On the isolated edge of the American Frontier, Fort Smith, Arkansas was established on Christmas day, 1817. Under the command of Major William Bradford, the soldiers’ initial task was to keep the peace between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. The site of the new fort was Belle Point, a prominent bluff overlooking the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers.
Sixty-four men of the Rifle Regiment erected temporary shelters in just eight days and then began the work on a permanent fortification. Construction progressed slowly, and upon completion, the fort was a simple log stockade with four sides at 132 feet each and two blockhouses at opposite angles. Barracks, storehouses, shops, a magazine, and a hospital were located within the walls.
Additional quarters were built outside the original fort in 1822 when increased hostilities between the Osage and Cherokee prompted the need for a greater number of soldiers. Just two years later; however, the Federal Government determined that the location of the fort was too far away from the newly redefined Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and established Fort Gibson some 60 miles up the Arkansas River. As a result, the troops departed Fort Smith in 1824.
Three years later; however, the fort was slated to serve as the agency for the western Choctaw Indians, who were also being forced to move to Indian Territory. When Choctaw agent, William McClellan, arrived in February 1827, he found the post buildings in bad condition. But, it would be four more years before the government would repair the structures. Finally, in April 1831, Lieutenant Gabriel Rains and a detail of Seventh United States Infantry arrived at the post to begin the repairs. By August, Choctaw Indians began trickling into the area.
Just east of the post and adjacent to the Choctaw boundary line, a sizeable civilian community emerged on lands owned by a man named John Rogers. Dominating the community were six taverns, where enterprising merchants supplied the emigrating Choctaw with cheap whiskey. Many of the displaced tribesmen settled nearby and became a source of sustained exploitation. Lieutenant Rains positioned his men on the boundary line to keep peddlers and Choctaw separated, but the situation got worse. In March 1833, Captain John Stewart and a company of Seventh Infantry were garrisoned at the post to control the contraband trade, known as the “Arkansas Whiskey War.” He too, met with little success as the merchants operated right under his very nose. As a result, Stuart abandoned Fort Smith in June 1834 and established Fort Coffee at a more suitable location in Indian Territory.
As additional tribes were relocated in Indian Territory, fearful residents of the new State of Arkansas requested that a permanent military garrison be placed on their western border. In 1838, Congress authorized construction of a new fort and purchased land from John Rogers to build a 296-acre reservation adjacent to the old fort on Belle Point.
In the spring of 1839, construction of the new fort began. The design called for a pentagonal-shaped fort of stone with a bastion at each angle and enclosing seven acres. Inside the wall, several buildings were to be situated around a parade ground including two enlisted men’s barracks, two officer’s quarters, the commandant’s quarters, a hospital, the quartermaster store, and other buildings. This ambitious plan, however, would never be fully realized.
Because of events of the next six years, the army completed Fort Smith along much different lines. It had become apparent to the military that armed warriors would not descend on Arkansas from Indian Territory. Yet, hostilities threatened another frontier, and the Mexican-American War loomed on the horizon. Fort Smith was ideally situated to equip military units marching to the Rio Grande River and to supply frontier posts in Indian Territory. Therefore, in 1845, the half-finished post was formally designated as a supply depot.
Without a need for defensive capabilities, portions of the fort curtain wall were never raised to the intended height of 12 feet. To accommodate the vastly increased supply load, foundations of the incomplete Commandant’s Quarters and one of the enlisted men’s barracks were dismantled and used to convert two bastions into commissary and quartermaster storehouses. A third bastion was transformed into a magazine. Upon completion, only two officers quarters and one enlisted men’s barracks fronted the parade ground. Several other structures including maintenance buildings, stables, laundress quarters, hospital, storehouse, and bakehouse were located beyond the fort walls.
Fort Smith was formally garrisoned in May 1846 and functioned as a supply depot throughout its 25-year-long occupation by the military. In the pre-Civil War years, national interests focused on westward expansion. New posts were established in Indian Territory, including Fort Towson and Fort Washita, which were supplied by the depot at Fort Smith.
On April 23, 1861, Arkansas State Troops occupied Fort Smith. Until September 1, 1863, when Federal soldiers re-garrisoned the post, Fort Smith served the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi West as a major supply base and defensive bastion protecting Southern interests in Arkansas and Indian Territory.
During the post-war years, the army again focused efforts on renewed westward expansion. The line of frontier posts had moved so far to the west; however, that supply lines from Fort Smith were stretched to capacity. The days of Fort Smith as a supply depot were numbered.
Other problems plagued the post and eventually caused its abandonment. Housing for the troops had always been in short supply and on November 24, 1865, Officers Quarters A burned to the ground. Five years later, in December 1870, Officers Quarters B suffered the same fate. To the military, the role of Fort Smith as a supply depot was no longer tenable. On July 19, 1871, the Sixth Infantry marched out of the post, the last unit to garrison Fort Smith. Once again, however, the winds of fortune shifted and prolonged the life of the fort.
In 1872, the United States District Court of the Western District of Arkansas occupied Fort Smith. A valuation of the property indicated that 27 buildings stood on the former military reserve. Nearly all of these were relegated to civilian or federal use.
The former enlisted men’s barracks became the Federal Courthouse and also housed attendant offices. A permanent gallows was constructed along the inward side of Bastion 3, or the old magazine, and the Federal Courthouse basement served as a jail. When overcrowding in this makeshift prison, known as “hell-on-the-border,” received adverse public attention, a modern prison wing was added to the south end of the courthouse. This structure was completed in February 1888.
The jurisdiction of the United States District Court of the Western District of Arkansas was a vast area encompassing western Arkansas and the entire Indian Territory of present-day Oklahoma. Here, tribal courts had no jurisdiction over non-Indian settlers. This legal detail gave an advantage to the most desperate breed of outlaw, who found refuge beyond the pale of justice and could murder and steal with little fear of retribution. To bring offenders to justice, a federal marshal and a number of deputies, never more than 200 strong, combed this wilderness. When fugitives were apprehended, they were taken to Fort Smith for trial.