Located in Fort Smith, Arkansas along the banks of the Arkansas River, the Fort Smith National Historic Site commemorating the remains of two frontier forts, along with the former site of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, the area that is now Fort Smith, Arkansas was the home of the Osage indigenous people, who occupied much of the land that is now part of modern-day Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
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The Fort Smith area was incorporated into United States territory as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and further explored during the 1806 Pike Expedition. In December of 1817, a small military post was established at the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers, maintained by Major William Bradford and a corps from the U.S. Rifle Regiment. The site was named for General Thomas Adam Smith, who had commissioned Major Stephen H. Long, a topographical engineer for the United States Army, to survey the area. In 1822, the Treaty of Fort Smith was negotiated between the fort’s commanding officer, Colonel Matthew Arbuckle, and native commissioner James Miller, establishing peace between the Osage people and emigrating Cherokee indigenous people who had been displaced from eastern areas of the southern United States.
As a result of the peace treaty, a small settlement began to form around the fort, but it was soon abandoned as troops moved to Fort Gibson, located 80 miles west of the site. Civilian settlement growth in the area was encouraged by John Rogers after the fort’s relocation, causing enough urban development to bring military presence back to the area by the time of the Mexican War. In 1838, a second Fort Smith was established at the Belle Point military post, which served as a major stop along the Trail of Tears, which removed and relocated Cherokee and Choctaw indigenous people from their homelands in the southeastern United States to designated Indian Territory lands. In addition to its use as a supply warehouse, the second Fort Smith served as a Division Center for the Butterfield Overland Mail’s Seventh Division route.
After a brief period occupation by the Confederate Army, the fort became a major hideout center for runaway slaves, Southern Unionists, and others seeking refuge after the American Civil War. Starting in 1872, the fort became the site of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The courtroom was presided over by Judge Isaac C. Parker, who developed a reputation as “the hangin’ judge” due to his high number of convictions for criminals from the Old American West. In 1961, the sites of the former forts and courthouse were preserved as part of the Fort Smith National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service, and were designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Permanent Attractions and Exhibits
Today, the former courthouse building serves as the park’s Visitor Center, which contains a number of exhibits chronicling the fort’s military history, the trials and policies of Judge Parker, and the area’s impact on a number of 19th-century American history events, including its role in western expansion and the development of Federal Indian policy. Deputy Marshals, military officials, and notable convicts associated with the facility are profiled, including infamous crime duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who were killed shortly after leaving the Fort Smith area. Two original restored jails at the courthouse are also open for visitor tours, and a reconstruction of the facility’s gallows, which executed 86 convicts during the courthouse’s operations between 1873 and 1896, is on display on the park’s grounds. The Center’s Eastern Natural Bookstore offers a variety of handmade crafts by local artisans and gifts and memorabilia related to park history.
Also located on the park’s grounds are the foundational remains of the first Fort Smith, which were unearthed by archaeologists in the 1950s. The nearby Belle Point overlook serves as a public park space, providing visitors with views of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Along the banks of the Arkansas River, a Walking Trail features exhibits highlighting important events related to the Trail of Tears. Visitors may also tour the second fort’s Commissary Building, which is the oldest extant building on the fort site and has been restored to its original condition as a supply warehouse. A historic Officer’s Garden is located nearby, which was used as a gathering site and fruit and vegetable garden for fort officers and their families.
A Junior Ranger program is available for young visitors, offering badges and certificates for completion of a park scavenger hunt. Periodic special events are held at the park, including Night Court events, which allow attendees to participate as mock jurors in historic trial dramatizations.
301 Parker Ave, Fort Smith, AR 72901, Phone: 479-783-3961