The groundwork for Fort Smith's role in U.S. and Arkansas history was laid early and deep, as the native tribes that originally peopled the area during the Stone Age established communities in what later became valued and contested lands. Early inhabitants of western Arkansas have been characterized as "bluff dwellers" whose civilization dates back to 10,000 BC. The bluff dweller culture was absorbed into that of invading tribes, and by the time that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto ventured into Arkansas in 1541, the most numerous Arkansas residents were of the Quapaw tribe.
Other explorers followed, claiming the land in the name of their sponsoring country; in 1682, French explorer Robert cavelier de La Salle claimed the area for France as part of the Louisiana Territory. In Arkansas and back east, relocation of native peoples soon began as early European settlers required more land on which to live, hunt, and farm. The later 1700s saw an increasing mix of native tribes west of the Mississippi, not all of who were on friendly terms. Closer proximity naturally resulted in heightened tensions and conflicts, endangering not just the tribe members themselves but also the increasing population of fur traders and pioneers who were employing the Arkansas River Valley as a funnel into the southwest. After Arkansas became an official part of the United States as the District of Arkansas in 1803, the federal government perceived a need to intervene in intertribal hostilities on the western edge of the burgeoning country. A new fort was established in 1817 on the banks of the Arkansas River where it meets the Poteau River, on a promontory of bluffs called Belle Point; the fort was named for General Thomas Smith of the federal garrison in St. Louis. For the next seven years, Fort Smith military personnel arbitrated clashes between the Osage and Cherokee tribes, negotiated treaties, and also patrolled the borders of the United States that were contested by Spain.
The military presence in Arkansas allowed for an influx of settlers from the east, and a community began to grow up around Fort Smith. New businesses catered to the soldiers with a drive to keep the installation occupied and thriving. Military forts of the time typically had a relatively brief lifespan as the western boundary of the United States continued to edge toward the Pacific. Indeed, the troops encamped at Fort Smith were relocated further west in 1924; the fort retained its utility by serving as the headquarters for the Western Choctaw Agency and also as the hub of enforcement for prohibition activities in that area. Location played a major role in Fort Smith's continued viability; the Arkansas River Valley provided easy access to the west where the fort and its surrounding community became the meeting point for many primary roads. The federal government and its military more and more viewed Fort Smith as a strategic site based on access and the fact that it was near but not encroaching a newly established Choctaw reservation in what had come to be known as Indian Territory. A new Fort Smith garrison was constructed in 1938, bringing with it an official town of the same name.
The history of Fort Smith is inextricably interwoven with that of native peoples in the United States, from the fort's time as a peacekeeping entity to the part it played in the forced relocation of thousands of native tribes west of the Mississippi River. During Thomas Jefferson's tenure as president, American citizens began to wish for more land and less conflict with the previous inhabitants of the eastern area. Jefferson's proposed solution was to relocate eastern native tribes to a buffer zone between U.S. territory holdings and land claimed by European countries. Between 1816 and 1840, a number of eastern tribes ceded their land to the United States and voluntarily headed west to what is now Oklahoma. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson put into effect further plans for the relocation of eastern native peoples; the result was an exodus of more than 100,000 native men, women and children on an arduous route that took them halfway across the country. There were several points of debarkation and several western routes used, but the "Trail of Tears" ultimately passed right through the gateway community of Fort Smith. Military installations in the area assisted tribe members in rejoining their own communities or held them temporarily while land assignments were made.
Fort Smith had come full circle. Its troops were once again in the position of keeping watch on a forced collective of age-old foes and allies in a relatively concentrated area, more for purposes of protecting pioneers and California-bound prospectors of European descent than for protecting and preserving the tribes themselves. But then came a new kind of war.
In 1860, the state of Arkansas had achieved a population of 435,450 people, 111,115 of whom were slaves of African descent and 11,481 of whom were slave owners of primarily European background. It appeared inevitable that when the Confederacy voted to secede from the Union in April 1861, Arkansas would be on board with the Confederates; however, while more than 60,000 Arkansas residents joined rebel troops, at least 9,000 Anglos and more than 5,000 African Americans fought on the side of the Union in this conflict that divided communities and families. Fort Smith was no exception—it began its participation in the war as a Confederate military installation and supply depot until September 1, 1863, when Union troops took the post.
Fort Smith's strategic location on intersecting rivers and roads made it both a valuable staging area as a Union outpost and a continuing target for the Confederate faithful holed up in the surrounding mountains and in Indian Territory. The garrison became, not for the last time in history, a refuge for besieged citizens aligned with the Union and suffered through much deprivation when supply sources were ambushed by rebel troops. In 1865, Confederate leadership officially turned Arkansas, Texas and Indian Territory over to the Union, and the Fort Smith Confederates returned home to begin the work of rebuilding for the community's future.
Post-Civil War Reconstruction returned some of the states in the Union to a military form of government; consequently, Fort Smith became an outpost in the subdistrict of Arkansas, charged with enforcement of Reconstruction regulations and registration of freedmen. As a community, Fort Smith's function began to evolve from military to administration of frontier justice, as a succession of tough judges presided on the bench and attempted to impose order on the populace. Judge Isaac Parker, the infamous "hanging judge," meted out sentences over a 21-year period, ordering hundreds of defendants to jail and 160 men to "hang by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!"
In 1896, Fort Smith ceased operations as a military outpost and the community's focus became that of municipal growth while sustaining the city's formative history. Reverberations from the Civil War continued as, in 1891, Jim Crow legislation was passed segregating rail stations and keeping the population divided literally and figuratively, until the issue of integration came to a head in 1957. In the interim, Arkansas weathered the Great Depression, accompanied as it was by crop-killing drought and the departure of many citizens from Fort Smith and Arkansas in general for what appeared to be greener pastures.
As the country began to rebound, Fort Smith established its identity as an industrial hub seated fortuitously at the nexus of two rivers leading to the Mississippi and an abundance of roadways radiating off across the country. The former military installation briefly served as a relocation camp for Japanese and German U.S. citizens during World War II, but in 1975 and 1980 also provided shelter and transition for Vietnamese and Cuban refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Fort Smith's public school system now proudly embraces the diversity of its students even as the city embraces its history; adaptability and survival may be the best descriptors for the former Wild West town.
Historical Information: Fort Smith Historical Society, PO Box 3676, Fort Smith, AR 72913; telephone (479)478-6323