Shaped by diverse people and groups—American Indians, soldiers, outlaws, and lawmen— Fort Smith National Historic Site evokes 80 years of turbulent history on the western frontier. At the park you can explore the remnants of two frontier forts, the tragic story of the Trail of Tears, and the historic jail and federal courthouse of Judge Isaac C. Parker. The U.S. military and federal court presence at Fort Smith changed the fate of the region by introducing a new political system, economic structure, and set of rules and social values from which people benefited, adapted to, or perished. Fort Smith National Historic Site provides opportunities to create a dialogue to reflect on the profound impact that the concept of Manifest Destiny and frontier heritage played in the nation’s history and the influence it has had on the fabric of American identity.
Fort Smith National Historic Site is a landscaped park, interwoven with interpretive opportunities through restored and recreated elements of 19th century history. Fort Smith National Historic Site was authorized on September 13, 1961, and currently encompasses 37 acres within the urban environment of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Much of the park grounds, including the First and Second fort, is a national historic landmark.
Historically, the landscape and setting were continually modified between 1817 and 1896, directly related to activities associated with the evolving nature and purpose of the site. Between 1897 and 1955, the historic scene and setting was significantly modified by urban development when the property of the fort and federal court were deeded to the City of Fort Smith. Since the late 1950s, the City of Fort Smith and the National Park Service have worked collaboratively to preserve and restore the 19th century historic scene and setting by removing buildings, streets, and other intrusive landscape alterations that occurred at this site in the early 20th century while restoring, replacing, recreating, and marking missing key features of Fort Smith. These improvements help to evoke a feeling and association with the 19th century site history, while at the same time developing the site as an urban greenspace.
According to historic accounts, when army units first arrived at Belle Point, the land was heavily wooded with several varieties of oak, hickory, and cottonwood trees. Canebrakes occupied low ground along the rivers’ edge. The forests soon disappeared as the trees were cut down to be used as construction material and fuel for the first Fort Smith. Construction of the First Fort Smith was started in 1817 by a detachment of the U.S. Rifle Regiment and was 132 feet square with two blockhouses and many outbuildings. Soldiers cleared land for an 80-acre garden to feed the garrison. One correspondent noted in 1838 that “nearly all remaining timber on the land for near half a mile back” from Belle Point was cut down.
The distinctive location at Belle Point, the rocky promontory selected by Major Long for the fort site, was a significant intersection of several important trade routes with continued use dating back at least 1,000 years. This site and its associated history is a powerful reminder of natural and cultural interconnectedness and how each affects the other. Beyond the mission endowed by Congress through the park’s enabling legislation, the park establishes common ground where people come together to share in the American experience and formulate a public identity.
The purpose of the U.S. Army military installation at this location was to protect the expanding sovereign interests and ensure regional influence by the United States of America against other sovereign European nations that laid claim to territory within North America, as well as American Indian sovereign nations. President James Monroe signed treaties with the Cherokee, moving them into Western Arkansas in the 1820s. The First Fort Smith also served as a post to mediate a peaceful coexistence between local Osage Indians and Cherokee Indians who had been resettled there. The Cherokee had clashed severely with the local Osage populations, as well as with American immigrant hunters and squatters who had moved into the region. Through Army efforts, the immigrant squatters were removed from the region and in 1822 the two Indian tribes successfully negotiated a treaty.
The federal government, after passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removed the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast to Indian Territory. Fort Smith is directly associated with the historic events surrounding the removal of many American Indian tribes, both before and following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Fort Smith National Historic Site and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail preserve the specific location and physical remnants of a portion of one of the historic American Indian removal routes.
The overlook site and associated setting provide opportunities for visitors to experience this significant location where key events occurred that were instrumental in the ensuing history. The intrinsic qualities associated with this specific site, as well as the individual stories and related history, are integrally connected and embedded within the landscape. These inherent qualities encourage personal reflection, essential dialogue, and discussion that ultimately engender a greater understanding of these events in our collective history.
The Second Fort Smith, begun in 1838 a short distance from the site of the First Fort Smith, was garrisoned until 1871. The Fort Smith Commissary received incoming goods such as food, medicine, hay, tents, and uniforms, for distribution to approximately 17 forts. The fort continued in this function until 1861, when peace in the Indian Country, a goal shared by the Army and the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek Nations—who were known as “the Five Civilized Tribes”—was shattered by the Civil War.
