Pictured above: The U.S. Marshals Museum opened in Fort Smith in July after 16 years of waiting.

 

In July, the doors finally swung open to welcome visitors and dignitaries to the U.S. Marshals Museum 16 years after the U.S. Marshals Service tapped underdog Fort Smith as its home.

 

Watching the stream of dignitaries at the dedication ceremony and the throngs of people who followed in their wake, Ben Johnson could not help but think back. Shortly after he landed in Fort Smith to take over as the museum’s president and CEO, he had a speaking engagement that changed the arc of the 53,000-square-foot, $50 million attraction.

 

Johnson appeared before a gathering of the U.S. Marshals Service Association. The crowd, comprised primarily of retired marshals, was cordial to the Nebraska transplant, but Johnson recalled a palpable undercurrent of frustration over the delays in finishing the national museum and a shallow well of patience for excuses or empty promises out of the head man.

 

That evening at a reception, Johnson was galvanized by a simple encounter he had with one of the most senior deputy marshal there.

 

“I was in the hospitality room talking to them, and there was one gentleman there who was 92 in a wheelchair,” Johnson said. “He was telling stories of being assigned to Ole Miss, guarding [first black student] James Meredith’s room, and this man looked at me and said, ‘Am I ever going to see this [museum] before I die?’

 

“I looked into his eyes, and I knew that all he wanted was to see this happen. That was when I came back, and I was like, ‘We gotta do this now. We owe it to them. We just need to get open.’”

marshals museum

The museum melds hundreds of artifacts with interactive technology.

Johnson and the museum staff made good on the pledge and have been enjoying overwhelmingly positive reviews of the museum for its authenticity, comprehensive exhibits and use of technology that brings the experience to life.

 

“It’s been great. Feedback has been awesome,” Johnson said. “We’ve had nothing but really positive comments from folks: ‘This is so much better than I thought.’ ‘This is so different than I thought.’ ‘There’s so much more history.’ This is American history. This isn’t just about the Wild West and cowboys; this is really 235 years of American history.

 

“Even the few places on the internet where I tell folks don’t go, and I won’t name where they are, but even those places have been very positive, which has been remarkable.”

 

The U.S. Marshals Service was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 as a means to represent the fledgling federal government’s interests at the local level. President George Washington appointed the first 13 marshals, who were broadly empowered to carry out lawful orders issued by judges, Congress or the president. As per the National Park Service, the marshals’ principal function was to enforce orders and decisions of the federal courts, but early marshals were also tasked with a range of duties beyond their law enforcement responsibilities. Among these were paying fees and managing operations of federal trials, contracting for the feeding of prisoners, distributing presidential proclamations, and even conducting U.S. Census counts, which continued through 1870.

 

As the earliest federal law enforcement branch, the marshals performed functions for which later agencies would be created. During the Civil War, the marshals performed like the modern-day Department of Homeland Security, rooting out Confederate spies and confiscating property used to support the South’s cause. They were a forerunner to the modern U.S. Border Patrol and also had jurisdiction over counterfeiters until the Secret Service took over that role in 1865.

 

U.S. Marshals and their deputies had primary responsibility within the federal district and circuit courts to which they were assigned. As the nation pushed westward, more districts were created, necessitating the growth of the U.S. Marshals Service into remote, sparsely populated territories. Fort Smith was a prime example; the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was created in 1851 and, for 45 years, held jurisdiction over 13 Arkansas counties and all or parts of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

 

Here, the work of molding a wild land into an ordered society was performed as the U.S. Marshals Service sought to bring order from horse thieves, bushwackers and other outlaws hardened by war, a job complicated by interactions between whites and the commingled tribes of displaced Native Americans forcibly moved to the Indian Territory. With 74,000 largely lawless miles to police, the marshals were a tough, seasoned core of dedicated frontier lawmen engaged in dangerous work.

 

The district was not without controversy as at one time, it was more famous for corruption than for maintaining law and order. That all changed with the arrival of Judge Isaac Parker in 1875. Parker, a no-nonsense Ohioan and former member of Congress who had earned a stellar reputation while practicing law in St. Louis, quickly signaled the start of a new era. On his first day on the bench in Fort Smith, he sentenced eight men to hang for murder.

 

Execution day was a spectacle thanks to sensationalistic East Coast newspapers that coined the epithet, “The Hanging Judge,” to describe Parker. A progressive advocate for equal rights and women’s suffrage and who opposed capital punishment, Parker disliked the label, but it stuck nonetheless.

 

Parker may have been misunderstood when it came to his sentencing record, but his high regard for the U.S. Marshals in the district was clear.

 

“Without these officers,” he once said, “what is the use of this court?”

 

Even with Parker at their backs, a marshal’s job was a dangerous one, especially in Fort Smith. During Parker’s 21 years on the bench, 65 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty. The sacrifices were not in vain. The district quickly shed its shady reputation and was regarded as a model to be emulated thanks to the work of men like Bass Reeves, one of the first black U.S. Marshals in the American West.

 

Born a slave in Crawford County in 1838, Reeves’ life up through the Civil War is shrouded in mystery. One theory has him a war hero; another says he lived among Native tribes to escape his master. After the war, Reeves served as a guide for government officials wishing to travel through Indian Territory and, in 1875, was commissioned a deputy U.S. marshal by the forward-thinking Parker. Over the next 32 years, Reeves achieved great fame in his role, killing 14 outlaws and apprehending more than 3,000 fugitives, including his own son.

 

A hundred years after his death, the legacy of Reeves’ exploits and that of his comrades would play a major role in bringing the national museum to Arkansas. In 2007, former U.S. Marshals Service Director John Clark announced the decision that Fort Smith would be the home of the museum, citing the area as sacred ground. More marshals and deputy marshals died riding out of Fort Smith during the frontier era than in any other place or time in the nation’s history.

