On a recent Saturday, I woke up and wanted to go on a road trip. Where to go? The Fort Smith NationalHistoric Site was selected as the day’s goal. Conveniently arriving in Van Buren at lunchtime, I dined there, browsed in a bookstore, and then drove the short distance to the old Fort. Established in 1817 near the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, the military abandoned the fort seven years later but then reestablished it in 1838. The commissary and barracks buildings are the only structures remaining from the Civil War years. Although little fighting took place in the Fort Smith area during the war, control over the region often figured in the strategy for both sides. In 1863, Union forces secured control of the Fort for the remainder of the war.
In the postwar period, the fort was closed in 1871, but the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas was established the following year. The creation of the court led to the addition of a jail and courthouse onto the barracks building. Judge Isaac C. Parker famously presided over this busy district court for several decades as authorities attempted to exert control over the wild Indian Territory.
The visitor’s center has a number of fine displays that tell about the fort, the court, and the colorful characters associated with them. My favorite artifact was a large photograph from 1895 showing outlaw Crawford Goldsby (Cherokee Bill) in Wagoner, Indian Territory, after his arrest. With his arm around Deputy Dick Crittenden and a big smile on his face, Cherokee Bill was attempting to reach down and pull out Crittenden’s pistol. Luckily for Crittenden and others in the crowd, Cherokee Bill was unsuccessful in that attempt. If you’re ever in the Fort Smith area, drop by for a visit to the old Fort!
The location of the first fort:
The Old Barracks:
The Old Barracks Building showing the addition of the courthouse and jail: