tribes into Osage lands angered the local Indians. Eventually, after disputes over hunting grounds led to the deaths of several Osage and Cherokee Indians, the United States established a military post near the Osage border to end the hostilities between the tribes. Fort Smith National Historic Site commemorates the history of the fort’s role in establishing law and order during America’s westward expansion and it stands as a reminder of the removal of the Cherokee and other eastern tribes, whose journey is also commemorated on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

Founded in 1817, the first Fort Smith had a strategic location at the point where the Arkansas and Poteau rivers meet. Known as Belle Point, this rocky bluff allowed the soldiers stationed at Fort Smith to have a commanding view of the countryside and river traffic. Built by Major William Bradford and designed by Maj. Stephen H. Long, who as the army’s Topographical Engineer also chose the fort’s location, Fort Smith was a small log and stone stockade enclosed by a 132 square foot sandstone wall. Guarding its northern and southern corners were two square blockhouses, each 28 feet long and two stories high. Within its walls were a hospital, storehouse, provision house, cabin for the commanding officer, and a few barracks to accommodate the 130 men stationed at Fort Smith.

Although these soldiers and the fort itself were armed to withstand an attack, the closest the Fort Smith garrison ever came to fighting the Indians was during the Bad Tempered Buffalo Affair. The incident occurred on April 9 1821, when the Osage requested that the US Army provide their people with gunpowder to fight the Cherokee. When the commanding officer refused to grant Chief Bad Tempered Buffalo’s request, the Osage threatened to attack Fort Smith. The garrison responded by wheeling out the fort’s two six-pound cannons aimed in the direction of the Osage who had set camp on the opposite side of the river. Upon seeing the cannons, Chief Bad Tempered Buffalo and the Osage warriors retreated, and although war did break out in the region between the Osage and the Cherokee, the first Fort Smith never engaged in any direct combat with either tribe.

After fighting between the tribes subsided, Arkansas Governor James Miller and the fort’s commanding officer Colonel Matthew Arbuckle immediately began to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee and Osage to restore peace in the region. The 1822 Treaty of Fort Smith reconciled most of the difficulties between the tribes and guaranteed them that white emigrants would not settle on their lands. With the Cherokee and Osage crisis under control, the army abandoned Fort Smith in 1824, and moved its garrison 80 miles north to Fort Gibson, where the increase of eastern tribes in other Indian hunting grounds had created tensions on the western frontier. Although transient troops and Choctaw Indians used the first Fort Smith intermittently as a supply depot after its abandonment, the army never maintained the site, and all that remains today are the fort’s foundations that archeologists unearthed in 1963.


Although the reconciliation of the Cherokee and Osage Indians led to the abandonment of the first Fort Smith, by the 1830s the army would once again return to Belle Point, this time to keep peace between settlers and the American Indians living in the region. Following the election of President Andrew Jackson, despite the promise of the Fort Smith Treaty to keep non-Indian settlers from moving into Indian Territory, westward expansion gained momentum forcing increasing numbers of Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee out of their homelands. A result of the Indian Removal Act, this forced relocation was a painful and devastating experience for the eastern tribes, who, after facing hunger, disease, and death in their journey to Oklahoma, came to call their migration “The Trail of Tears.”

As eastern tribes and settlers continued to move west in increasing numbers, the American government ordered the army to reoccupy and expand Fort Smith to protect the citizens of Arkansas, which became a State in 1836. Established in 1838 by Captain Charles W. Thomas, the second Fort Smith was located 500 feet from the first Fort Smith. After seeing no Indian threats in the region, the War Department turned Fort Smith from a military post into a supply depot. Completed in 1846, the second fort had two officer’s quarters, a barracks, a commissary and a storehouse. Today, the commissary storehouse built in 1838, is the oldest building in the City of Fort Smith. Although originally constructed as a bastion, the commissary over the years served as a supply warehouse, a hospital, as residences for court officials, and as Judge Isaac C. Parker’s chambers.

After the Indian frontier moved beyond the Arkansas State boundary, the army moved out of Fort Smith, and in 1872, the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas moved in. Under its new management, the Fort Smith barracks became offices for the clerk, US marshal, and the US commissioner. A central room served as the courthouse, and the basement as a jail. In 1873, Fort Smith’s presiding Judge Parker, otherwise known as the “hanging judge,” along with the Federal Court, erected a gallows in the south corner. In 1886, the court built a new gallows on the same site that burned down in 1897. A reproduction of the 1886 gallows stand today at the site as a reminder of Judge Parker’s efforts to bring justice and order to the Indian Territory. Despite his reputation as a “cruel, heartless, and bloodthirsty man,” Judge Parker was a strong supporter of Indian rights.

Today, at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, visitors may begin their tour at the visitor center in the former Barracks-Courthouse-Jail complex. Exhibits there highlight the history of the military, the Trail of Tears, the Federal Court, and Judge Parker. Visitors can also tour the park grounds to see the unearthed foundations of the first Fort Smith, The Trail of Tears Overlook on the Arkansas River, and the Second Fort Smith’s Commissary Building and its reconstructed barracks.

Fort Smith National Historic site, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located at 301 Parker Ave. in Fort Smith, AK. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Fort Smith National Historic Site Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm. The Visitor Center is closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park grounds are open 24 hours a day all year long. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site website or call 479-783-3961. 

Many components of the Fort Smith National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the Federal Court Building, the Barracks-Courthouse-Jail, and the Commissary Building.

Last updated: August 7, 2017