November 3, 2010

Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas


We went into downtown Fort Smith, AR to visit Fort Smith National Historic Site. This site was one of the most important early frontier forts managing westward expansion in the 19th century and was essential to establishing law and justice on the frontier and "protecting" the Native American tribes who were forceably removed from their homes in the Southeast to the short-lived Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.

Army's food stores for all frontier forts in Indian Territory was distributed from Fort Smith
The Fort Smith site has so many stories to tell from a number of different episodes in American history. It was established in 1817 by the U.S. Army when Cherokees who were being unofficially forced out of their homelands in Tennessee and North Carolina at that time starting having conflicts with the resident Osage tribes of Oklahoma and Arkansas who weren't happy to have new neighbors.

The Federal Jail known by inmates as "Hell on the Border"
Just before the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that Indian Tribes were sovereign nations and that states did not have authority over them. This angered President Andrew Jackson greatly. His administration refused to assist or protect the tribes from being overun by white settlers, even when their treaties explicitly said they should be.

The Federal Courts in Fort Smith would send out posses to arrest outlaws in Indian Territory and haul them back for trial
In 1830, he ordered the "Five Civilized Tribes" of the Cherokee, Seminole, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw to be removed from the South and sent to the Indian Territory in what became known as the Trail of Tears. They were given little to no rations and were treated harshly on the trip. For each tribe, they suffered between 20-50% mortality on the 500 mile journey west. That was thousands who died of disease, malnutrition, or injury along the way.

The Arkansas River meant they were entering "Indian Territory"
Fort Smith was the place where the tribes would have legal protection and assistance from the U.S. government, including provisions. But, complications with the laws on this frontier made it a great place for outlaws and bandits to set up shop. Marauding gangs would run all across Indian Territory raping, killing, and stealing. The problem was that tribal governments had no authority over whites in Indian Territory and the federal police forces were too spread out to manage those outlaws effectively.

Isaac Perkin's Courtroom
Eventually, a U.S. Circuit Court was set up in Fort Smith, with the "hanging judge" Isaac Parker the head judge. It was the busiest U.S. court of its time and Parker sat with the gavel for 27 years. He ordered hundreds of murders from the outlaw west hung and dealt with thousands of cases. He actually didn't like hanging, but the laws at that time basically forced him to hang them or release them.

Hilina successfully made her first rock "skips" on the river this day.
She must take after the "skip-master" himself
He was very sympathetic to the needs of the desperate tribes trying to hold onto some semblage of self-governance and tradition and felt law-and-order was the only way to do it. He was frustrated that these white settlers were overrunning their lands and that outlaws were using the loopholes in the laws to run rampant. In fact, many whites used the lawlessness as an excuse to eliminate tribal sovereignty and make claims on tribal lands.

Well, the Indian Territory didn't last long. Soon white settlers had their eyes on that prize too and eventually all sovereignty for the tribes was revoked and everything opened up to settlement. Only in the 1970-80's did the Five Tribes finally get the federal backing to reestablish themselves as sovereign nations with constitutions and legal rights.


It was an interesting and educational place. Next on the agenda? The Cherokee National Heritage Center in Oklahoma. We went to the Cherokee Museum in North Carolina in 2007 to see the story of those who managed to remain behind. Now we will learn the story of those who had to pick up and start again in a strange new land.

1 comment:

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