Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fort Smith National Historic Site

When we drove into Fort Smith yesterday we had no idea of what we were looking for, other than the historic district.  We ended up on the grounds of the old fort, built from 1938-42.  It was fortified with stone walls which were 12 feet high and 2 feet thick.  Fort Smith was the last of its kind, after 1840 frontier forts were not built with such fortification because they were too costly to build.  During the Civil War the fort was fired on once, it was an attempt by the Confederate troops in 1864 to take back the city from the Union army.  They were not successful.  After the Civil War the military closed the little used fort.   However, for over 80 years the fort was used by the federal government to establish and maintain order in Indian Territory, land which was set apart for them in 1828 and which would become Oklahoma.  Pictured below is one of the buildings which first served the fort as a military barracks..  In the late 1800s it became a jail and a Federal Courthouse for Western Arkansas.  Currently there is a wonderful museum in the old courthouse with exhibits pertaining to the jail which use to be in its basement, as well as a replica of Judge Parker's courtroom.  He held the bench for 21 years, settling thousands of disputes and violence between Indians and non-Indians.  In Western novels and films he was known as the "Hanging Judge".
The most interesting exhibit in the museum for me was one pertaining to the Native Indians and the Trail of Tears.  I finally learned who the "Civilized Tribes" were and why that designation was important.   In the early 1800s Native Indians from the southeastern part of our country were required to become "civilized".  Our government expected  them to become Christians, learn the English language and agricultural techniques.  Five tribes did that (the Seminole,Cherokee,Creek,Choctaw,and Chickasaw).  They also established their own schools, lived in cabins and dressed in what would be considered appropriate clothes.  The picture below depicts this quite well.  However, all the assimilation and accommodation had gained them nothing and they were moved to the Indian Territory across the border from Arkansas.   
 Somewhere in our travels  John and I were at a Civil War battle site at which it was noted that troops from the Five Civilized Tribes fought with the Union Army. However, as I learned at this museum, that did not even give the "Civilized Tribes" any brownie points.  Although they had fought on both sides of the war, the government considered considered all tribes as defeated enemies.  They were told that their rights had been forfeited, and their property could be confiscated.  African Americans had their freedom, American Indians did not.  An 1865 Fort Smith Council was held to improve relations with the tribes, nothing was resolved except the suggestion made by a Choctaw Chief that the Indian Territory be called "Oklahoma", meaning "Land of the Red Man".  In 1889 the Indian Territory was opened up for a land grab by people other than the American Indians and the process of statehood for Oklahoma was started.  Judge Parker was the only one to urge statehood for the Five Tribes, but to no avail.  We spent more time than planned in the museum and the sun was starting to set as we toured the grounds of the fort.  The Riverfront Trail took us along the Arkansas River. In this area the original fort was built in 1817.

No comments:

Post a Comment