Building The Second Fort Smith

Belle Point was the busiest place on the America's southwestern frontier during the late 1830s. A new military post was under construction and a bustling town named Fort Smith was emerging on its eastern edge. Without the hard work of 55 men from Bangor Maine, the second Fort Smith might never have existed.

In 1838 Congress authorized the reoccupation and enlargement of the military post at Fort Smith. John Rogers sold the United States 306 acres adjoining the site of the first Fort Smith for $15,000. Captain Charles W. Thomas was named supervisor of Fort Smith's construction. The plans called for building a stone wall 12 feet high and from two to three feet thick enclosing an area of six hundred by four hundred feet, with a blockhouse bastion, two stores high, at each angle.

Thomas' first objective was to recruit a construction crew. His attempts to find workers in New York and Boston failed, as the men there wanted what Thomas considered extravagant wages. It wasn't until he travel to Bangor, Maine that he was able to sign 39 tradesmen and 16 laborers to one year contracts. The tradesmen received $1.50 a day and the laborers $15.00 a month. The crew immediately started west, only stopping to purchase a steam engine to power a sawmill, tools, food and other supplies. They traveled by steamer for most of the trip, but low water on the Arkansas halted the boat and the men had to travel the last 100 miles to Fort Smith on foot. They arrived in July of 1838.

Once quarters for the workers were ready, thirteen men were sent up the Poteau to fell trees and float them to Fort Smith on timber rafts containing 80 saw logs. Once brought ashore, the logs were cut into timbers and planks at the new saw mill. The master brick mason found suitable clay nearby, constructed a kiln, built a shed capable of holding 200,000 bricks, and dug two wells to provide water for mixing. Another crew opened a stone quarry at Belle Point.

Thomas knew the contracts of the Maine men expired in July. He could not get local men to work except for high wages and then on only short-term basis. Attempts to recruit soldiers from nearby forts to assist with construction failed. Thomas knew he had to get the most from his Bangor men, but on July 1, 1839, most of them drew their pay and boarded the first steamer bound downriver. Only the masons and bricklayer signed on for another year.

The work that was completed was impressive, however. The foundation of the entire outer wall had been completed and raised to a height of 4 feet. Foundations for four of the five bastions had been laid and raised to a level of the walls. It took seven more years before the new fort was finally ready for occupancy in 1846, having cost nearly $300,00.

References: Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas by Edwin C. Bearss and Arrell Gibson.

Last updated: August 29, 2017

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