The Wild West that was Fort Smith

Updated: 
Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves

Fort Smith is a city of convergence. Its history began with a fort built in 1817 at Belle Point, where the Poteau and Arkansas rivers join. During the Civil War, soldiers of the North met those of the South here with devastating results. Later, federal marshals rode out of the town -- and out of the United States -- into Indian Territory; and the outlaws they apprehended collided with Federal Judge Isaac Parker.

From its military beginnings on the western edge of U.S. territory, the city has grown into a meetinghouse for the past, present and future with its well-preserved frontier spirit, its establishment of contemporary arts and entertainment, and its thriving community that is building for the future.

Located on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, the city is easily accessible to travelers, vacationers, business groups and tour coaches. Arkansas's second-largest city, Fort Smith has 30-plus motels and hotels, as well as bed and breakfast inns, that cater to every budget and lifestyle.

History and Heritage

Located downtown, the Fort Smith National Historic Site embraces the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The site also commemorates a significant phase of America's westward expansion and stands as a reminder of 80 turbulent years in the history of federal Indian policy.

The building that houses the visitors center and museum was completed in the 1840s and was first used as barracks by U.S. soldiers sent to maintain peace between Native American tribes that were relocated into the Indian Territory.

The center contains a bookstore, 50-seat auditorium and exhibit areas that focus on Fort Smith's military history from 1817 to 1871, Judge Parker and the federal court's impact on Indian Territory, and U.S. Deputy Marshals and outlaws. The original "Hell on the Border" jail, notorious for its dark and dank conditions, is in the basement. In the main exhibit area stands a partial, full-sized replica of the 1888 jail, where visitors can step into one of the cells and view a 15-minute video.

From his courtroom, which today contains reproduction 1880s furnishings, Judge Parker sentenced more people to hang than any other judge in American history (160), and 79 of those he sentenced met their fate at the end of a rope. Next to the courthouse stand the gallows, which are a reconstruction of the one used during Parker's time.

A block from the historic site is the Fort Smith Museum of History, which has exhibits that cover a wide range of the city's past -- from life on the frontier and the Civil War to World War I and the Great Depression. The museum also houses an old-time working soda fountain, antique vehicles, toys and hundreds of vintage photos.

Located downtown in the 22-block Belle Grove Historic District, Miss Laura's serves as the city's tourist information center. The restored baroque Victorian home, built in 1900, is the only former bordello listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But don’t expect any "original hospitality" at Miss Laura's. In addition to tourist information about the city, the center has exhibits and vintage photos that shed light on the lives the "working girls" led.

Next to the historic site, the Fort Smith Trolley Museum offers rides on a restored 1926 electric streetcar. It makes half-mile runs between Fort Smith's Garrison Avenue and the U.S. National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers -- and Judge Parker -- are buried.

Since the Belle Grove Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, nearly 25 homes spanning 130 years and representing a variety of architectural styles have been restored -- and about half a dozen are open for tours. Visitors to the district can experience fine dining at the Romanesque-Victorian-style J.M. Sparks home (ca. 1887), which houses Taliano's Italian Restaurant.

Capping it all off will be the U.S. Marshals Museum, set to open in 2020. The museum will serve as a national center to educate visitors on the past and present roles of the U.S. Marshals Service and inspire visitors with stories of their service and sacrifice since our nation’s founding.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

Arts and Entertainment

The city features a diverse range of food and dining atmospheres at more than 200 restaurants and shopping opportunities at local boutiques, small shopping centers and the one-million-square-foot Central Mall.

Nightlife in Fort Smith is anchored by Garrison Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and bars featuring live music.

The city’s thriving arts scene is easy to see on more than 30 large murals painted by internationally acclaimed and local artists on downtown buildings.

Fort Smith murals
Fort Smith murals