Shaped by a diverse cast of memorable characterssoldiers, Indians, outlaws, and lawmenFort Smith National Historic Site explores 80 years of turbulent history on the western frontier. Discover compelling stories of two frontier forts, the tragic Trail of Tears, and the historic jail and federal courthouse of Judge Isaac C. Parker.
Stronghold of law and order
The 1803 Louisiana Purchase launched Fort Smith's history. President Thomas Jefferson wanted southeastern American Indians to move west of the Mississippi River, opening their lands to white settlement. This flawed notion assumed western lands were vacant, even though they wer already occupied by other native tribes. Jefferson thought it would take 1,000 years for whites to settle the West. In fact, it took just 50 years.
First Fort Smith 1817-1824
First Fort Smith was built in 1817 to keep peace in the Arkansas River Valley between the native Osage and newly arriving Cherokee. Built of logs and stone, the first fort sat above the Poteau and Arkansas rivers, a spot known by French trappers as Belle Point. By 1824 the frontier had pushed west. The Army followed to keep the peace, and Fort Smith was abandoned.
The Army returned (1833-34) to work with Indian Department Agents. Soldiers arrested those who entered Indian Territory to sell whiskey and take advantage of the Choctaw, who were forcibly relocated from their homeland. Over time the fort's logs rotted and the soil claimed its stones, but the problems for the Indians would persist and increase.
Second Fort Smith 1838-1871
Second Fort Smith was built in 1838 due to an unfounded fear of Indian attack, but the 1846-48 US-Mexican War, 1849 California Gold Rush, surging westward migration, and forts built farther west made it an important supply depot.
Arkansas River steamboats brought supplies from St. Louis and New Orleans. The city of Fort Smith began to prosper and grow. After the Civil War (1861-65) the military permanently closed the little-needed fort in 1871.
In the Civil War the fort saw little action, but it was a major supply post for both sides. In April 1861 the US Army abandoned the fort to Arkansas state troops. Two years later the Confederates abandoned the fort to Union troops who occupied it for the rest of the war.
Bitterly divided, American Indians fought on both sides in the Civil War, as did western Arkansas citizens. After the Union forces returned to Fort Smith, local African Americans were recruited into the US Colored Troops (USCT). After the war, African Americans had their freedom. This was not true for American Indians, regardless of who they had fought for.
The 1865 Fort Smith Council was held to establish relations with Indians after the Civil War. Delegates of 15 Indian nations met with the US government. Although they had fought on both sides in the war, the United States treated all tribes as defeated enemies. They were told that their rights had been forfeited, their slaves must be freed, and their property could be confiscated. The council ended with little resolved. Not expecting to sign treaties and concerned that tribal sovereignty was at stake, the tribes simply pledged their allegiance to the United States and freed their slaves. The next year the tribes signed separate treaties with the federal government. The council was one more step in the relentless reduction of tribal sovereignty.
Federal Court 1872-1896
Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas had jurisdiction over Indian Territory. It moved into the former enlisted men's barracks in 1872. One side of the first floor was the courtroom and the other held offices for the US Marshal, US Commissioner, and Court Clerk. The attic was used for jury deliberation. Over the next 24 years, hundreds of US Deputy Marshals rode out from the court into Indian Territory to maintain law and order.
The barracks basement, once a mess hall, became a primitive jail with two big cells (up to 50 men per cell)and poor, unsanitary conditions. Prisoners nicknamed it "Hell-on-the-Border." Journalist Anna Dawes, daughter of a US senator, visited the jail in 1885. Reprinted in The Congressional Record, her news article prodded Congress to fund a new Fort Smith jail.
Judge Isaac C. Parker, although called " the hanging judge," tried to create "the moral force of a strong court." He rehabilitated convicts, reformed criminal justice, and advocated the rights of Indian nations, but sensational cases and mass executions overshadowed such work.
Judge Parker presided over one of the largest, deadliest, and busiest federal court districts. He heard over 13,000 cases344 were for capital crimes. Of 160 he sentenced to hang, only 79 faced the gallows. His court's jurisdiction over Indian Territory ended in September 1896. Judge Parker died 10 weeks later, on November 17, 1896.
