Fort Smith, Wild, Wild West Arkansas
ABOVE PHOTO: Interior of Parker's Jail.
By Renée S. Gordon
“There is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.”
People tend to forget that America’s frontier changed over time. The earliest European settlements were along the coast and gradually settlers and explorers, following Indian trails and waterways, moved inland. Early 18th-century events opened the Louisiana Territory and made western Arkansas the frontier, the last stop between “civilization” and Indian Territory and from 1817 until 1897 Fort Smith was the westerly outpost of law and order.
There is no archeological evidence that there were permanent native villages in the area prior to the establishment of Fort Smith in 1817. It was situated at what was known as La Belle Pointe, where the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers met, and named after General Thomas Smith. The log structure was 132-ft. square with 10-ft. walls and was tasked with maintaining peace among the Indian tribes, preventing whites from encroaching on the Indian Territories and keeping Arkansas Territory settlers from harm. The US Army abandoned the first fort in 1824.
Urged by white settlers work was begun on a new fort in 1838. The new fort was built of stone and surrounded by an eight-ft. stone wall. Two years later, future US president, Col. Zachery Taylor, took command and in 1845 it became a supply depot. During the Civil War the Confederates held the fort until they abandoned it in August of 1863. Union forces then held it for the remainder of the war. Black regiments were stationed there and it was a base for U S Colored Troop recruitment.
In March of 1871 the Federal government relocated the Western Arkansas Federal District Court to Fort Smith and installed William Story as the first judge. In March of 1875 President US Grant replaced Story with Judge Isaac Parker and Fort Smith’s most famous era began. Parker presided over the court for the next 21-years dispensing justice to western Arkansas and the Indian Territory. It is documented that he handled an average of two cases daily and throughout his career a total of approximately 12,800 cases. Parker’s 74,000-sq. mile jurisdiction was the province of his deputy marshals, 65 of which were killed during his tenure. At the end of Parker’s era the area was carved into more than 70 separate jurisdictions.
PHOTO: Bass Reeves and interpreter.
Possibly the most famous of Parker’s federal marshals was a former slave named Bass Reeves. Born in Arkansas in 1838 his owner, William Reeves, moved to Texas when Bass was 8. At the outbreak of the Civil War Bass was forced to accompany his owner’s son George to war as his body servant. Bass took this opportunity to flee to Indian Territory and live among the Creeks and Seminoles and learn their traditions and languages.
Because of these skills, his ability with a gun, his tenacity and fearlessness, at the age of 38 he was named the third African American marshal and the first west of the Mississippi. He was ambidextrous and was an expert marksman with either hand but with all his abilities he could neither read nor write and after having someone read him the warrants he would memorize them. During his 32-years as a deputy he is credited with arresting 3,000 miscreants and killing 14 in the line of duty. Bass stood 6’2” tall, weighed less than 200-lbs. and arrested blacks and whites alike. Records indicate that in 1882 Bass arrested Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, once brought in 19 horse thieves at once and in 1902 arrested Benny Bass, his son. Benny had murdered his wife and run away but Bass arrested him and brought him back for trial. He was sentenced to 20-years in Leavenworth.
When Reeves marshaling career ended in 1907 he joined the police force in Muskogee, Oklahoma where he died in 1910. In November of 2011 the bridge over the Arkansas River connecting Muskogee and Fort Gibson was named in honor of Reeves who served longer than any other US Deputy Marshal and captured more criminals. Bass Reeves’ story has been told and retold but the real man rarely receives the credit. The movies using elements of Bass’ life include Hang Em High and The Naked Spur.
On May 26, 2012 Ross Pendergraft Park became the home of a 12-ft. bronze, equestrian, statue, the Bass Reeves Legacy Monument. Reeves, rifle at the ready, is accompanied by his faithful dog. The $300,000 sculpture was created by Harold Holden in Norman, Oklahoma and traveled with an escort of law officers from more than one dozen different agencies, the 168-miles. Reeves’ fame in the area is such that the statue was funded completely by private donations. If you are in the city at just the right time you might encounter Bass in the person of re-enactor Baridi Nokikeli. He brings the man to life in a way that can only occur in Fort Smith. Fort Smith will be the home of the planned U.S. Marshals’ Museum that will honor the contribution of all the marshals.
Just as Parker’s marshals were legendary, so too were the criminals they captured and incarcerated at Fort Smith. The worst of the worst fled into Indian Territory because it was so vast and odds of capture appeared slim. The court also had jurisdiction over Arkansans, blacks who were Native American freedmen and the Arkansas-Oklahoma Indian Territory. Although Parker was known as “hanging judge” he was considered fair, was a believer in Indian rights and never attended a hanging.
Cherokee Bill was born Crawford Goldsby in 1876 to a Buffalo Soldier and a mixed Cherokee and black mother. Bill’s father abandoned the family but at the age of 10 his mother managed to send him to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Industrial School for two years. Stories differ but it is generally believed that he shot his first man at age 12 and soon after joined up with the Cook Brothers for a string of robberies and murders. During his brief career he both led his own gang and rode with other notorious felons such as Billy the Kid.
