Fort Smith - Fort Smith, Arkansas
Posted by: gparkes
N 35° 23.285 W 094° 25.796
15S E 370130 N 3917019
Quick Description: Fort Smith has a long and diverse history, from a frontier fort established in 1817, to a Confederate fort, finishing its Federal usage as both a court over the Indian Territory and Federal Prison.
Location: Arkansas, United States
Date Posted: 11/18/2009 10:21:41 AM
Waymark Code: WM7PKB
Fort Smith was named after General Thomas Adams Smith (1781 – 1844), who commanded the U.S. Army Rifle Regiment headquartered in St. Louis. In 1817, General Thomas Smith tasked Major William Bradford was tasked with keeping the peace in western Arkansas, from lawlessness of the area and particularly between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. Tensions between the two tribes were growing as they were being pushed westward. In order to combat these problems, Fort Smith was located on the Arkansas River. Seven short years later, the fort was abandoned and operations moved 80 miles west to Fort Gibson.
In 1838, after Arkansas entered the Union as a state, Congress authorized a second Fort Smith for protection along the border with the Indian Territory, or present day Oklahoma. The proposed fort was designed with massive fortification walls. The Army was very reluctant to proceed with this not seeing the necessity. The new trend with modern forts was to build no walls or minimal fortifications. Over the next few years, labor difficulties and budget overruns plagued the construction of this new garrison.
Eight years later, the fortification was complete, but not quite to the specifications as intended. Less than half the buildings were constructed. The fortification walls ended up being constructed with varying heights of six to twelve feet tall, from an intended twelve feet. The walls were to be constructed in triangle, with cannon platforms in each corner. These were never completed and eventually the space was turned into warehouse space.
During the 1850’s, the posts turned its mission into one of supplying the forts to the west and the Indian tribes. The war with Mexico in 1848, showed the necessity of moving supplies westward, which Fort Smith played a pivotal role.
With the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, Union troops abandoned the post and Confederate troops the garrison. A major battle was missed as Union troops slipped out under the cover of darkness just hours prior to a planned attack by Arkansas state militia. The fort remained in the hands of Confederate troops until September 1, 1863, when Federal troops returned to reclaim the garrison.
After the war, the post lost its usefulness. Both Officers’ Quarters were destroyed by fires. Reconstruction period was calling for Federal troops to leave Southern areas quickly. By the summer of 1871, Army troops left the fort for the last time. This, however, is not the end to the history of Fort Smith.
The Federal Court, located in Van Buren was relocated in 1871 to Fort Smith. The old fort made perfect location for the court over the Indian Territory. Outlaws had taken to hiding in the Indian Territory, believing they were above the law and out of touch. The history Fort Smith would prove this wrong.
The second judge of the court is the one whose reputation built the court. The first judge at the court was Judge William Story, who was marred by corruption. Judge Isaac Parker took over the court on May 4, 1875. His reputation as the “hanging judge” was built over a career of 21 years. The first case heard in his court was on May 10, 1875, in which eight men were convicted of murder. He sentenced them to death, of which six actually saw the gallows. One sentence was commuted to a life sentence due to the youth of the convicted and the other was killed during an attempted escape. Throughout the years, 160 death sentences were handed down by Judge Parker, with 79 actually meeting their fate at the gallows. The other 81 meet their fate by either dying while incarcerated, reduction of sentence during appeal, or obtaining a pardon.
Not only had Fort Smith provided the Indian Territory with a court, but also a jail. The original court was housed in the original Enlisted Barracks. Court was held in one room, and offices throughout the main floors, and the jail was located in the cramped basement. Overcrowding, sanitary conditions, and the inability to separate prisoners necessitated the construction of a proper jail. Congress delayed efforts to build a new courthouse. In 1885, Congress authorized the building of a courthouse next to the existing quarters, allowing the older building to be converted into a proper jail. Construction began in 1887 with inmates being relocated to the jail on March 19, 1888. Each cell measured five feet by seven feet, furnished with an iron bunk bed. Modern improvements, such as separations between the guards and prisoners and cells locking as a unit, made the prison safer for guards, and lessened the potential for escape attempts.
Conditions in the jail, did not improve in the new jail. The jail, designed for 124 inmates, often held more that 200 prisoners. Prisoners contributed to the filth in the jail by spitting tobacco out on the floor. There was no consideration for separating female prisoners with an average of six women were held throughout this period. Eventually, in 1896, women were moved to their own quarters within the former courtroom.
The court lost its jurisdiction over the Indian Territory in 1896, as lands were being formally settled during the Oklahoma Land Runs. The jail continued its use until 1917.
Today, the former fort, former court, and former jail is overseen by the National Parks Service. The site was established as the Fort Smith National Historic Site on September 13, 1961. In 1966, it was added as a District to the National Register of Historic Places.
Touring the site gives visitors a view into all eras of the site. Admission costs $4.00 and the buildings are open daily 9 am to 5 pm closed only on Christmas and New Years Days. The park grounds are accessible during daylight hours. Much of the history is on the outside of the walls of the court/barracks/visitors center so anyway a visitor can view the site will be an excellent experience.
Era: Napoleonic - WW I
Related web site: [Web Link]
General Comments: Not listed