Visiting Fort Smith
Make your first stop the visitor center in the former basement of the 1888 jail of the second Fort Smith. Rebuilt after an 1849 fire, the barracks were in use until the fort closed in 1871. Added onto later, the building was the Federal Courthouse for the Western District of Arkansas. The primitive jail in the building was replaced in 1888 after a journalist publicized the poor conditions prisoners endured.
Judge Parker's Courtroom
First Fort Smith-Belle Point
Trail of Tears Overlook
Start at the Visitor Center, See its Exhibits, Tour the Grounds, and Walk to the Overlook
Visitor Center The visitor center, movie, extensive exhibits, and gift shop are in the former basement of the 1888 jail. Open daily except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25, it is wheelchair-accessible and has an elevator. Make this your first stopbut not your last. Watch the orientation movie that narrates the 80-year history of this historic site. Call ahead or visit the park website for hours.
Make the Most of Your Visit Archeologists have uncovered the footprint of the first Fort Smith, set above the Poteau and Arkansas rivers. Please stay on the trail to help protect this fragile resource. The River Trail hugs the Arkansas River past Belle Point and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Overlook and takes you to Fort Smith Riverfront Park. This paved, fairly level path offers shade in hot weather.
Officers' Quarters housed officers and their families and were located northwest of the flagpole.
1825 Initial Point Marker (reproduction) marks the 1825 boundary between Arkansas Territory and the Choctaw Nation. See the original stone marker in the visitor center.
Junior Ranger Program Learn about soldiers, American Indians, marshals, outlaws, and Judge Parker to earn a Junior Ranger Badge. Ask a park ranger for details. Children's programs are offered throughout the year. Contact the park or visit the park website for information.
Safety The fort is in an urban area; watch children carefully. • Be alert when crossing streets, at railroad tracks, and near restoration/archeological work. • Use the walkway to Belle Point and Trail of Tears Overlook. • Be extra cautious near the river: There can be venomous snakes, steep drop-offs, and strong currents. • Pets must be on a leash six feet or shorter at all times. • For firearms regulations visit the website or ask a ranger.
Accessibility We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to a visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check our website.
Directions This national historic site is located in Fort Smith. Follow Garrison or Rogers avenues by going south on 4th Street and then west on Garland Avenue.
Source: NPS Brochure (2015)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
An Archeological Overview and Assessment of Fort Smith National Historic Site Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report No. 87 (Roger E. Coleman and Douglas D. Scott, 2003)
Archeological Assessment for Fort Smith National Historic Site (Roger E. Coleman, 1990)
Fort Smith 1838-1971 (Edwin C. Bearss, November 1963)
General Management Plan/Development Concept Plan/Interpretive Plan, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas (September 1979, revised 1981)
Geology of the Fort Smith District, Arkansas US Geological Survey Professional Paper 221-E (T.A. Hendricks and Bryan Parks, 1950)
Geophysical Investigations of Proposed Interpretative Garden at the Second Fort Smith Site, Fort Smith National Historic Site (3Sb79), Sebastian County, Arkansas Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 114 (Steven L. DeVore, 2008)
Geophysical Surveys of the Perimeter Fortification System at the Site of the Second Fort Smith, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Fort Smith, Arkansas Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 85 (Robert K. Nickel and William J. Hunt, Jr., 2002)
Historic Furnishings Report - The Fort Smith Courtroom (John Demer, 2005)
Historic Structure Report: Restore Historic Commissary Building to 1897: Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas (C. Craig Frazier, James E. Ivey and Roger E. Coleman, 1987)
Law West Of Fort Smith: A History Of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834-1896 (Glenn Shirley, 1957)
Law Enforcement at Fort Smith, 1871-1896 (Edwin C. Bearss, January 1964)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Fort Smith (First and Second Sites) and Judge Parker Courtroom (Frank B. Sarles, Jr., December 10, 1958)
Newsletter (Dispatch): Vol. 2 No. 3 Summer 2001
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 28-May-2022