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Fort Smith: a National Treasure

Updated on July 11, 2015

Garrison Avenue

Judge Parker's Gallows

Unique American History

Fort Smith is fascinating and unique in American history. It’s a place where swift justice was handed out to hundreds of violent outlaws who sought escape from lawmen by hiding out in the uncharted west known as Indian Territory. Dozens of men were hanged at the Fort's infamous gallows. Fort Smith is a treasure trove of incredible stories. Each year thousands come to experience the stories and sights of a rough-and-tumble Wild West.

The fort was originally established on Arkansas’s western Border in 1817 along the edge of the American frontier. It’s a must see for historical enthusiasts and nostalgia buffs.

The Bordello

Miss Laura's Social Club

The Fort Smith Visitor Center is located in historic downtown Fort Smith, in a restored former bordello. The building, housed in “Miss Laura's Social Club” is a Victorian mansion restored to its original condition. It is also the first bordello recorded on The National Register of Historic Places. It stands along the banks of the Arkansas River and offers an exciting adventure into the boisterous, border town past of Fort Smith. Of the seven houses on “The Row” in 1900, Miss Laura’s is the only one which has survived and has been Fort Smith’s official Visitor Center since 1992

1908 American Fire Engine Co. Steam Pumper

Fort Smith Museum of History

One of the main historical attractions is the Fort Smith Museum of History. For over 100 years, they have kept Fort Smith's rich and colorful history. The museum is located in the former Atkinson-Williams Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places at 320 Rogers Avenue. The Fort Smith Museum of History preserves exhibits and objects of historical significance relating to the founding and growth of Fort Smith and the region.

Another point of interest is at Fort Smith National Historic Site. You can walk where soldiers trained, stop along the Trail of Tears and stand where justice was handed out to infamous outlaws. The park includes remains of two forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

Judge Parker's Courtroom

Oak Cemetery

Oak Cemetery, recognized as a National Historic Landmark with over 152 years of documented history, also deserves a visit. The oldest monument is dated 1842, the same year the city was incorporated.

The cemetery captures the colorful history of past generations. It is the resting place of at least twenty-eight outlaws hanged by Judge Issac C. Parker. Several more were sentenced to hang but died in jail.

Also interred are over a hundred Marshals, Deputies and Court officials including the Founder of Fort Smith, an Arkansas Governor, fifteen Fort Smith Mayors, and a hundred twenty-two confederate soldiers. The thirty-acre facility, located at 1401 South Greenwood Avenue, is maintained by Fort Smith's Parks and Recreation Department.Oak Cemetery is one of the oldest burial sites in the State of Arkansas.

Judge Issac C. Parker

Maintaining Law And Order

The initial function of the Fort was to keep peace between the Cherokee and Osage Indian tribes. The Osage resented the arrival of the Cherokee who were being driven out of their homelands in the East. But, that mission lasted only seven years and the fort was closed. However, it reopened two years later shortly after Arkansas became a state.

Fort Smith city proper began as a small village which grew up around the military establishment. The California Gold Rush hastened its’ growth as the city became a departure point for pioneers seeking their fortunes.

The city and fort was the scene of several prominent Civil War Battles. The fort was first a Confederate holding, but Federal troops captured it in 1863. The scene of one major battle is preserved at the city’s Massard Prairie Battlefield Park. Fort Smith was also a major stop on the Trail of Tears and overlooks the Arkansas River at the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations.

Following the Civil War, outlaws made their way into the Indian Nations bordering Fort Smith and began terrorizing them. The sheer number of outlaws overwhelmed local law enforcement officers.

This led to the appointment of Judge Issac C. Parker as the U.S. District Judge for the Western Arkansas District. Parker came to Fort Smith in May of 1875 and served as Judge for the next twenty-one years. Judge Parker dealt with criminals like the Cook’s, the Starr’s, the Buck’s, and Cherokee Bill, as well as with thousands of other less well-known criminals.Records show he hung 79 men.

With the establishment of federal courts in Indian Territory, Parker’s jurisdiction ended. He died two months later and is buried at Fort Smith National Cemetery. His gallows still stand and the graves of his U.S. Marshals can be seen at the city’s historic Oak Cemetery.

Fort Smith has been named as a National Historic Site.

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