Exploring the Hidden History of Fort Smith Arkansas

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The history of Fort Smith Arkansas may not be something that you are immediately familiar with. In fact, you probably have no idea where Fort Smith, Arkansas is located unless you grew up in the vicinity of this city or in ‘The Natural State’.

I will be the first to admit that I am no historian, in fact, I am the exact opposite as I generally have no real interest in learning about history but after spending some time in Fort Smith, I have to say that this is an intriguing part of Arkansas that even the least interested historians may find interesting.

fort smith arkansas

Where is Fort Smith, Arkansas?

Located along the heart of the I-40 corridor about halfway between Little Rock and Oklahoma City, Fort Smith is an iconic location in Arkansas history and today plays an integral role in highlighting the frontier dating back to the early 19th century.

history of fort smith arkansas

We will share more information on this later but after spending an awesome weekend exploring Oklahoma City, we decided to spend a couple of hours in Fort Smith to learn more about the history surrounding the state’s second largest city.

downtown fort smith arkansas

Fort Smith is situated in the perfect location for visitors to experience before heading on to some of the larger ‘southern’ cities such as Memphis, Oklahoma City, and even Dallas. We were pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and explore, especially in the historic downtown neighborhood.

history of fort smith arkansas

Having recently explored some of Arkansas’ other towns and cities such as Texarkana and even our hometown of Jonesboro, it was nice to see how the community have preserved and promoted the history that occurred here.

National Historic Site

The Fort Smith National Historic Site, located in the heart of downtown Fort Smith includes the remains of two historic frontier forts along with the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

fort smith national historic site

Exploring this site today is an awesome experience and a true history lesson as you take a stroll through the various landmarks that shaped Arkansas’ history in the early to mid 19th century.

history of fort smith arkansas

Heroic battles involving Arkansan soldiers along with iconic battles on the frontier are key moments in the history of Fort Smith that are represented to this day on this very spot. We parked along the main street in downtown and spent quite a bit of time exploring the remains of the fort.

fort smith arkansas

Various memorials and landmarks are scattered across this site to remember those lives that were lost on the battlefield, but it’s the vivid images, audio samples and other artifacts of such events that make visitors truly reflect on the turbulent years that Fort Smith went through on the frontier.

fort smith arkansas

Living on the frontier was clearly very different to not only today’s living but also from other parts of America during the 19th century.

history of fort smith arkansas

The Fort Smith National Historic Site provides an excellent insight into the living standards and exactly what military, local Indian tribes and other civilians were faced with.

fort smith arkansas

The historic overlook across the Arkansas River provides a moment for visitors to reflect on the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations that once thrived in this part of Arkansas.

fort smith arkansas

Gallows of Hanging Judge Parker

Isaac Parker, commonly known as “The Hanging Judge”, is remembered through the replica of the gallows that are present today. This was an iconic location because Parker sentenced at least 160 men and women to hang from this point.

I do not desire to hang you men. It is the law.

Do you believe Parker’s quote that he didn’t desire to hang the individuals but he was simply enforcing the law?

gallows of hanging judge parker

It’s no surprise to hear that soon after the last outlaw was hung in 1896, the town took great pleasure in tearing down the gallows to try and create a new, more positive impression of Fort Smith.

Hanging Judge Isaac C. Parker’s court and jail have been restored as reminders of 80 turbulent years

Did they succeed? I can’t comment on what the stereotype associates with Fort Smith, but I can certainly attest that we enjoyed our experience learning about the history on the western side of Arkansas.

Fort Smith Streetcars

Exploring the Fort Smith National Historic Site will also mean you have the opportunity to experience the historic downtown neighborhood of the city. The most noticeable attraction aside from this historic site is the main street trolley that still operates to this day and is an iconic reflection on a mode of transportation that dates back to 1883.

history of fort smith arkansas

The original railcar began with three mule-drawn rail cars but ten years later the first electric streetcar service was franchised to the “Fort Smith & Van Buren Electric Street Railway Light & Power Company”.

fort smith streetcar

This was a popular way for locals to commute though today it is a great way for visitors to enjoy a moment of history experiencing such a unique form of transportation.

fort smith streetcar

Take some time to visit the Fort Smith Trolley Museum to learn more about the rich history behind the streetcar and perhaps after visiting this, you will be inspired to head out west and experience the awesome streetcars that transport thousands of visitors and locals around the streets of San Francisco.

Modern Day Fort Smith

While much of this article is focused on the history of Fort Smith, as we headed through the heart of the city we noticed a number of artistic wall murals representing the ‘modern day’ Fort Smith.

fort smith wall mural

While the community clearly appreciates the importance of the history in Fort Smith, it’s nice to see the wall art providing a colorful alternative.

fort smith arkansas wall art

Charlotte Dutoit, a French art curator, believes downtown Fort Smith is a haven for aspiring artists to showcase their talents as you can see from her quote below.

Fort Smith is the perfect playground to attract big cats in the international art world (Dutoit)

In September 2015, Dutoit was a key figure in the launch of the Festival of Murals event in downtown Fort Smith.

fort smith arkansas wall murals

The murals have continued to thrive and really provide a unique appearance to Fort Smith and offer something you wouldn’t normally associate with the Arkansas stereotype.

history of fort smith arkansas

Summary

Experiencing the history of Fort Smith Arkansas through the National Historic Site was a real eye-opening experience and certainly one that we enjoyed. While Arkansas may not be the first state you think about visiting when exploring the States, it is historic sites like the one in Fort Smith that make The Natural State an intriguing place to visit.

Have you visited Fort Smith, Arkansas?

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