Historic Occupation (continued)
In the spring of 1839, construction of the new fort began. The design called for a pentagonal-shaped fort of stone with a bastion at each angle and enclosing seven acres. Inside the wall, several buildings were to be situated around a parade ground including two enlisted mens barracks, two officer’s quarters, the commandant’s quarters, a hospital, the quartermaster store, and other buildings. This ambitious plan, however, would never be fully realized.
Because of events of the next six years, the army completed Fort Smith along much different lines. It had become apparent to the military that armed warriors would not descend on Arkansas from Indian Territory. Yet, hostilities threatened another frontier, and war with Mexico loomed on the horizon. Fort Smith was ideally situated to equip military units marching to the Rio Grande and to supply frontier posts in Indian Territory. Therefore, in 1845, the half-finished post was formally designated as a supply depot. Without a need for defensive capabilities, portions of the fort curtain wall were never raised to the intended height of 12 ft. To accommodate the vastly increased supply load, foundations of the incomplete Commandant’s Quarters and one of the enlisted mens barracks (Barracks B) were dismantled and used to convert two bastions into commissary and quartermaster storehouses. A third bastion was transformed into a magazine. Upon completion, only two officers quarters and one enlisted mens barracks fronted the parade ground. Several other structures including maintenance buildings, stables, laundress quarters, hospital, storehouse, and bakehouse were located beyond the fort walls.
Fort Smith was formally garrisoned in May 1846 and functioned as a supply depot throughout its 25-year-long occupation by the military. In the pre-Civil War years, national interests focused on westward expansion. New posts were established in Indian Territory, including Fort Towson and Fort Washita, which were supplied by the depot at Fort Smith.
On April 23, 1861, Arkansas State Troops occupied Fort Smith. Until September 1, 1863, when Federal soldiers regarrisoned the post, Fort Smith served the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi West as a major supply base and defensive bastion protecting Southern interests in Arkansas and Indian Territory. During the post-war years, the army again focused efforts on renewed westward expansion. The line of frontier posts had moved so far to the west, however, that supply lines from Fort Smith were stretched to capacity. The days of Fort Smith as a supply depot were numbered.
Other problems plagued the post and eventually caused its abandonment. Housing for the troops had always been in short supply and on November 24, 1865, Officers Quarters A burned to the ground. Five years later on December 20, 1870, Officers Quarters B suffered the same fate. To the military, the role of Fort Smith as a supply depot was no longer tenable. On July 19, 1871, the Sixth Infantry marched out of the post, the last unit to garrison Fort Smith. Once again, however, the winds of fortune shifted and prolonged the life of the fort.
In 1872, the United States District Court of the Western District of Arkansas occupied Fort Smith. A valuation of property indicated that 27 buildings stood on the former military reserve. Nearly all of these were relegated to civilian or federal use.
The former enlisted mens barracks became the Federal Courthouse and also housed attendant offices. A permanent gallows was constructed along the inward side of Bastion 3, or the old Magazine, and the Federal Courthouse basement served as a jail. When overcrowding in this makeshift prison, known as “hell-on-the-border,” received adverse public attention, a modern prison wing was added to the south end of the courthouse. This structure was completed in February 1888.
The jurisdiction of the United States District Court of the Western District of Arkansas was a vast area encompassing western Arkansas and the entire Indian Territory of present-day Oklahoma. Here, tribal courts had no jurisdiction over non-Indian settlers. This legal detail gave an advantage to the most desperate breed of outlaw, who found refuge beyond the pale of justice and could murder and steal with little fear of retribution. To bring offenders to justice, a federal marshal and a number of deputies, never more than 200 strong, combed this wilderness. When fugitives were apprehended, they were taken to Fort Smith for trial.
Fort Smith is best known for Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, whom President Ulysses S. Grant appointed to the bench in 1875. During Parker’s 21 years presiding, over 13,000 cases came to trial and 79 offenders were hanged for their crimes. Parker proved to be a tireless defender of Indian rights and through his efforts brought law and order to Indian Territory. As the non-Indian population increased, new courts emerged in Indian Territory, gradually reducing Parker’s authority. On March 1, 1895, Congress enacted legislation that limited Parker’s jurisdiction to several counties in western Arkansas. This legislation became effective on September 1, 1896.
Beginning during the time of the Federal Courthouse and continuing into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of events occurred that changed the appearance of the historic fort. By the act of February 17, 1883, Congress granted rights-of-way through the former military reservation to the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad. Sometime between May 1886 and February 1889, the railroad company removed a portion of the garrison wall to accommodate trackage, effectively separating the Quartermaster Building from the rest of the fort. The Missouri Pacific Railroad soon paralleled the St. Louis and San Francisco and also cut through the reservation.
A May 29, 1896 bill called for lands inside the garrison to be granted to the city of Fort Smith. Although use of the Federal Jail continued as late as 1914, the government transferred the remainder of the military reserve to the city. On February 26, 1897, Congress enacted legislation to extend Parker and Rogers Avenues, and Third and Second Streets through this property. The Old Fort Reserve Addition was surveyed in June and sold to private concerns. The stone wall of the fort was dismantled between July 1, 1897, and July 1, 1898, after which time streets were extended. By 1900, several large multi-storied brick buildings had been built or were under construction, and the Old Fort Reserve Addition emerged as the light industrial and warehouse district of Fort Smith. The Courtroom/Jail complex became a civic center and housed a variety of city offices and community organizations. Sometime around the turn of the century, Belle Point was densely populated and acquired the name “Coke Hill.” Coke Hill was a squatter settlement and the individual plots of lands were randomly oriented, ignoring the city of Fort Smith’s platted lot system.
Public interest in the old fort increased during the early twentieth century. In 1910, the Old Fort Museum Association occupied the Commissary and used the building as a museum. In 1957, Public Histori3- 6 cal Restorations Incorporated restored the courthouse to its original condition. Local businessmen donated funds to purchase private interests on Coke Hill and in 1958 sponsored the first archeological excavation at the site. In 1961, the city of Fort Smith donated 11 acres of land containing the site of the first fort, the Courtroom/Jail complex, and the Commissary Building to the National Park Service. Since the creation of Fort Smith National Historic Site, land holdings of up to 75 acres have been authorized and several intrusive streets and post-historic buildings have been removed.
Last updated: April 10, 2015