It was a little cool, albeit rainy when I arrived at Fort Smith. Barely sitting inside the state of Arkansas it was time for me to discover some past.
From the establishment of the first Fort Smith on December 25, 1817, to the final days of Judge Isaac C. Parker’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory in 1896, Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves almost 80 years of history. On the edge of Indian Territory through the stories of soldiers, the Trail of Tears, dangerous outlaws, and the brave lawmen who pursued them. The history of the Fort Smith area abounds with tales of heroism, battles, and social justice. Walk where soldiers drilled, reflect along the Trail of Tears overlook, and stand where justice was served and carried out. There are many individuals who made history at Fort Smith, and their actions and attitudes can serve both as inspiration and lessons learned. The Fort Smith National Historic Site includes the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Judge Isaac C. Parker, known as the “hangin’ judge,” presided over the court for 21 years.
1838 – January 12, 1910
During the late 19th Century no area in the United States was a haven and a refuge for criminals like the Indian Territory, pre–statehood Oklahoma. The jurisdiction of this territory fell to the United States court for Western Arkansas, located at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith, a frontier town, was located on the eastern border of the Indian Territory. The court was the largest federal court in United States history covering over 75,000 square miles. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker, was given the task of cleaning up the territory by President Ulysses Grant. It would not be an easy task. Parker authorized the hiring of 200 deputy U.S. marshals to sweep over the territory and arrest felons and fugitives. The Fort Smith federal court never hired that many deputies to work, there were usually between twenty and thirty deputies at any one time.
The Indian Territory was originally the domain of the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Due to the fact that some of the Indians fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the western portion of the territory was taken away and set aside as reservation space for Plains Indians. The Five Tribes had their own governments, courts, and police, but could not arrest white or black men who were not citizens of the tribes. This task fell to the deputy U.S. marshals who worked out of Fort Smith. Also, the deputies were responsible for arresting Indians who committed crimes against white or black men.
One of the first of the deputies hired by Judge Parker’s court was a former slave from Texas named Bass Reeves. It is believed that Reeves fought in the Indian Territory during the Civil War with the Union Indian brigades. Reeves was known as an expert with pistol and rifle, stood about six foot, two inches, weighed 180 pounds, and was said to have superhuman strength. Reeves had a reputation throughout the territory for his ability to catch outlaws that other deputies couldn’t. He was known to work in disguise in order to get information and affect the arrest of fugitives he wanted to capture.
Reeves was involved in numerous shootouts but was never wounded. He stated that he killed fourteen men in self defense, at the time of his death newspapers reported that he had killed over twenty men. In 1901, Reeves was interviewed by a Territorial newspaper, at that time he stated he had arrested over 3000 men and women who had broke federal laws in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory, later to include the Oklahoma Territory, in 1890, was the most dangerous area for federal peace officers in the Old West. More than one hundred and twenty lost their lives before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Bass Reeves escaped numerous assassination attempts on his life, he was the most feared deputy U.S. marshal to work the Indian Territory.
Reeves according to research is the only deputy on record who started working for Parker’s court in 1875 and worked up to statehood in 1907. Bass Reeves worked a total of thirty–two years as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Indian Territory.
Being a former slave, Reeves was illiterate. He would memorize his warrants and writs. In those thirty–two years it is said he never arrested the wrong person due to the fact he couldn’t read.
On one occasion, Reeves son, Bennie committed a domestic murder against his wife. Bass took the warrant and bought his son in for murder shortly thereafter his son convicted and sent to Leavenworth.
At the age of 67, Bass Reeves retired from federal service at Oklahoma statehood in 1907. He was hired as a city policeman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he served for about two years. Reeves had a beat in downtown Muskogee, during that time it is reported there was not one crime reported on his beat. It was told by residents that Reeves while walking his beat he would have a sidekick who carried a satchel of pistols.
African American deputy U.S. Marshals who worked the Indian Territory had the authority to arrest whites, blacks or Indians who broke federal laws. This was a very unique reality for black men given the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. On one occasion Bass Reeves was given the warrant for Belle Starr, it was the one time she turned herself in at the Fort Smith Federal Court. Bass Reeves was a legend in his own time. He was the epitome of dedication to duty, Judge Parker’s most trusted deputy and one of the greatest lawmen of the western frontier. On January 12, 1910, Bass Reeves died at the age of 71, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Places at the First Fort Smith (1817-1824)
Belle Point (Beautiful Place)
The area overlooking the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers had been named Belle Point by French fur trappers who traveled along the rivers in the 18th century. When the U.S. Army decided to establish a fort near the Osage boundary at the Arkansas River, Belle Point was the site chosen by Major Stephen H. Long of the Topographical Engineers. Long led the expedition in which he chose the location of, designed, and named the first Fort Smith in 1817. He was accompanied by Major William Bradford and the U.S. Rifle Regiment whom he left at the site of the future Fort Smith in order to begin construction.
