A CLOSER LOOK: Fort Smith — the truth behind the legend

In a Day's Drive

Photo provided by the Fort Smith National Historic Site

FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA) — Fort Smith has many legends, but the reality is far more complex.

“I don’t think it was as violent and wild as people think it was,” said Pat Schmidt, park ranger for the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site commemorates 80 years of Fort Smith history, spanning from 1817 to 1896, according to Lisa Conard Frost, park superintendent.

Fort Smith was originally a military fort.

“The forts were there to protect white settlers and Native Americans from each other. It was early versions of law enforcement to try and keep the peace,” Schmidt said.

The fort was established where the Osage tribe grounds, Cherokee tribe grounds and the Arkansas River all came together, according to Schmidt.

“From 1817 to 1824, the specific purpose of the fort was to establish peace between the Osage and the Cherokee because they were at war with each other,” Schmidt said.

The fort was abandoned by the military in 1824. By this time settlers had arrived in the area. Also, fort defenses were moving deeper into Indian Territory.

“As the frontiers moved so did the forts. That happened as western expansion occurred,” Frost said.

However, it would not be long before another fort would be built.

The second fort

“The community of Fort Smith began to push for a new fort to be built here as part of that line of forts. The military did not want a new fort built at Fort Smith; they wanted to reinforce Fort Gibson in Muskogee and make improvements there,” Schmidt said.

Arkansas representatives used some political maneuvering to get a new fort built in Fort Smith instead of the improvements at Fort Gibson in Muskogee.

“This is some seriously cool politics going on,” Schmidt said. “It’s really politics that got the second fort.”

The reason settlers wanted a new fort? Economics.

“If you have a fort here, then you have the soldiers coming in and their families come with them. There are things the soldiers need that the military cannot supply on a regular basis. The community was able to grow because the second fort was built here,” Schmidt said.

Creating the second fort would require bringing skilled laborers into the area to build it. From this workforce came community growth.

“It’s how communities grow today — people come for a job and find other reasons to stay,” Schmidt said.

The original fort was built because politicians thought Native American tribes would attack settlers. The second fort, however, was used as a supply depot.

“So we became part of the supply lines — food and equipment used at forts further west. Fort Smith was located where the cargo carrying vessels could travel. Supplies would be brought to Fort Smith [by ship] and moved further west via wagons,” Schmidt said.

As a supply depot, the fort became a stepping off point for other settlements and supply trains in the great western expansion, as well as the gold rush of 1849, according to Schmidt.

“We were like a gateway to the west, but at the southern end. To settle the southwestern part of the U.S., people departed from or traveled through Fort Smith,” Schmidt said.

During the Civil War, the fort exchanged hands twice between Confederate and Union forces after each side abandoned it, Schmidt said.

Big changes came to the fort between 1867 and 1869. During this time, officer quarters at the fort burned down. Also, the railroad was becoming the main means of moving supplies west, according to Schmidt.

“So the fort was no longer used as a supply depot,” she said.

The military abandoned the fort for the final time in 1870, Schmidt said.

Isaac Parker’s court

A new era emerged in 1871 when the federal court moved into the abandoned enlisted men’s barracks. Living quarters were used for both the courtroom and U.S. Marshals Office. The fort’s basement was made into a jail.

“This was officially known as the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas and Indian Territory,” Schmidt said.

Judge William Story presided over the court, but his tenure was marred by fraud and corruption. Story resigned in 1874 as a result of the scandal and several deputy marshals lost their job, according to Schmidt.

Judge Henry Clay Caldwell served as interim federal judge until May 1875 when Judge Isaac C. Parker was appointed to the bench, Schmidt said.

Judge Isaac C. Parker in 1875 and 1896. Photos courtesy of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Parker, who was 37 at the time, became one of the youngest federal judges in the country, Schmidt said.

President Ulysses S. Grant offered Parker a judgeship in the Utah territory or a lifetime appointment in Fort Smith.

“He was a big supporter of Indian rights, and he said he could do his best in Fort Smith helping Native Americans,” Schmidt said.

Parker was also a strong supporter of women’s rights and the suffrage movement, according to Schmidt.

Parker, who ultimately chose Fort Smith because of the lifetime appointment, was quite accomplished before coming to Fort Smith. He had been a judge in St. Joseph, Mo., and also a Congressman representing Missouri, according to Schmidt.

“That’s also how President Grant got to know about him — while he was in Congress,” Schmidt said.

Parker was politically savvy.

