The Guns of Fort Smith

January 1, 2005
Filed under Destinations

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Wisps of black smoke curl above the treetops and the thunder of cannon-fire rumbles along
the Arkansas River. Men in blue army uniforms march smartly through parade grounds
surrounding old brick and stone buildings of a frontier day’s army post. If we weren’t
zooming along Interstate 64 in our modern-day motorhome, we might think we’d stepped back
into the 19th century. Curious, we exited the freeway in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and followed
the sounds of battle to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Located at the edge of town
on Belle Point Bluff, where the Arkansas and Poteau rivers intersect along the
Oklahoma/Arkansas border just south of I-64, a spectacular Historic Weapons Demonstration
was taking place. Lucky for us, the large parking lot, occupied by a number of RVs as well
as other vehicles, wasn’t quite full, and we were able to find a parking spot. The crowd of
boy scouts, locals and visitors from across the nation was having a great time watching the
marching soldiers and the booming cannons, as volunteers and park personnel dressed in army
uniforms of the mid-1880s performed drills and fired authentic reproductions of the
military cannon used during the fort’s beginning in 1817, and also those of the 1840s era.
It was hard to tell who was having more fun — the men who were fascinated by the old guns
or the kids who enjoyed the smoke and the noise. We learned that this weapons demonstration
is given every other Saturday during the summer at the fort. Sometimes it’s cannons (as it
was today) and other times it’s small arms, such as muskets and rifles. No doubt about it,
this is a great way to educate people about an important segment of our nation’s history.
After watching the weapons demonstration for a while, we backtracked to the visitor center,
which is open everyday, except Christmas and New Year’s. Our annual National Parks Pass
allowed entrance to the exhibits in the Barracks/Court Room; otherwise a fee of $3 per
person, or a maximum of $6 per family, is charged. The 15-minute orientation film explains
the beginnings of the fort, which was initially established on Christmas Day, 1817, for the
purpose of keeping the peace between the Cherokee and Osage Indians. Troops found it a
lonely, desolate place, and it was abandoned in 1824. Stones outlining its original
foundations can still be seen as you walk the grounds. A second fort was built during the
years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, when his horrific “Indian Removal” program moved many
of the Indian Nations from their homelands east of the Mississippi to locations west of the
river. Between 1830 and 1850, the fort struggled to bring law and order between the white
man and the Native Americans, as tens of thousands of ragged and starving Indians traveled
through the area on their way to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The fort houses some
heartbreaking demonstrations depicting that brutal time, known as the “Trail of Tears.” In
the 1850s the fort was called the “Motherpost of the Southwest,” as it supplied military
forts farther to the west but, in 1871, the fort was again abandoned by the military. The
Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas began using the old fort’s barracks the
following year. The basement housed a primitive jail (known as “hell on the border”), and
the main floor provided a courtroom and offices for federal officials. From 1875 to 1889
Judge Isaac C. Parker (known as the hanging judge) ruled the court, as he sought to bring
order to this lawless territory filled with criminals seeking refuge from arrest in more
civilized parts of the nation. Many legends of the Wild West were born right here from his
difficult and fascinating cases. On the grounds of the fort you can see the re-created
gallows, capable of hanging six people at a time. Before discovering this historical site,
we had no idea that Arkansas played such an important role in the western culture of our
country as well as that of the old South. Did you know, for instance, the movie True Grit,
starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, was based on the lives and events of people at this
very fort? The same for Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High. We would have thought these stories
of the Old West took place in Colorado or Wyoming, maybe even Montana, but never would have
guessed Arkansas. This historic site does a very good job of presenting its story, so plan
to spend plenty of time exploring the buildings and grounds. The adjoining town of Fort
Smith is a friendly place inhabited by about 80,000 people, and describes itself as the
place where “the history of the wild and wooly West meets the gentle charm of the old
South.” Interesting antique shops line the street just outside the fort, and prices don’t
appear to be too high. The Fort Smith Museum of History, with its old-fashioned drug store
and working soda fountain, is located just outside the historic fort, and you won’t want to
miss it. If you enjoy old trains, take a ride on a fully restored 1926 electric streetcar,
and stop at the Trolley Museum to see a collection of old passenger cars and engines. A
short tram ride will take you past lovely Victorian homes and stops at the visitor center
for the city of Fort Smith, housed in the old brothel, “Miss Laura’s.” The rooms in Miss
Laura’s are beautifully restored in re-creations of the original furniture, and mannequins
dressed in elegant costume of the era add a colorful touch. Gracious and well-informed
docents provide information on the many activities in the region. We enjoyed touring the
wineries located just a few miles away near the little town of Altus, and found that
Arkansas produces some very good wines. Driving the hills into the Ozarks made for some
fun-filled day trips, and we found ourselves spending a wonderful week exploring this
region that wasn’t even on our itinerary.

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