A Visit to the Fort Smith National Historic Site

Wednesday July 22nd 2020

A heavy rain shower during the night didn’t change the overall weather pattern much. Today was cooler. It only reached the mid 80s, but the humidity was still in the oppressive range. Any exertion outside resulted in copious amounts of sweat.

One of the reasons I chose to stop in this area was to visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Today was the day I made the half hour drive into Fort Smith Arkansas to visit the historic site in the middle of the city. There were actually three different government facilities at the site during the nineteenth century. The outdoor exhibits were all open. The visitors center and indoor exhibits were closed due to COVID-19. I only saw a handful of visitors while I wandered the grounds.

Confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers.

The first fort was built starting in 1817 to protect the frontier. It was located high on the bank at the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers. The garrison was under manned and supplies from the east were in short supply. The fort was abandoned in 1824. The remains of the fort were discovered in the 1950s.

The second Fort Smith existed from 1838 to 1871. It also served the purpose of protecting the frontier. In this case the Arkansas river represented the edge of Indian Territory. The fort was abandoned by the US Army at the start of the Civil war and occupied by the Confederacy. Union troops took the fort back in 1863, but needed to concentrate troops and supplies to support the refuge population drawn to the protection of the fort. Many of the Union Army units composed of freed slaves were formed and trained at Fort Smith.

The Fort Smith Barracks had a second floor added for the Western District of Arkansas Court and later a jail.
A replica of the gallows used to enforce the justice handed down by the “hangin’ judge”.

The troops manning Fort Smith were transferred to forts further west in 1871. The facilities at Fort Smith became the home of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas in 1872. The court was responsible for enforcing justice for Indian country and a large area of the west. For most of the courts existence at Fort Smith it was presided over by the famous “hangin’ judge” Isaac C. Parker. The gallows are a big part of the outdoor exhibits. In 1896 the facility ceased being used for the court.

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