 

As big of an accomplishment as it was to be awarded the project, the announcement was just the beginning of the work to actually get it built and opened. That process that would lumber along for the next 16 years and was still not completed when Johnson arrived.

 

“Raising money is never easy, especially in a town as relatively small as we are and in a state like Arkansas, which is only 3 million people. There are a lot of organizations raising money, and we’re just another one of them,” he said.

 

“The initial capital campaign goal was $50 million, and that was to build the building, design and create the experience, outfit it with furniture and equipment, hire staff, and still have a little bit of runway knowing that we aren’t going to get a ton of money right away once we opened. We were at about $45 million when I got here. We’ve done $2.5, $3 million since, which is awesome. Fundraising will never end, but the light at the end of the tunnel is there.”

 

Some of the project’s issues can be chalked up to bad luck — construction and fundraising came to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance — but the project has had its share of critics from the word go. The longer things went, the louder the detractors became, and when a proposed local sales tax to support the museum was voted down at the polls in 2019, the discontent had reached a crescendo. The project suffered another public relations blow in 2022 with the resignation of Johnson’s predecessor, Patrick Weeks, after he was charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault with a firearm for pointing a gun at utility workers outside his home.

 

“Coming here, the challenge was really what they’d been through, years of up and down, of good news and bad news, and just coming off the biggest PR fiascos in its history,” Johnson said. “No. 1, of course, was just getting open but doing it in a way that’s sustainable, doing it in a way that makes people want to come here and engage with what we are doing.”

 

What followed was a multi-fronted attack on issues to get the museum open. Little Rock-based CDI Contractors leaned in around the clock to finish remaining construction while the museum hired Los Angeles-based Thinkwell to build the interactive exhibits that are found throughout the display area. Fundraising efforts never stopped, but many prospective donors had a wait-and-see attitude that caused leadership to seek an alternate financial strategy, including landing grant funding and the steady support of the local First National Bank.

To say there was a lot on the line as opening day approached was a colossal understatement.

 

“We are not a federally funded museum,” Johnson said. “We are independent or as independent as you can be while representing a federal law enforcement agency. My sincere hope was for folks to walk in and see the care and attention to detail and hard work, see the fact that we’d raised nearly $48 million. In Arkansas, that’s no small feat. This is people giving five bucks and 10 bucks all the way up to millions of dollars, but it was key that folks came out and saw the displays and listened to the stories to really see the 237 years of history.”

 

The early returns are that the U.S. Marshals Museum has accomplished all that and more. On every level — architectural, historical, technological and educational — the museum delivers an experiential tour de force that includes hundreds of artifacts on display, from photographs and weapons to a customized humvee urban assault vehicle nestled among high-tech interactive stations.

 

At one station, a group of animatronic marshals from different eras sit around a campfire sharing stories as images play across the walls. In a frontier saloon, a virtual-reality poker table deals cards that each impart a nugget of wisdom about the challenges of enforcing frontier law. In another, visitors compare their skills to the criteria required of marshal candidates, and in still another, they test their wits and decision-making ability while they decide the next move in an actual case.

 

“Even before we opened, I saw what happened when folks walked in and saw the quality of the experience and the building and the setting. They were blown away,” Johnson said. “My hope and my goal is that once the general public comes around that first corner, they go ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’”

 

For a museum that has stood so close to the precipice for so long, the U.S. Marshals Museum might be forgiven for avoiding further controversy in its displays. Therefore, it says something to see the less-flattering chapters of the U.S. Marshals Service given equal billing with its accomplishments. Johnson said it was never a consideration to whitewash the periods when the country and the marshals were on the wrong side of history but to display those parts of the story as wider context for when they did or failed to do their duty.

 

“The question that historians are dealing with, whether formally in an academic setting or informally in a museum-based setting, is how do you tell a story effectively?” he said. “It has been a priority for this staff, even before I got here, as well as the Marshals Service itself, to tell the story — the good, the bad and the ugly. This is not a story where the Marshals Service is always the white hat coming in to save the day. On the same wall, within a few feet of each other, you have USMS being responsible for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, while at the same time, Frederick Douglass becomes a U.S. Marshal.

 

“We also have stories of deputy marshals escorting little black girls to school in Little Rock and New Orleans who blatantly said, ‘When I was tasked with doing it, I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, but as soon as I walked with these little girls, my entire worldview changed.’ There’s no clear-cut good guy, bad guy in some of these stories; it’s a complicated mess of personalities and the historical era they’re in that we have the benefit of looking at from decades or centuries later. These are just people living their lives, making decisions in the moment, and it’s hard.”

The main entrance to the exhibit hall.

Just beyond the main entrance, off a wide gathering space, a dignified vestibule awaits visitors’ attention. One wall is covered in copper plates, each bearing the name of a fallen member of the service, while an interactive display beckons guests to learn more about the names. Some entries go on for paragraphs, others a single line, but all share the intertwined roots of duty, circumstance and sacrifice. Nearby, a twisted hunk of steel stands on a podium as a relic of the World Trade Center.

A wall of copper plates pays tribute to fallen marshals.

Here, the most poignant chapters of the chronicle of promises kept have been recorded to be honored and retold for all time throughout the magnificent star-shaped building. Johnson smiles gently as he shares one more, the postscript to his 2022 encounter with the heroes aching to catch a glimpse of what many thought they would never see.

 

“The United States Marshals Service Association is having their annual convention here in Fort Smith. They’re having the largest registration that I think they’ve ever seen,” he said. “That 92-year-old deputy marshal is going to be here with his sons, the one who asked me, ‘Am I going to see this before I die?’ There’s so many more like that, and I just can’t wait to share it. I’ve told everybody for the last year, this is for him and everybody else like him.”

 

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