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horse and rider
Fort Smith volunteers and employees present living history demonstrations throughout the year. This rider wears a U.S. Cavalry uniform. (NPS Photo)

fall foliage lines a fence
Fall colors highlight the change in seasons. (NPS Photo)

cannon and building blanketed in snow
Winter snows blanket the grounds. (NPS Photo) homepage photo: Fort Smith became a major supply depot for the U.S. Cavalry in the mid-1800s. (NPS Photo)

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Fort Smith National Historic Site

Discover the land of “True Grit” by taking a journey to Fort Smith, Arkansas, a historic gateway to the Western Frontier. Fort Smith National Historic Site tells the stories of pioneering soldiers who carved out a fort on the bank of the Arkansas River, the hardship and sorrow faced by tribes along the Trail of Tears, the infamous exploits of outlaws, the legends of lawmen, and the famous federal courthouse of Judge Isaac C. Parker — known as the “Hanging Judge.”

Nestled between the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, Fort Smith offers a wide range of activities, exhibits, and places to see. Along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, you can read the accounts of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, and Seminole who traveled this way during their forced removal from tribal lands in the Southeast.

Established on Christmas Day 1817, the first Fort Smith protected Cherokee Indians relocating into Osage territory in the Arkansas River Valley. In 1824, the Army abandoned the fort, considered the Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas, to establish a fort farther west in the heart of Indian action.

Pressured by local citizens and politicians to provide protection from anticipated Indian attacks, the government built the second Fort Smith in 1836. Although never completely finished, the fort provided supplies and protection to soldiers fighting in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), prospectors passing through in the California Gold Rush of 1849, and military forts farther west. As a major stop on the Butterfield Trail overland stage, and with steamboats bringing fresh supplies from St. Louis and New Orleans, the town of Fort Smith prospered and grew.

The Fort Smith area also has a lot to offer the Civil War buff. Confederate forces occupied the fort (1861-1863), and it was a staging area for troops sent to fight at Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove. It was later abandoned to Union forces.

Possibly the historic site's most famous period is 1872-1896, when federal Judge Isaac C. Parker presided over one of the heaviest caseloads in U.S. history. Of the 13,000 cases he heard, 160 resulted in sentences of death by hanging — only 79 of those convicted made the final walk to the gallows. Today the gallows stands as a silent reminder of law and order on the edge of Indian Territory.

Fort Smith National Historic Site is open year-round, seven days a week, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Within a short drive you can also enjoy major lakes, national forests, state parks, and outdoor fun including swimming, boating, hiking, and camping. Start exploring at the visitor center to get the most out of your visit

By Michael Groomer, Chief of Interpretation & Resource Management, Fort Smith National Historic Site