Bill was betrayed by friends for the $1500 reward, captured and sentenced to death. During his appeal Bill attempted to escape from cell #20 and killed a jail attendant. It was for this murder that he received an additional death sentence and was hung on March 17, 1896. When asked if he had any last words he is quoted as saying, “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
Lewis Davis, Sam Sampson, Maoma July, Lucky Davis and Rufus Buck, all Creek Indian and most mixed black, formed an infamous teenaged gang of criminals who robbed and raped both blacks and whites in the territory. Their first murder was that of a US Deputy Marshal on July 28, 1895 and their viciousness was such that marshals, the Creek Indian Lighthorse Police set out to catch them. They were tracked down on August 10, 1895 and only surrendered when they had no more ammunition. Parker sentenced all five to death and they were hanged as a group on July 1, 1896.
Fort Smith National Historic Site is a 46-acre complex that includes the 1987 Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Overlook, remains of the first fort, the second fort with four interpreted historic sites and a reconstruction of the Initial Point Marker.
The Initial Point Marker dates from 1858 when a stone was placed to indicate the boundary between Arkansas and Indian Territories. Whites were forbidden to settle west of the line until 1890. The original marker is on display inside the museum.
The Barracks-Courthouse –Jail is the must see site. In 1849 the first barracks burned down and the current one is the second built there. In 1871 the army left the fort and the next year the Western District of Arkansas moved in. Here Parker presided from 1875-1889.
Tours begin in the Visitor Center with a brief orientation film and continue into the basement jail referred to as “Hell on the Border.” The jail is set up as if the prisoners just left and an audio track provides their voices and conversations as if they were ghosts. The upper level of the building features a museum that is walk among jail cells and display cases that feature artifacts, videos, photographs and text. Highlights of the museum are a huge photo of the arrest of Cherokee Bill and items used during his failed escape attempt. Parker’s courtroom is also on the tour as well as displays around the Trail of Tears.
A recreated 1886 gallows is located in an enclosure 150-ft. from the courtroom. Six men at a time, making this the largest federal court gallows, could be executed simultaneously. In 1897 the original was burned down. www.nps.gov/fosm
Outside of the NHP there is much to see in the city and walking tours have been developed. Belle Grove Historic District encompasses 22-sq. blocks of structures built over a 150-year period representing nearly all the forms of architecture used in American construction. The best way see the Downtown area is to follow a trail of 12 historic plaques that, with the use of a free application on your cell phone, gives visitors access to video and full narration.
Fort Smith never brags, it doesn’t have to. This is historic travel central and everywhere you look it’s a hands-on experience. No other city in the country has a Visitor Center located inside a 1903 bordello owned by Laura Zeigler in the heart of “The Row,” the seven house Red Light District. It was known as the “Queen of the Row,” with nine of the most refined ladies, gambling, dancing, socializing and champagne. Miss Laura’s office was downstairs and gentlemen paid her $3.00 for a token to “spend time” with a lady or $5.00 to spend the entire evening. Laura kept $2.00 and the woman received $1.00. Laura paid $600 for the house and sold it in 1911 for $47,000.
The wooden, baroque Victorian, building is furnished in Victorian elegance complete with stained glass windows. The muted green exterior is its original color. On the second level the rooms of the girls are designated with a transom over each door inscribed with a name. Throughout the house there are display cases with personal belongings and memorabilia from the era.
Tours are available and again, if you are lucky, Miss Laura, aka Carolyn Joyce, just might be there and the years have not diminished her spiciness. Ms. Joyce has been portraying Miss Laura since 1992 and for her commitment and hospitality she was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2010. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
John Drennen, from Elizabeth, PA and David Thompson began a company in the Fort Smith area in the early 19th-century. In 1836 they purchased land, established what is now the city of Van Buren and relocated. Drennen began construction of a home in 1836 and the house remained in the family until it became the property of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in 2005 making it the oldest home in the state continuously owned by a single family.
A tour of the 26-acre site begins in the Visitor Center with interpretive panels on Wyatt Earp, Bass Reeves and women’s history. A short walk takes you to the five-story, dogtrot house that began as a basic one-room structure. The house underwent a $5-million restoration and has been returned to its original colors. The furnishings are 100 percent original and include a 1748-64 tall case clock complete with parchment scroll that attests to its provenance.
The house has strong links to the Revolution and Civil War and the Underground Railroad (UGRR). In 1850 John, his wife and her 14-year-old slave girl stopped at Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Hotel. Some of the free black staff at the hotel were part of the UGRR and with their assistance she escaped. Accounts tell us that she asked that a damaged steamer trunk be repaired. As the luggage was removed from the hotel she slipped out and disappeared, it is believed, to Canada. The incident was big news at the time and the story was printed in a Pittsburgh newspaper and reprinted in Douglass’ “The North Star.” The Drennens’ trunk was returned.
Don’t leave the 19th-century without having an authentic dining experience in Taliano’s. This Italian restaurant is housed within the 1887 Sparks Mansion replete with original chandeliers, woodwork, fireplaces and stained art glass on the 1st floor. All of the menu items are made on the premises using old family recipes. www.talianos.net
I wish you smooth travels!
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