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Fort Smith Court House & Jail

Fort Smith, Arkansas

 

 

 

Welcome to Fort Smith

Founded in 1817 by the U.S. Army to contain a volatile Indian feud. Fort Smith later served as a major supply depot for western military posts, and finally as headquarters of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. For over 80 years, the federal government used Fort Smith to establish and maintain law and order in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma).

Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves the remains of these two military posts and the federal court.

 

Clues from the Past

The building in front of you is very much as it appeared in the 1890's. First used as a military barracks, it was later converted for use as a courthouse and jail. Over time its appearance changed to accommodate the different needs of the people using it. Between 1851 and 1887, the structure was 1 1/2 stories with large porches. The second story of the courthouse was added in 1891 for use as a hospital for the prisoners, and the long porches removed and replaced with shorter ones.

 

November 24, 1821

Arkansas Gazette Vol. II - No. 2 - Whole No. 106

A detachment of 250 soldiers, under the command of Col. Arbuckle of the 7th regt. U.S. Infantry, arrived at the mouth of the Arkansas a few days since from New Orleans. We understand they will proceed up the Arkansas to Fort Smith as soon as boats can be provided for their conveyance. The remainder of the same regiment, under the command of Lieut. Col. Taylor left New Orleans on the 6th inst. in the steam boat Courier, for the military post at Natchitoches, on Red River.

 

 


Old Federal Building

The old part of this building was the barracks of the Fort 1840 - 1871. Federal Court and Jail, 1872 - 1887, presided over by Judge I.C. Parker 1875 - 1887.

Erected as a public service by the Noon Civics Club - 1936.

 

The Women's Jail, 1872 - 1888

After the U.S. Army closed Fort Smith in 1871, the guardhouse served the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. It remained in use as a jail, detaining primarily women suspected or convicted of federal crimes until 1888. At that time, the court moved quarters for female prisoners into the courthouse/jail building. Although not as numerous as their male counterparts, female prisoners were no novelty in Fort Smith. They committed the same crimes as men in the Indian Territory, ranging from the illegal sale of whiskey to murder. When convicted, they received the same sentences - fines, jail time, or death by hanging. From 1873 through 1874 the guardhouse also briefly functioned as "Death Row" by holding the men condemned to die on the gallows.

 

The Parade Ground

For more than thirty years during the mid-1800's, soldiers drilled on the large parade ground before you. Flanked by the officers' quarters to the right and the enlisted men's barracks on the left, the parade ground was the center of life at the fort.

"A broad gravel driveway around the grounds encompassed an inner circle and this was the parade ground...In the center...stood a tall flag-staff, from which dizzy height, "Old Glory, 'flung it protecting folds to the breeze. Morning and evening to the salute of a cannon and the strains of martial music, the flag was raised and lowered."
- Mary Rutherford Cravens, recalling life at the second Fort Smith.


The Flagstaff

The U.S. Army built the original flagstaff at the second Fort Smith in 1846. As with many western military posts, the flagstaff stood tall so that its flag could be seen for miles. To attain a height of nearly 100 feet, the army joined two poles in the same way that ship masts were built. Shroud lines attached to cross trees supported the area where the poles joined, while guidelines and an underground wooden structure stabilized the base.

When the army closed Fort Smith in 1871, they removed the flagstaff. The "Old Fort Militia," a local citizen's support group, in cooperation with the National Park Service rebuilt the flagstaff in 1984 -85. Its replica 37-star flag is a copy of the final flag to have been flown by the army here, from 1867 to 1871.

Flagpole - Fort Smith National Historic Site

 

This Memorial built of the original stones marks the location of the fort erected in 1838 - 1842 for protection against the Indians.

The wall was 12 feet high and 2 feet thick with port holes about 4 feet apart.

The main buildings in the enclosure were the Commissary, Two Officers Headquarters, the Quartermaster's Headquarters, and the Soldier's Barracks. Afterwards the United States Court presided over by Judge I.C. Parker of the Western District.

Erected in 1930 by the Martha Baker Thurman Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, dedicated 1936.

 

The guardhouse, constructed in 1849, was a focal point of daily activity at the second Fort Smith. Not only did the men assigned to guard detail operate out of this building, but the officer of the day, who was responsible for the daily business of the post, worked out of an office located here. The guard house was also the place of confinement for soldiers under arrest for such offenses as drunkenness, desertion, or fighting.

The Guard Mount, or changing of the guard ceremony, occurred here once a day usually about 9:00 a.m. At that time, the old guard detail would be inspected and mustered out, and the new guard detail would be inspected and mustered in. Members of the guard detail served as sentries throughout the fort grounds, at each gate, and watched prisoners in the guardhouse.