When assessing the attractions that make Fort Smith such a special place to visit, one word adequately sums them all up: culture. Attempt to define exactly what type of culture, however, and the former frontier outpost and military installation defies all common denominators.

 

Military history, public art, cowboys, music festivals and law enforcement all stake their claim there through engaging attractions, fascinating experiences and family-friendly entertainment. Visitors for a weekend or for a full vacation will find plenty of things to satisfy what interests them, punctuated by friendly locals, unique shopping and delicious food.

 

Make plans now to attend one of the community festivals held throughout the year, or plan a visit around one or more of the following unique attractions.

 

HISTORY

 

The beginnings of Fort Smith may date back to Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the 1500s, and the area was likely visited by early French trappers making a living on pelts and trading with the local tribes, namely Osage and Cherokee.

 

Early settlers were attracted to the rich bottomland soil and ample water, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas states. A river bluff known as Belle Point was quickly identified as an excellent spot for a military installation due to its elevation and position on the Arkansas River. Troops arriving in November 1817 began to build the first structures, and within five years, a settlement had grown up around the fort.

John Rogers

John Rogers, a seminal figure in the city’s early development, supplied the fort and trappers and successfully lobbied to bring the Army back to Fort Smith after it withdrew to redeploy in present-day Oklahoma for a short time. The returning military force resulted in a new fort being built and the seeds being sown for incorporating the town, which occurred in December 1842.

 

Fort Smith was every bit the gateway to the west that St. Louis claims to be, equipping miner forty-niners headed to California and soldiers headed for the Mexican-American War. In fact, one of the first wagon trains headed to the west coast during the gold rush left from Fort Smith due to the abundant grass that the more southerly route offered.

 

The Civil War brought Arkansas’ secession, and the fort changed to Confederate and Arkansas volunteer hands, only to be reclaimed by federal troops in 1863. Union forces would not relinquish the fort again during the war, but the wider environment was dangerous, rife with bushwhackers and Confederate regular and irregular units causing havoc on personnel and supply lines, in addition to three official military encounters in 1864.

The old barracks

Today a national park, visitors to Fort Smith can tour a visitor’s center at the south end of the barracks, courthouse and jail building to get an up-close look at the garrison’s military history from 1817 to 1871, including elements that detail western expansion, the federal court’s impact on Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, as well as Federal policy toward Native Americans and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

 

Also located on the grounds, the National Park Service states, are the foundation of the first Fort Smith (1817-1824), the Commissary building (circa 1838) and a reconstruction of the gallows used by the federal court.

 

Another popular attraction for history buffs is the Fort Smith National Cemetery, a 32-acre tract that dates back to the building of the original fort. The site received national cemetery status in 1867, and many military dead removed from battlefields and private cemeteries were reinterred there. Hundreds of Confederate fallen are also buried within the cemetery, including Gen. James B. McIntosh and Gen. Alexander E. Steen.

Fort Smith Museum of History

Two other attractions chronicle and preserve different chapters in the city’s colorful history, the Fort Smith Museum of History, located downtown, and Miss Laura’s Social Club, now home to the welcome center of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau. Miss Laura’s, the sole surviving building of Fort Smith’s once-thriving red light district, is the only former bordello on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

LAW ENFORCEMENT

 

As wild as frontier life could be, Fort Smith is closely associated with the development of law and order in the unsettled West. That can be most clearly traced to two related entities that are now enshrined forever within the city’s attractions.

 

The first comes in the form of Judge Isaac Parker, a legendary figure in Wild West chronicles. Parker, a former congressman, arrived in town in 1875 and, unlike his predecessor, immediately proved an incorruptible and strident disciple of the law. For the next 21 years, Fort Smith was known as a cornerstone for law enforcement as Parker showed no compunction to meting out the strictest sentences allowed.

Judge Isaac Parker is credited with bringing law and order to Fort Smith, and many historic sites speak to the city’s frontier history.

Labeled the “Hanging Judge,” a nickname he disliked, Parker’s judgeship was prolific. He tried nearly 13,500 cases and sentenced 160 people to the gallows, of which 79 actually hung. The rest either died in custody, received a pardon or had their sentences commuted.

Despite his notorious reputation, Parker’s time in Fort Smith was equally noteworthy for his humanitarianism. His community service included serving on the local school board and as the first president of St. John’s Hospital. He also held a sympathetic view toward people of color, specifically Native Americans. That earned him the ire of many white people who he censured for attempting to encroach on native lands or to sell liquor there. Despite that, upon his death in 1896, Parker’s funeral was the largest ever attended in Fort Smith.

