One of the biggest surprises for Ruth & me during our two weeks of Midwest US travel was the rise of Fort Smith, Arkansas, from a pass-through city to a definite destination. Due to record Midwest heat and an afternoon arrival, we only had time to check out Miss Laura’s brothel and the Fort Smith National Historic Site (parking at 4th Street and Garland Avenue).
The US Army built a fort at Belle Point where the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers meet in 1817 not, as one might think, to protect settlers. The land and resources dispute that brought 64 soldiers here was between the Osage and Cherokee tribes.
The barracks that now contains a Visitors’ Center was built in the mid-19th century when Fort Smith was a major funnel to The West. One of Fort Smith’s nicknames was “Mother post of the Southwest.” Roads to Texas and 7 Indian Territory forts commenced here. 25% of gold seekers heading for California passed through Fort Smith.
From 1872 until 1896 this barracks building became a Federal Court with jurisdiction over lawless, future Oklahoma. From 1921 until 1961 it was a storage place for contraband liquor, a machine gun company, then a building for government agencies. The National Park system then took it over, renovated, and Lady Bird Johnson came to dedicate the site in 1964.
The barracks, now 2 floors opened to visitors, holds a fine museum. On floor one is a theater with an orientation film very worth watching and a recreation of the jail that the National Park Service brochure described as “Noisome with odors of every description…horrible with all horrors.” Known as Hell on the Border, the jail room visitors see today held up to 50 men with hygiene issues.
Upstairs are well-thought-through displays and a recreation of Judge Isaac Parker’s courtroom. Known as the hanging judge, Parker tried more than 13,000 cases that resulted in 79 rope-dances as he attempted and somewhat succeeded in bringing order to the area. Since no photos or drawing survive, the courtroom is based on written descriptions.
I found the electronic recreation of the Trail(s) of Tears the most compelling display. In a couple of minutes I watched the vast native nations of the Southeast shrink to almost nothing followed by lighted pathways taking 60 tribes to the Oklahoma Territory.
I took the time to look closely at every exhibit and found Orpheus McGee’s 1876 description of himself. It could have been written this morning. “I was not raised right and that is the very reason I am in this fix now. I have no father nor mother living. My mother tried to teach me right but I would not listen to her.”
I hope poor Orpheus didn’t run from George Maledon who hung more men than any other executioner in the US. The 5 prisoners who tried to escape on his watch were either wounded or killed.
While the book True Grit begins in Fort Smith, neither film made from it was shot here. I learned this on the way out from a local woman who told Ruth and me that we simply had to check out Miss Laura’s before leaving town. But the Brushy Mountains beckoned so we had to be satisfied with a drive-by. This time.