Places at the Second Fort Smith (1838-1871)
While only two buildings remain from the second fort, visitors can walk the old military grounds and see the outline of the stone wall as well as the location of some of the military buildings. The exhibit in the Commissary gives a glimpse into the time period when the army used the building as a supply warehouse. Food supplies were stored here and later transported to troops stationed further west.
Building The Second Fort Smith
Belle Point was the busiest place on the America’s southwestern frontier during the late 1830s. A new military post was under construction and a bustling town named Fort Smith was emerging on its eastern edge. Without the hard work of 55 men from Bangor Maine, the second Fort Smith might never have existed.
In 1838 Congress authorized the reoccupation and enlargement of the military post at Fort Smith. John Rogers sold the United States 306 acres adjoining the site of the first Fort Smith for $15,000. Captain Charles W. Thomas was named supervisor of Fort Smith’s construction. The plans called for building a stone wall 12 feet high and from two to three feet thick enclosing an area of six hundred by four hundred feet, with a blockhouse bastion, two stores high, at each angle.
Thomas’ first objective was to recruit a construction crew. His attempts to find workers in New York and Boston failed, as the men there wanted what Thomas considered extravagant wages. It wasn’t until he travel to Bangor, Maine that he was able to sign 39 tradesmen and 16 laborers to one year contracts. The tradesmen received $1.50 a day and the laborers $15.00 a month. The crew immediately started west, only stopping to purchase a steam engine to power a sawmill, tools, food and other supplies. They traveled by steamer for most of the trip, but low water on the Arkansas halted the boat and the men had to travel the last 100 miles to Fort Smith on foot. They arrived in July of 1838.
Once quarters for the workers were ready, thirteen men were sent up the Poteau to fell trees and float them to Fort Smith on timber rafts containing 80 saw logs. Once brought ashore, the logs were cut into timbers and planks at the new saw mill. The master brick mason found suitable clay nearby, constructed a kiln, built a shed capable of holding 200,000 bricks, and dug two wells to provide water for mixing. Another crew opened a stone quarry at Belle Point.
Thomas knew the contracts of the Maine men expired in July. He could not get local men to work except for high wages and then on only short-term basis. Attempts to recruit soldiers from nearby forts to assist with construction failed. Thomas knew he had to get the most from his Bangor men, but on July 1, 1839, most of them drew their pay and boarded the first steamer bound downriver. Only the masons and bricklayer signed on for another year.
The work that was completed was impressive, however. The foundation of the entire outer wall had been completed and raised to a height of 4 feet. Foundations for four of the five bastions had been laid and raised to a level of the walls. It took seven more years before the new fort was finally ready for occupancy in 1846, having cost nearly $300,00.
Today visitors come to Fort Smith to see the federal courthouse used by Judge Isaac C. Parker from 1875-1889. However, the building was originally the military barracks and not ideally suited for a courthouse. The courtroom was small and not lavishly furnished. The former mess halls in the basement were converted into two large jail cells, nicknamed “Hell on the Border.”
The gallows at Fort Smith served as an instrument of federal justice for twenty-three years, from 1873-1896. During those years 86 men were executed for capital offenses on the gallows.
While the gallows that stands today is a reconstruction, visitors are still drawn to the place where these executions were conducted. Perhaps no other place in Fort Smith illicits such interest and strong feelings.
The gallows proper had their beginning in early August of 1873. The Fort Smith Weekly New Era of August 6, 1873, reported that “Captain C. E. Perry, U.S. Jailer has received orders to erect the gallows for the execution of prisoners sentenced to be hung here shortly.” The article also noted “the fatal structure may already be seen going up near the old powder magazine just inside the garrison walls.” The only other known description of the location of the first gallows was published in the New Era of August 20, 1873, which placed the scaffold “at the opposite end of the grounds near the magazine.”
