A town with a fascinating history….
Welcome back. I was in Fort Smith, AR this past weekend for a big gun and knife show and I’m here to tell you if the true history of the old west interests you, I recommend a visit to this town. Originally part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the town got its name when a fort was built on the site in 1817. By 1845 Fort Smith had become a trading hub in what was known as Indian Territory. The community became an important supplier for westward bound settlers and entrepreneurs headed for the California gold rush. By 1872 Fort Smith was in need of something else and that something came in the form of Federal Court Judge Isaac C. Parker. At the time this remote, open territory was also home to gangs of outlaws and in an effort to bring some order to the region, Parker deputized hundreds of U.S. Marshalls and sent them out to hunt down the outlaws and bring them to justice. His courtroom was in the enlisted men’s barracks of the old fort and the jail was in the basement of the building. There were two cells each of which held fifty men and those who lived to talk about it called it “hell on the border.” Judge Parker presided over the largest and roughest district in the young United States and during his twenty-one years on the bench he would hear over thirteen thousand cases. Although he was known as the hanging judge, Parker was a fair and honest man who was opposed to the death penalty. Of all the cases he heard only three hundred and forty-four called for the death penalty and of these it is recorded that only seventy-nine men were hung, the first in 1873. The gallows in Fort Smith were built to hang twelve men at a time but by all accounts six was the most ever hung together.
Back then there were thirty-seven states in the Union and although President Thomas Jefferson thought it would take a thousand years to settle the vast western territory, according to the National Park Service it only took fifty.
Judge Parker’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory ended in 1896 but his story lives on in his original courtroom where it all happened. The commissary building sits nearby as well. Parker used part of the building for his offices and for housing staff and before that it had been used for storing supplies. You can tour this building and then the “hell on the border” jail to get a sense of what breaking the law was like back then. The barracks, the commissary and the remains of the original fort are all along a walking path that is short and handicapped accessible. Situated along the Arkansas River, it’s about as pretty a spot as I think you’ll see and I don’t have to tell you that there are plenty of restaurants nearby. The visitors’ center is in the barracks and they have a list of area museums along with maps and guides to other attractions. Fort Smith is a great place to visit but be sure to save some time for Van Buren which is just one exit east off 1-40.
Van Buren is the second oldest city in Arkansas and has many historic sites of interest including the King Opera House which is over 100 years old and the Drennan Scott home which is linked to the trail of tears and the Underground Railroad. A 1920s era passenger train here also offers scenic rides through the Ozarks and these are just a few of the many to do and see in the area.
As for me, I’ll be at Sissy’s Place in Grove this Friday and then the following weekend I have a book signing event in Edmond with the great OU running back Joe Washington
Till next time, I’ll see ya down the road……………..