Fort Smith National Historic Site


On our trip from Hot Springs National Park, we made a very slight detour to visit Fort Smith National Historic Site. From the little information I had found earlier, I thought it would be a very brief stop with perhaps a quick tour through one building. I was wrong. Fort Smith had a very good museum, lots of information, walking paths to various sites and extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic rangers.

Fort Smith was one of the first U.S. military posts in the Louisiana Territory. It has quite an interesting history as the site of two frontier military posts and a federal court. In many respects, Fort Smith itself was a series of repeated, largely unnecessary, and short-lived exercises but the city of roughly 87,000 exists today because of those early efforts.

With the vast land acquisition of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson wanted southeastern American Indians to move west of the Mississippi River, opening their traditional lands to white settlement. The notion that this would be a haven for the tribes presumed the western lands to be vacant when they were in fact occupied by other native tribes. Jefferson thought it would take 1,000 years for whites to settle the West but, in fact, it only took 50 years. These presumptions and actions were bound to lead to conflict.

The first Fort Smith was built in 1817 at Belle Point which overlooks the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Its purpose was to keep peace in the Arkansas River Valley between the native Osage and newly arriving Cherokees. By 1824, the frontier had pushed west, the army followed, and Fort Smith was abandoned. The Army returned briefly in 1833-34 to work with Indian Department Agents but today stone foundations are all that remain of the original small fort.


Due to an unfounded fear of Indian attack and following persistent lobbying by Fort Smith commercial men, the second Fort Smith was authorized in 1838 and building began in the spring of 1839. This fort was to be huge consisting of walls twelve feet high and two to three feet wide enclosing an area of six hundred feet by four hundred feet with massive bastions at each angle.


Fort Smith had the design of a coastal fortification able to withstand enemy man-of-war ships. The likelihood of an enemy man-of-war on the Arkansas River was nonexistent. Many army officers, including one future president (Zachary Taylor), were baffled. Despite questioning, the work continued. It was also interesting to note that the gun emplacements faced the city rather than the river.

The fort was finished and occupied by troops in 1846. By that time, the army had spent about three hundred thousand dollars on the project which would roughly equate to over nine million dollars today. Pretty much an early example of a federal boondoggle. The fort, however, did prove valuable as a supply center for forts on the Southwestern frontier and for troops bound for Mexico during the War with Mexico. The old Commissary Building, stocked with Mexican War era quartermaster goods, offers a peek into that time period.

Sentiments in Arkansas were divided prior to the Civil War but in 1861 Arkansas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. On April 23, 1861, acting on orders to avoid confrontation, the Union forces evacuated Fort Smith. Fort Smith was occupied by Confederate troops and served as a base for non-conventional warfare by guerilla and partisan bands until 1863 when Major General Blunt and his Union troops retook the fort. It remained in Union hands the rest of the war but was held under siege by Confederates for a time in 1864. Fort Smith ceased to be an army post in 1871.

The U.S. Army turned over the buildings and grounds to the federal court when the dire need for law and order in Indian Territory led Congress to reposition the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas closer to the territory. From 1871 to 1874 Judge William Story presided but resigned under threat of impeachment for improper use of federal funds and appointments. Interim judge Henry J. Caldwell presided until 1875.

The basement of what had been the soldiers’ barracks was converted into a jail. Outlaws and innocents falsely charged were all stuffed together into the two unlit, sordid rooms. Conditions were so bad that it gained fame throughout Indian Territory as a dungeon or a hell hole, hence the sobriquet for Fort Smith as “Hell on the Border.”


If the crime was rape or murder and the accused was convicted in the federal court, the sentence was death by hanging. Since only the President of the United States could pardon or commute a sentence from the federal court, there was little hope of appeal. This changed in 1889 when Congress acted to allow a convicted defendant to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The gallows was erected in 1873 and six men died on the gallows during Story’s tenure.


Judge Isaac Charles Parker, a former congressman, arrived in 1875 and presided over one of the largest, deadliest, and busiest federal court districts. He heard over thirteen thousand cases in a twenty-one-year period. Crimes of violence accounted for about one in five. The criminal judgements made Parker famous with sentences to hang given to 156 men and four women. Of those, seventy-nine men actually went to the gallows. Parker really had no choice under federal law but to impose hanging. During his tenure, a high fence was built around the gallows to prevent executions from being public spectacles. Parker and the U.S. marshals badgered Congress for funds to improve the basement jail and finally, in 1888, a three-tier cell block was opened. This cell block is used today for interpretative exhibits.


Parker publicly denounced capital punishment and commented “it is not the severity of punishment, but the certainty of it that deters.” He also vowed to “let no guilty man escape.” Deputy marshals were appointed by the U.S. marshal to serve summons and warrants and bring back fugitives.


Parker’s court was instrumental in bringing law and order to the “wild west” that was Fort Smith and Indian Territory in the late 1800’s. After 1880, the Justice Department established more federal courts further west and thus diminished the jurisdiction of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The court’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory ended in September 1896 and Parker died at the age of 58 in November of that year. Judge Parker was buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.


For more information:

For other pages pertinent to this time period:

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, ND

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

Fort Union National Monument, NM

Boggsville Historic Site, Colorado

Bent’s Old Fort

Pecos National Historical Park