Arkansas: Fort Smith National Monument

Dipping into the history of a former frontier town and some of it’s less than savory history.

As we traversed from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Fort Smith, Arkansas the scenery began to noticeably change. It was a great relief to pass from the largely barren plains to a more verdant landscape with rolling hills, dense vegetation and even some woodlands. Being further south the trees still had their autumn foliage, with a glorious palette of shades of yellows, reds and oranges. Sadly, it was a grey and windy day so it was not the best conditions for appreciating the landscape’s splendor. The wind also provided some other challenges. Since we bought our roof box for our van we now present a sizeable target for the wind, and on days like this driving is a bit like taming a bucking bronco, which makes the journey all the more tiring for the driver!

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Fort Smith and we decided to fill the time up by visiting the Fort Smith National Monument. This is the site of a frontier fort constructed in 1817 on the banks of the Arkansas River to control the Indian Territories which bordered Arkansas (what is now Oklahoma and Kansas). The growth in white populations on the East Coast increasingly put pressure for land, so in 1830 President Andrew Jackson initiated the Indian Removal Act. Tribes from the East, namely the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles,were put in to concentration camps and from there they were forcibly bought together on new lands many miles from their homes. Many suffered greatly during these evictions and died in transit to their new territories. The routes traveled by these poor people is now called the “Trail of Tears”. The more one hears of the suffering of these tribes, which continues to this day, the more shameful it all seems. You would think the Government could do more to improve the plight of these people if it so desired. As time moved on these Indian Territories, being sovereign to the Indians, became a haven for criminals from all races and creeds. To meet this new challenge the role of Fort Smith became more about law enforcement rather than fighting civil unrest. The former barracks became a prison, a most unpleasant one at that, earning the name “Hell on the Border”. Running this jurisdiction was Judge Issac Parker (known as the hanging judge), a tough but fair man who recruited some hard, brave men as US Marshals to cross into Indian Territory and retrieve criminals and bring them back to face justice, which they did pretty successfully. All this story was very well presented throughout the museum – which is the old prison / barracks of Fort Smith. They even have grimly reconstructed the gallows, which could hang about 15 at a time. Some 160 inmates met their deaths this way.

Location: Hours: Admission:
301 Parker Ave
Fort Smith, AR 72901
Daily: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM Adults (<16 yrs): $10.00    Children: Free

After a good nights sleep we decided to head into the historic district of Fort Smith. We had noticed the day before that the local visitor center was in an historic building that was once a local bordello (we had to explain to our children what a bordello was …. at least in simple terms) called “Miss Laura’s”. Apparently, being a border town quite a number of these existed until 1924 when prostitution became illegal.

We were welcomed by a delightful local lady, who immediately introduced us to one of her co-workers who had some years come across from England. In fact she was a Norwich girl and we told her we had lived there and that our daughter Emily had actually been born in that fine city. It was great fun sharing the names of towns and villages we had in common.

Before taking the tour of Miss Laura’s bordello we took a trolley bus tour of the historic district of Fort Smith. Some of the houses, dating from the late nineteenth century, were splendid. I couldn’t help but notice one was up for sale …. most tempting!!!

Arriving back at Miss Laura’s we were given a brief tour. The prohibition of prostitution was the death knell for this former house of ill repute and was latterly acquired by a local man who made it in to a restaurant. This didn’t turn out well and eventually the house fell into disrepair before it was bought by the town and restored. Unfortunately, the house was hit by a tornado in the late 1980’s and was pretty much wrecked, but luckily they decided to restore it to its current glory. Although it is used as a visitor center it is decorated in period style of its less salubrious past.

 

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