Brown Quarterly - Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1996)

Fort Smith: Gateway to Indian Territory

By Juliet Galonska

Think of western history and Arkansas is probably one of the last things that comes to mind . . . until paying a visit to Fort Smith National Historic Site . Located on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, this unit of the National Park System offers an eighty year history of being a gateway to Indian Territory (land set aside for forcible removed Indians), army expeditions, gold rush travelers and deputy marshals enforcing federal law, among others. More importantly, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the federal government's attempts to enforce its policies over the Indian nations.

Fort Smith derives its name from the military post founded on Christmas Day, 1817, at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers. This post was to maintain the peace between the Osage and Cherokee Indians which were fighting a sporadic war that began as the Cherokee moved west to escape the onslaught of white settlers in their ancestral lands. In Osage eyes these Cherokee were invaders, and years of fighting over territory and hunting rights ensued.

It was this movement of eastern Indian tribes to the west, specifically to Indian Territory, that gave Fort Smith its importance. The attempts to enact a peace during the first fort period (1817-1824) were futile, as raiding among the tribes continued until the Osage were removed to Kansas. Congress authorized a second Fort Smith in 1838, due in large part to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Under that legislation, the Cherokee, Chickasaw Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole were forced to move to Indian Territory, each on their own "Trail of Tears." Arkansas petitioned Congress to reestablish the fort both as an economic initiative and as a buffer between the Indians and citizens. This later concern arose as the tribes divided into factions over the removal issue. The feuding became violent, especially among the Cherokee, and Arkansans feared the spread of bloodshed into their communities. Although this never materialized, the military constructed a second Fort Smith during the 1840s.

This post's function became one of supply, outfitting military expeditions, adventurers, and explorers, as well as other U.S. Army installations in Indian Territory. This important role of Fort Smith continued into the Civil War, but shortly thereafter the usefulness of the post waned. In 1871 it was permanently abandoned.

Lacking a military presence, the government became a force through the judicial system. In 1871 the seat of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas moved from Van Buren to Fort Smith. A year later the courtroom and jail moved into the former soldiers' barracks on the old military reservation. Today, this building serves as the Visitor Center at the Historic Site.

Until 1896, the jurisdiction of the Western District of Arkansas encompassed all or parts of Indian Territory, an area that became a chaotic refuge for the lawless in the post Civil War years. The reasons for this are complex, but generally the overlapping jurisdictions of the U.S. government and independent Indian nations, and the vast acreage and distances made avoiding justice seem easier to outlaws than in other parts of the country. The federal court in Fort Smith derived its uniqueness from a responsibility to handle cases between Indians and those who were not tribal members. With an increasing population of white settlers in Indian Territory, many of whom were there illegally, this district, unlike other federal courts, handled an extraordinary criminal caseload.

The court became synonymous with the man who sat on the bench, Judge Isaac C. Parker. Appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, Parker has been most commonly labeled the "Hanging Judge" for the number of people (160) he sentenced to die on the gallows. Even with the understanding that juries convicted every one of those men and women of rape or murder, and that the mandatory sentence for those crimes under federal law of the time was death, perhaps no better illustration of the misconceptions surrounding Parker exists than his feeling on capital punishment. He once remarked that "I even favor abolition of the death penalty provided there is a certainty of punishment."

Parker's legacy is spelled out in the number of cases the federal court at Fort Smith handled during his tenure. Between 1875 and 1896, 12,031 criminal cases were terminated, with 8,791 convictions, a rate of 73%. The judge realized this work was impossible without the abilities of capable lawmen, commenting that "without these officers, what is the use of this court?" Hundreds of men, including African-Americans and American Indians, served as deputy U.S. marshals in Indian Territory, and at least 100 lost their lives in the line of duty. Their stories remain some of the most colorful in the West.

Today, Fort Smith National Historic Site interprets the government's attempts to administer justice for American Indians and control the nature of westward expansion and settlement through both the United States Army and the federal court system. Visitors to the site can view the barracks/courthouse/ jail building, including the restored courtroom of Parker's era and the "Hell on the Border" jail cell; a reproduction of the gallows; the foundations of the first Fort Smith; and the Commissary, the oldest building in town with a recently refurbished interior depicting its appearance in the 1850s. The Historic Site has also received funding to begin a major rehabilitation of the barracks/courthouse/jail building and the historic landscape. Living history programs and ranger-led tours of the site are offered throughout the year, especially to school groups. A library of research files, books and audio-visual materials allows special loans for use in the classroom. Plans for the future include development of new "Parks as Classrooms" type of program to correspond with improvements at the site. For more information on the history of Fort Smith or a site visit, contact Fort Smith National Historic Site, P.O. Box 1406, Fort Smith, AR 72902 (501) 783-3961.