Whether you happen to be in Arkansas or on a cross-country road trip, don’t forget to check out the historic Fort Smith.
Established in 1817 to maintain peace among the Indian tribes, prevent whites from encroaching on Indian Territories, and keep Arkansas Territory settlers from harm, it was abandoned by the U.S. Army in 1824. Rebuilt in 1838, it became a supply depot in 1845 under the command of U.S. President Colonel Zachery Taylor. During the Civil War, Confederates held the fort until they abandoned it in 1863 when Union forces took over and occupied it for the remainder of the war. During the war, black regiments were stationed there and it was the base for U.S. Colored Troop recruitment.
The fort’s most famous era began in 1871 after the Western Arkansas Federal District Court was relocated there and Judge Isaac Parker took over, dispensing justice to western Arkansas and Indian Territory for 21 years. Parker is noted for issuing the death penalty on the infamous criminal Cherokee Bill.
Parker’s most famous federal marshal was Bass Reeves, the third African-American marshal and the first west of the Mississippi. He is credited with arresting 3,000 miscreants and killing 14 in the line of duty. After retiring, he joined the police force in Muskogee, Okla., in 1907, where he lived until his death in 1910. In November 2011, the bridge over the Arkansas River connecting Muskogee and Fort Gibson was named in honor of Reeves, who served longer and captured more criminals than any other U.S. deputy marshal. Several movies, such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Hang Em High,” and “The Naked Spur” use elements of Bass’ life. A 12-foot bronze statue of Reeves called the Bass Reeves Legacy Monument stands in Ross Pendergraft Park at Fort Smith.
Fort Smith National Historic Site is a 46-acre complex that includes the 1987 Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Overlook, remains of the first fort, the second fort with four interpreted historic sites, and a reconstruction of the Initial Point Maker, which was designed in 1858 to indicate the boundary between Arkansas and Indian Territory.
One must-see site at the fort is The Barracks-Courthouse-Jail, which was rebuilt after 1849 when the original burnt down.
Tours of the fort begin in the Visitor Center with a brief orientation film and continue into the basement jail referred to as “Hell on the Border.” The upper level of the building features a museum with displays of artifacts, videos, photographs, and text. One specific highlight of the Museum is a huge photo of the arrest of Cherokee Bill and items used during his failed escape attempt. Tours include a trip to Parker’s courtroom and displays around the Trail of Tears.
Outside of the fort, the city of Fort Smith has much to offer. Walking tours have been developed, and the Belle Grove Historic District encompasses 22-square blocks of structures built over a 150-year period representing nearly all forms of architecture used in American construction. If you happen to go downtown, a trail of 12 historic plaques to guides you that and with the use of a free application on your cell phone, gives visitors access to video and full narration. In addition, the city of Fort Smith boasts the only Visitor Center located in a 1903 bordello owned by Laura Zeigler in the heart of “The Row,” the seven-house Red Light District. Tours of the Visitor Center are available and if you are lucky, you will see Carolyn Joyce, who has been portraying the infamous Ms. Laura since 1992.