Fort Smith National Cemetery

One thing that made the judge as successful as he was in bringing order to the territory was his use of the U.S. Marshals Service. His frequent deployment of marshals and deputy marshals to round up fugitives was devastatingly effective thanks to the likes of Bass Reeves, one of the most celebrated marshals of the day. Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas and moved to Texas when his owner relocated the family there in 1846. He was then pressed into military servitude during the Civil War but escaped to Indian Territory, which was outside the reach of white authorities.

Bass Reeves, one of the first African American lawmen west of the Mississippi River, is honored at the U.S. Marshals Museum and elsewhere in Fort Smith.

Reeves lived among the Seminole and Creek tribes until slavery was abolished. Then he returned to Arkansas, where he married and started a family. A decade later, he joined the U.S. Marshals and is today noteworthy not only as the first and only Black agent commissioned west of the Mississippi at that time, but for his effectiveness as a lawman. As biographer Art T. Burton wrote, Reeves is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws without sustaining a single gunshot wound.

Fort Smith memorializes Reeves with a statue located in Ross Pendergraft Park and exhibits at the U.S. Marshals Museum just outside downtown. After more than a decade in the making, the museum opened last year and offers numerous immersive exhibits detailing the history of the agency from its founding following the Revolutionary War through present day.

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Bass Reeves Monument

COWBOYS

 

Equally central to the frontier ethos is the role of the American cowboy, a heritage Fort Smith celebrates through one of its biggest and longest-running community events, the Old Fort Days Rodeo.

The rodeo dates back to 1933, when it was billed as the Pawnee Bill Rodeo for Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie, famed Wild West showman and contemporary of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Pawnee Bill appeared in person during the early years, riding in the downtown parade and appearing in grand entrance before every performance. His widespread celebrity helped the event gain momentum.

fort smith town

Annual events such as the Old Fort Days Rodeo, the Steel Horse Rally and Peacemaker Festival draw visitors to Fort Smith.

Organizers eventually secured their own rodeo grounds, Kay Rodgers Park, named after R.K. Rodgers, the rodeo’s first chairman, and built its own rodeo arena. The event grew into one of the premiere rodeos in the country, withstanding in its history World War II, river flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic. Cowboys and cowgirls from across the United States compete every year in saddle bronc riding, bull riding, bareback riding, calf roping, barrel racing and steer wrestling for some of the largest cash-prize purses in Arkansas. A crowd favorite is the kids’ mutton busting where little buckaroos attempt to ride a runaway sheep to the buzzer.

 

This year’s Old Fort Days Rodeo is May 27 to June 1.

 

ARTS

 

The latest element of Fort Smith’s reputation is that of a haven for the arts, especially public art. Everywhere one looks in the city, one can spot the handiwork of a talented cadre of international artists, brought to life via The Unexpected.

 

A program of the nonprofit 64.6 Downtown, The Unexpected began in 2015 as a means of community redevelopment through urban and contemporary public art. The group quickly gained national attention for its murals project, which features the talents of international artists that include D*Face, Ana Marietta, Askew, Okuda San Miguel, Bordalo II, Maser, Hoxxoh and many others.

 

Now numbering more than 30 works, the Fort Smith murals appear throughout downtown and have been the catalyst for the creation or expansion of other cities’ murals and public art projects statewide ever since.

 

The work of The Unexpected is the latest chapter in the community’s love affair with the visual and performing arts, which stretches back generations. Art lovers can also check out the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, which originated in 1948 under the Arkansas branch of the American Association of University Women. In 1951, the Associated Artists of Fort Smith began exhibiting art and offering classes in various locations throughout Fort Smith. In 1960, space for an art center was purchased, and in 1968, the Fort Smith Art Center was incorporated.

fort smith town

Steel Horse Rally

The museum received a major boost in 2009, when Arvest Bank donated a 16,000-square-foot adjacent building to the art center, which rebranded under its current name upon reopening after renovation of the new, larger space in 2013.

 

Music and theater lovers will want to check out the long-running Stacy Jones Season of Entertainment, a series of performances sponsored by the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Named in honor of faculty member, the late Stacey Jones, who spearheaded the Season of Entertainment for nearly 50 years, the series brings professional productions and university ensembles alike to the campus performing arts center.

Fort Smith Town

Peacemaker Festival

Finally, the city is host to multiple music festivals during the year, including Riverfront Blues Festival in February; Peacemaker Festival in October and musical entertainment as part of the Steel Horse Rally in May.

fort smith town

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