A significant “meeting of nations” occurred at Fort Smith in 1865 called the “Council of 1865.” This council was called to address several major issues following the Civil War. Three significant topics were reinstatement of tribal loyalty to the United States by those tribes who supported the Confederacy; additional attempts by the U.S. government to acquire land cessions from various tribes along with rescinding much of their original tribal authority; and the initial naming and establishment of “Oklahoma” as a territory. The tribes did not agree to the initial provisions of the treaty, and the negotiation process continued until 1866 when the treaty was finally signed in Washington, DC. The Treaty of 1866 has had a lasting impact on federal relations and American Indian policy to this day.
After the fort was abandoned by the military, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, which included jurisdiction within Indian Territory, moved into the facility in 1872.
By the late 19th century, Social and economic upheaval spread through the territory in the aftermath of the Civil War that created an environment conducive to criminal activity. Judge Isaac C. Parker was appointed to the bench in 1875 and for a few years, Parker’s jurisdiction initially extended over 74,000 square miles—half of Arkansas and all of the Indian Territory. In 21 years Parker tried more than 13,000 cases, sentencing 160 men and women to be executed by hanging. Of those, only 79 men were hanged. The Courthouse/Jail remains today through the initial restoration work of the Fort Smith Public Historical Restorations, Inc.
African American Soldiers at Fort Smith
Black enlisted Army soldiers helped establish the first Fort Smith in 1817. In 1863, the 11th Regiment USCT was recruited after the Union captures the post from Confederate forces. In 1864, the five 11th USCT companies moved into Indian Territory to guard government livestock and operate a hay cutting detail. The confederate cavalry white and Indian, attacked the 11th, were repulsed and finally retreated. Afterward, the 11th USCT marched to Fort Gibson and went to Little Rock five months later and became part of the 13th USCT.
During the Civil War, Bass Reeves escaped his owner, hid in the Indian Territory and learned to track and speak various Indian languages. He worked as a posse for deputy marshals and was hired as deputy marshal. He worked for the Fort Smith Federal Court until 1897 and two other federal courts until 1907. Known as one of the best deputy marshals in the Indian Territory, he was a police officer in Muskogee from 1908 until he died in 1910. Freed by Union Soldiers during the Civil War, George Winston worked for the Union army and they became a waiter in 18657. He joined the 38th infantry and in 1872 became a security guard for the Fort Smith Federal Court. He was hired to replace the previous bailiff and was pushed out in 1893 by racist policies.
Fort Smith Today
The exact location of the First Fort Smith foundation was unknown until the 1959 test excavation by Clyde Dollar, an archeologist employed by the Department of Defense. The site was excavated in 1963 by the National Park Service for preservation and for viewing by park visitors. Today the foundations of the First Fort Smith are stabilized and accessible to visitors.
Archeological digs conducted from 1978 to 1985 revealed where major portions of the Second Fort Smith wall existed. Further, Second Fort Smith wall foundations were discovered at the former quartermaster building, an area that is now separated from the remainder of the Second Fort Smith by railroad tracks. The wall foundations were uncovered extending from the east and south sides of the Commissary and in lots that were formerly used for parking by the Speer Hardware Company and the Fort Smith Paper Company.
Early in 1983, during the monitoring of the Coca-Cola Complex demolition, foundations from the officers’ quarters were also discovered by Dollar and archeologist Roger Coleman. Their findings were documented in the report “Search for Officers’ Row at Fort Smith, Phase One (1982).” In July 1983, the massive support system for the Second Fort Smith flagpole (which stood about 100 feet high) was located under what was formerly Second Street and was partially excavated.
The historic Frisco Railroad Station (the Frisco), situated north of the Commissary, is within the park’s boundary and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, although for reasons not related to the park’s military and federal court history. Historically there were nine other railroad stations in Fort Smith and today, the Frisco is the only remaining train depot in the city. Completed in 1904, the Frisco was constructed of limestone blocks cut smoothly to resemble grey marble.
A trail system at Fort Smith National Historic Site provides a contemporary means for visitors to use and enjoy this historic site. Being in an urban setting, the trail system allows visitors to move from the downtown commercial district to the urban greenspace the park provides along the river. By increasing accessibility throughout the park grounds, the visiting public and local members of the community can enjoy the riverfront historic site both for educational and recreational purposes.