Experience the Old West at the Ft. Smith National Historical Site - MetroFamily Magazine
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Experience the Old West at the Ft. Smith National Historical Site

by Karen Mitchell

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Here’s a family goal for the new year: visit all of the U.S. National Parks.

A tough challenge considering that if you attempted to visit one a year, you’d have to live to the ripe old age of 397 to visit all of them. But Ken Salazar, who oversees the U.S. National Park Service as Secretary of the Interior, hopes free admission will give you incentive to consider visiting at least a few.

During 2012, Salazar is promoting National Park Fee-Free Days, encouraging families to experience at least some of the 84 million acres of public land, 4.5 million miles of public shoreline and thousands of historical landmarks preserved for you by the U.S. National Park Service.

“From Independence Hall to our newest national park, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, our national parks tell the story of America, from the beauty of our land to our struggle for freedom and justice,” Secretary Salazar said. The Ft. Smith National Historic Site, located east on I-40 at the Oklahoma/Arkansas border, is certainly a prime example: an historic location that has been the setting in numerous Old West films (think True Grit.) So, why not take Salazar up on his invitation and put this park on your “must do” list this year?

Ft. Smith Historic Site is all about Oklahoma's history. It was the entry way into Indian Territory (which was to become the state of Oklahoma) from Arkansas for soldiers and was the location of the court of jurisdiction over the outlaws who made their way into Indian Territory. Rangers based from this fort were sent into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to search for and arrest these outlaws. So, when you explore Ft. Smith Historic site, you are indeed exploring Oklahoma's past.

Judge Isaac C. Parker, “The Hanging Judge”

While Indians had their own police and courts, they had no jurisdiction over non-Indians. Outlaws found Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, a perfect place to hide from U.S. law enforcement—so they thought. The outlaws didn’t count on one now historically-famous Judge Isaac C. Parker who presided over the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Under his jurisdiction, deputy marshals were sent into Indian Territory to find and arrest these outlaws for their day in federal court.

Judge Parker presided for 21 years and became known as the “Hanging Judge” for sentencing to death 160 people who ultimately met their fate at the Ft. Smith gallows. Now, visitors from around the world come to visit this unique location that played an important role in taming the Old West.

The Park and Grounds

When visiting the park, you’ll start at the Visitors Center, located in the former military barracks/courthouse/jail building. Park Ranger Pat Schmidt recommends the 15-minute introductory film that “gives a great overview of history and perspective” to the site. For example, visitors learn why outlaws called the original jail “Hell on the Border” before Anna Dawes, daughter of a Massachusetts senator, visited the jail and wrote an article about the deplorable conditions leading Congress to approve funds for construction of a new jail in 1888.
Exhibits on the fort’s military personnel, the Trail of Tears (the name given to the deadly march of Indians from their southeastern American homelands to Indian Territory), Parker’s courtroom and two jails are included at the Visitor’s Center. On the site grounds, visitors can explore the first fort, the Trail of Tears Overlook on the Arkansas River, the military’s Commissary building and reconstructed gallows.

Schmidt explains that children of all ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Park Ranger Program. Intended for children ages 5 – 12, the program gives young visitors an interactive and educational way to tour the site. The free, age-appropriate Junior Park Ranger activity booklets are available at the Visitor’s Center or can be downloaded on the park’s website prior to visiting.

Located in downtown Ft. Smith, the Ft. Smith National Historic Site provides a convenient weekend or summer family getaway. A few restaurants are located within walking distance of the park including an old-fashioned malt shop. Picnic tables are provided near the main parking lot for those wanting to eat lunch or snacks on the grounds.

The Visitor’s Center is open 9:00am – 5:00pm daily, except Christmas and New Year’s Day. If not attending on a National Park Fee-Free Day, the entrance fees are reasonable at $4 for individuals 16 years old and above (15 and under are free).

“Whether or not it’s during one of the 17 fee-free days, I encourage everyone to visit a park near them and enjoy the remarkable landscapes and historical and cultural sites that are unique to our great country,” Salazar said. If you’ve never been to a national park or haven’t visited one recently, make 2012 your year and the Ft. Smith National Historic Site your first park destination.

Visit Ft. Smith

For more information on the Ft. Smith National Historical Site or participating fee-free day parks, visit the U.S. National Park website at www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparks.htm. To contact the Ft. Smith National Historic Site, call 479-783-5307. Information on overnight accommodations is available at Miss Laura’s Social Club (the Ft. Smith Welcome Center, a restored 19th century bordello and an historical must-see of its own), by calling 800-637-1477.

National Park Fee-Free Park Days

Admission will be free to participating U.S. National Parks on the following days in 2012:

  • January 14-16: Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend
  • April 21-29: National Park Week
  • June 9: Get Outdoors Day
  • September 29: National Public Lands Day
  • November 10-12: Veteran’s Day weekend

Karen Mitchell, a lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, lives in Edmond with her husband Mark, teenage son, Ryan, and one spoiled Welsh corgi. Daughter Megan attends OSU in Stillwater.

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