The area in which the gallows stood was the southwestern corner of the five-sided fort. Each of the corners was to have been originally crowned with a blockhouse or bastion. When the fort’s role was changed in the 1840s from that of a frontier defense to a supply depot it was decided to utilize these sturdy foundations for more practical structures. Therefore the foundations of bastion #1 (Northwestern corner) were modified and a two-story stone commissary warehouse constructed upon them. The Southwestern bastion (#2) was later crowned with a very similar structure housing the quartermaster warehouse. In September of 1846, Colonel Arbuckle negotiated a contract which converted the southern blockhouse foundation (bastion #3) into a very sturdy magazine for the storage of munitions. It was against the face of this structure that the two successive gallows were constructed. In October of 1873, after the final closure of Fort Smith by the army, three commissioners appointed by the Secretary of Interior to appraise the buildings of the fort described the structure as follows:
Pentagonal (Magazine) Stone 2 faces 30 ft. 2 faces 20 ½ ft., one 15 ft. used for storage of powder belonging to citizens. Good condition. Valuation – $400
In September 1875, at the first execution carried out after Judge Parker’s arrival in Fort Smith, an extra edition of the Independent described the building and area: “In one corner of this wall stands an old pentagon-shaped building, with iron doors and pointed roof, built of solid masonry….”
By 1896, years of disuse had taken their toll, and a traveler reported that “the scaffold is on a line with the wall, and beyond is a grotto of heavy stone masonry 50 feet in diameter. This was once a bomb-proof magazine, but the top is now off and cavities in the masonry show where the big timber rested that supported the heavy roof of rock and earth.”
The 1873 gallows were described several times by various reporters. On September 3, 1875, an article in the Independent of Fort Smith described as follows:
In the jail yard in front of and close up to the old magazine is a strong platform about 20 feet square and 12 feet high, with a long trap door in the floor, swung on iron hinges for the
Over this about 10 feet higher, framed on upright posts and firmly braced, is a long rope beam with six ropes attached.
Another journalist wrote in the St. Louis Republican of September 4, 1875 this description of the gallows:
The scaffold upon which they will be executed has been erected at the south side of the old parade ground, right against the front of the old magazine. The structure is built of rough timbers. The cross-beam is a stout stick of hewed oak, supported on two upright posts, very strongly braced. The platform is about seven feet from the ground. The distance between the supporting posts is about twelve feet, giving nearly two feet space for the fall of each victim. The trap extends across the breadth of the platform, and consists of two pieces strongly hinged to the flooring of the platform so that they form a connection in the nature of a double door when closed from below. These are held in place when brought up by a stout beam of oak, extending in the direction of the gallows’ beam on which rest two arms firmly fastened to one flap of the door below. To this beam about the middle is secured an iron trigger bar about three feet long, well secured on the facing of the platform floor. By a movement of this lever back, the trigger bar which holds the trap in position is released and the doors drop down.
Some six years later, on September 7, 1881, a reporter from the Fort Smith Elevator visited the garrison and described the execution machinery as follows:
The scaffold stands eight feet above the ground. A stairway of 12 steps, 3 feet six inches in width, leads up the platform, which is 14 x 15. The trap is twelve feet long by three feet wide, and is so arranged as to give way in the center when sprung, each half being on hinges. The cross beam over head is seven feet two inches above the platform, and is of heavy timber. The ropes are so arranged as to give about six feet drop. A deep trench had been dug directly under the trap, so as to prevent the feet of the condemned from striking the ground.
Of the appurtenances of the gallows there is only limited evidence. It is known that the area adjacent to the gallows was fenced prior to the execution of John Postoak and James Diggs in 1878. The New Era of December 18, 1878, noted that, “the execution will be conducted in a private manner, the gallows being surrounded by a high board fence, which shuts out from public gaze the terrible scene which is to take place there.” The roof that formed a major feature of the second gallows either never became a part of the first gallows or was at best a very late addition. As late as 1881, during a September execution, it was noted that, “the condemned sat on a bench beneath an awing which shielded them from the boiling sun.” This only casually mentions the benches, which might, or might not have been an integral part of the gallows structure. Another feature of the gallows that was described in the years before Judge Parker and not subsequently, was a screen beneath the gallows. The August 20, 1873 New Era noted “at 1:40 p.m. John S. Childers was LAUNCHED INTO ETERNITY, the body disappearing with a heavy ‘thud’ behind the screen.” Coverage of a dual hanging two months later also mentions the screen, under what can be considered far darker circumstances; “After the drop had fallen the Officers, in order to allow the crowd to satisfy its appetite for the horrible, knocked down the sides of the under part of the gallows so that the bodies were exposed to full view as they hung from the ropes.” The first gallows operated for over a decade. The ‘U.S. Court Proceedings’ column in the Elevator for April 16, 1886 noted that, “the old gallows, upon which forty three men have been hung have been torn down and a new one put up where it stood. The old one had become rotten and dilapidated generally.”
