February 3, 2015

Turbulent History on the Arkansas Frontier

Although we enjoyed our brief visit to Little Rock, it was time to move on.  It seemed as though Little Rock did not want us to leave, however, as we never thought we’d find our way out of the city.  Finally, we were free of urban expressways and on to country roads.  Ah, what a relief!

We traveled along the West-Northwest Scenic Byway, much of it within the Ouachita National Forest.  It was interesting to cross the Ouachitas, which are the only mountains in North America that are oriented east-west.  Despite enduring the worst lunch since we’ve been on the road, it was a pleasant day.

We ended the day near Fort Smith, Arkansas, at Springhill Park, another wonderful campground run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  It was great to be back in nature and on the water.  Although I enjoy many features that are unique to resort-type campgrounds, I do love natural parks, and so does Kitty.  My only wish is that we could have stayed more than one night.

Now This Is a Campground that I Really Like

Kitty Walked the Rails at the Campground

A Peaceful Lake View

The following morning we toured Fort Smith National Historic Site, a significant outpost that reflects the turbulent history on America’s westward frontier.  Fort Smith includes the remains of two frontier forts, the historic jail and federal courthouse of “hanging judge” Isaac C. Parker, as well as a direct connection to the Trail of Tears.

The first Fort Smith was built in 1817 to keep peace in the Arkansas River Valley between the native Osage Indians and the newly arriving Cherokee.  In 1836 the fort served as a supply depot during the tragic removal of five Eastern tribes from their homelands.  This forced relocation to Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears.

The park’s existing historic structures date from the second Fort Smith, which was established in 1838.  The former barracks-courthouse-jail is one of the more handsome brick structures I’ve seen in the many forts we’ve visited.  I especially love the stone detail that surrounds the tall windows on the jail wing.  For me, it is the architecture of forts that draws me in.  I’m not so interested in military history, but give me a beautiful building or interesting site plan, and you’ve got my attention.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

Beautiful Brick Buildings

The former barracks-courthouse-jail serves as the park’s visitor center and museum.  A wonderful volunteer at the front desk provided us with an amazing amount of information and suggested how best to tour the facility.  We started with the basement, which originally housed the primitive jail nicknamed “Hell-on-the-Border.”  This jail was used for a short time after the Army left Fort Smith in 1871 and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas moved into the building.


The exhibits on the second floor tell the story of Fort Smith’s 80-year history in an interesting format designed around what may be sections of the building’s original walls.  Tim and I were especially drawn to the exhibit on domestic life at the fort.  Included here are drawers that contain broken pieces of household dishes uncovered during the archeological investigations at the park.

Exhibits Tell the Story of Fort Davis

One of Our Favorite Exhibits

One of the best-known exhibits is the reconstructed courtroom of Judge Parker, who presided over the federal court from 1875 to 1889.  Judge Parker was a reformer and attempted to make the court system honest.  However, this aspect of his career is overshadowed by the fact that he hanged more criminals and lost more deputy marshals on duty than any other federal judge.  Keeping law and order in Indian Territory was a tough job!

Judge Parker's Courtroom

As we walked the grounds to view the footprint of the first Fort Smith, we noticed a man who was traveling by bike with an amazing amount of gear.  We were so surprised to see him walking a cat near the river.  We spoke with him and found out that his cat travels in a carrier strapped behind his seat.  That was so cool to see.  And we thought our kitty had some interesting adventures!  This cat would really have some incredible stories to tell!

Fort Smith National Historic Site was definitely worth a stop.  It wasn’t like many of the forts we’ve visited in that the city of Fort Smith grew up around the fort.  The fort is now a part of the city.  Although few original buildings remain, those that do are beautiful.

It was with some reluctance that we left Arkansas.  We were amazed with how much there is to see in that state, and we only scratched the surface. The state parks especially look very inviting.  I can see us coming back and spending a good amount of time there.  As we crossed the Arkansas River, we found ourselves in Oklahoma, the state that we dashed through on our way south from Kansas to Texas.  Oklahoma City, here we come.

Onward to Oklahoma

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