“He knew he wasn’t going to be reelected in the State of Missouri, so that’s why he took the position of judge, because he had a job offer,” Schmidt said.

When Parker took the federal bench in Fort Smith, he found a backlog of cases. Parker took on the caseload with zeal.

“He makes sure cases are heard. He is by some standards a bit of a workaholic because he is trying to get through the caseload,” Schmidt said.

Parker’s magisterial style was no-nonsense, enforcing the law as it was written, Schmidt said.

Judge Isaac Parker’s courtroom. Photo courtesy of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Although Parker became famously know as “The Hanging Judge,” the title is more myth than truth.

“Even though he [was] opposed to the death penalty, he [had] to sentence those convicted of murder, rape, treason and obstruction within execution to death because that’s how the law [was] written,” Schmidt said.

There were no cases of treason and obstruction within execution in Fort Smith, so Parker only sentenced those convicted of rape and murder to death, according to Schmidt.

Less than one percent of Parker’s cases ended with an execution. Most of the crimes Parker presided over were alcohol-related crimes. Selling alcohol in Indian Territory was illegal, Schmidt said.

Parker was a compassionate man and often wrote letters of pardon. He was also a great proponent of education, and would use prison sentences to better the lives of the men and women he sentenced, Schmidt said.

Parker learned that different state prisons had trade school programs that taught carpentry and shoe making. Parker sentenced those he convicted to state prison instead of federal prisons so that they could learn a trade, support themselves and become contributors to society instead of returning to crime, according to Schmidt.

The Detroit House of Corrections was Parker’s favorite state prison to sentence those convicted because of its trade school program, Schmidt said.

Legendary outlaw Belle Starr. Photo courtesy of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Parker sentenced legendary outlaw Belle Starr to two consecutive six-month terms for horse theft and sent her to the Detroit House of Corrections. Most of the prisoners at the Detroit House of Corrections were from Northwest Arkansas at one point during the 1880s, according to Schmidt.

“By today’s standards he was considered a very progressive judge,” she said. “That was contrary to what you think when you hear the term ‘Hanging Judge.’ He was very passionate about reform.”

Parker was a true pillar of the Fort Smith community. He was involved in community organizations and was on the school board.

While Parker interpreted the law, it was the Deputy U.S. Marshals who enforced the law in Fort Smith and across the Indian Territory.

Law and order

“The old saying is that the Deputy U.S. Marshals rode for Parker. They did not ride for Parker. Judge Parker is in the judicial branch. The marshals service is in the executive branch,” Schmidt said. “They rode for the U.S. Marshals Service.”

The U.S. Marshals Office at the Federal Building on Sixth Street.

Deputy U.S. Marshals are an import part of Fort Smith history, Schmidt said.

“A good Deputy U.S. Marshal did not ride for money,” she said.

Deputy U.S. Marshals earned $500 a year, which today amounts to about $12,000-15,000, Schmidt said.

“When you look at the salaries of many of our public service employees today, for the most part we’re not in our job to make money. It’s about keeping people safe, making a difference and making society better,” Schmidt said. “For the Deputy U.S. Marshals it was about that and also the thrill of the hunt, figuring out where a fugitive is and bringing him or her in.”

Deputy U.S. Marshals were pretty much always men in the late 1800s, although women would occasionally be sworn in for a short period of time to help transfer prisoners, according Schmidt.

Deputy U.S. Marshals were not always square-dealing heroes on horseback.

“They had a variety of moral codes. Some deputy marshals… they weren’t very good guys,” Schmidt said. “All the Dalton Brothers were deputy marshals, and all but one became famous outlaws. Frank Dalton was killed in the line of duty as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. He was killed while trying to make an arrest.”

But Deputy U.S. Marshals such as Robert Fortune, an African-American man who served alongside the legendary Bass Reeves, also African-American, and Addison Beck set a high standard. Fortune and Beck were both men of great character, Schmidt said.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Fortune (far right) and his fellow lawmen. Photo from the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Library.

Beck and one of his possemen were killed in an ambush in Indian Territory. Beck and many other Deputy U.S. Marshals are buried at Oak Cemetery on South Greenwood Avenue in Fort Smith, according to Schmidt.

End of an era

“For us, the end of Historic Fort Smith was 1896 with the death of Judge Parker,” Schmidt said.

Within a six month period, Parker died and jurisdiction over Indian Territory had been removed from the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

“[Jurisdiction over Indian Territories] was moved to other federal courts,” Schmidt said. “That’s pretty much when we no longer had direct ties on Indian Territory from a judicial and law enforcement point of view.”

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