“The new gallows is put up in a more neat and substantial manner than the old one was. The platform is 16 x 20 feet, supported by solid oak columns 12 x 12 inches square; the cross beam is of solid oak 9 x 11 inches 16 feet in the clear and rests on two upright columns of oak sixteen feet high, and about 12 x 12 inches square. The beam is braced on top by heavy timbers, the ends of which rest on the upright columns. The trap door is sixteen feet long and three feet wide. The drop is fully six feet.”
– Fort Smith Weekly Elevator, April 23, 1886
The new gallows was reportedly built by well-known Fort Smith craftsman, Martin Luther Stoufer. There is a wide spread tradition that the earlier gallows had a capacity of six men executed at one time, and that the new gallows was designed with a capability of executing twelve men at one time. The dimensions established for the 1886 gallows tend to dispute this, if a spacing of two feet per man is used.
On the night of April 24, 1886, the fence that enclosed the gallows was blown down and entirely demolished in a severe wind. U.S. Marshal Carroll not being opposed to public hangings, there was some doubt that the enclosure would be rebuilt. However, by the next execution the enclosure was back in place. When Marshal Carroll left his post in May 1889, it was noted that he “left to his successor a brand new gallows enclosure and new roof.” The article did not specify whether or not this was the first roof, or merely a replacement. A photograph of the courthouse and grounds taken prior to 1887 does not seem to indicate the presence of a roof on the gallows.
During the time in-between executions the gallows was used by the jail and court staff as a corral for horses and cattle. In fact, the official records of the federal court hardly make notice of the gallows structure, except in passing.
In the summer of 1896 the crossbeam of the gallows was replaced. A local newspaper described the event:
“Last Monday, Jailer Berry had the old cross beam of the gallows, on which so many men have been hung, removed and a new on(e) substituted in its place. The old beam upon removal was found to be rotten through and through, and it is a matter of wonder that it did not long ago break under one of the many strains to which it has been subjected. The condition of the beam was discovered by Mr. Eoff, the turnkey, about the time of the last execution, but not in time to replace it. When it was removed Monday it broke into several pieces as it fell to the ground. One end was sound, but the remainder was rotten to the core.”
Only six more men met their maker via the new beam, the last man on July 30, 1896.
The Gallows: 1897 to 1957
The gallows at best could be considered a crude device and was the source of much controversy even while it was in use. Frank Strong, General Agent of the Attorney General, noted in his Report of the Inspection of the Fort Smith Federal Jail that:
“The arrangements for executing criminals are crude and unsightly. Unless some reasons exist (certainly to me unknown) for preserving intact the rude appliance by means of which so many criminals have been executed, it should be replaced by a newer arrangement, decently enclosed, where those who are sentenced to death may meet their fate amid surroundings more suggestive of the sacredness and majesty of the law than are the weather scarred beams and boards now devoted to the purpose.”
Mr. Strong’s reactions were shared and amplified by the citizens of Fort Smith. They felt that the large number of executions occurring here had unjustly slandered their fair city. The newspapers were quick to point out that no one was ever sentenced there for a crime committed in Arkansas, much less in Fort Smith.
On September 1, 1896, the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas lost its jurisdiction over Indian Territory, rendering the gallows excess property. A congressional act on February 26, 1897 transferred the bulk of the property once used by the court, including the gallows, to the control of the city of Fort Smith. Former hangman and jail guard George Maledon approached the city council with a request to purchase the trapdoor from the gallows for use in his traveling display. While there is no record of the council’s reaction to this request, shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1897, the mayor of Fort Smith ordered that the gallows be dismantled and burned. The Weekly Elevator supported this action, stating, “this removes an object which, unsightly and gruesome as it might be, was, nevertheless an interesting one to strangers from abroad.” Shortly thereafter, the old fort wall at the site of the gallows was torn down, and Parker Avenue was extended through the location of the gallows enclosure. At the time the gallows was removed, a more romantic mind wrote these words to mark the end of the structure:
“The Passing of the Old Government Suspender: Fare thee well old gallows! Whether thou has been a necessity in the suppressing of crime, or whether thou art a lingering relic of the dark ages that has lapped over our modern civilization, remains to be decided by that divine tribunal before whose law must stand the mighty nations of the earth as well as their weakest subjects.”
After the wall surrounding the old fort was removed, the city of Fort Smith built streets through the grounds of the former garrison, and right through the location of the gallows. For over fifty years there was no trace of the gallows; it remained only as a memory.