Monday, January 18, 2010

The Original Fort Smith, 1817-1824

Beginning our look at the historic sites in Fort Smith, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how the fort came to be established on the western frontier more than forty years before the Civil War.

Although the Trail of Tears would not come for another nineteen years, by 1817 a number of Cherokee had accepted the inevitable and started moving west from their homes in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The began settling in western Arkansas, carving homes and fields from the wilderness and rebuilding their lives.

The problem was that the Osage, a well established tribe already in the area, objected to what they considered a Cherokee intrusion. The two nations neared the point of war as incidents of violence escalated. To keep peace between the Osage and the Cherokee, the United States decided to establish a garrison on the far western frontier. On December 25, 1817, a company of 64 riflemen led by Major William Bradford nosed a boat up to a high bluff at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Then called Belle Point, a settlement of French fur trappers had existed at the site for many years.

The soldiers built a rectangular fort atop the bluff that had been designed by Major Stephen Long. He later selected the site for the modern city of Atlanta. With blockhouses on diagonal corners, other structures to serve as quarters, storehouses, etc., and cannon for its defense, the fort was named Fort Smith after General Thomas A. Smith.

The officers and soldiers of the isolated fort spent their first few years negotiating with the Native American tribes to avoid a full scale war and also roamed the hills and valleys of Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma on noteworthy trips of exploration. They visited such points of interest as Mount Magazine and even Hot Springs.

In 1821, the 7th U.S. Infantry arrived at Fort Smith, greatly expanding the military presence at the post. The noteworthy regiment had fought at the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson and was ordered west from Fort Scott in Georgia.

The original fort was held by the Army until 1824, by which time the flood of both Cherokee and white settlers into the region had pushed the frontier west. Seeing no need for the continued occupation of Fort Smith, the army evacuated the post in favor of new forts closer to the expanding frontier. The abandonment, however, would quickly prove to be temporary in nature.

To learn more about the original Fort Smith, the ruins of which are shown above, please visit

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