Last year I had the opportunity to drive through Fort Smith, Arkansas. Perhaps “fly through” would be a better description, for I didn’t have enough time to actually explore the historical sites. However, I was able to convince my husband to slow down and cruise through the parking lot next to the old fort for a few pictures.
Fort Smith is located at a place originally known as Belle Point. It became a possession of the United States at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. When soldiers and traders pushed into the vast wilderness of the West in the early 1800's, they discovered a beautiful spot at the junction of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers.
The French explorers and traders, at a time when French territory extended west from the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, called this slate projection and its surrounding area Belle Point. It was a trading spot for the French with the native Caddo and Wichita people until Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
The city began as a western frontier military post in 1817 and would later become well known for its role in the settling of the wild West and its law enforcement heritage.
Soon after, the Pike Expedition (1806) explored the Arkansas River. Fort Smith was founded in 1817 as a military post. A stockade was built and occupied, from 1817 until 1822, by a small troop of regulars commanded by Major William Bradford. Around the fort a small settlement began forming, but the Army abandoned the first Fort Smith in 1824 and moved 80 miles further west to Fort Gibson. Army sutler and land speculator John Rogers bought up former government-owned lands and promoted growth of the new civilian town of Fort Smith, eventually influencing the federal government to re-establish a military presence at Fort Smith during the era of Indian Removal and the Mexican War.
In 1819 naturalist Thomas Nuttall visited the site of the new American fort being built there. He said the view from the point was, "... more commanding and picturesque, than any other spot of equal elevation on the banks of the Arkansas."
The 1936 historical marker at Belle Point reads:
In 1817 the first Fort Smith was built at Belle Point at the junction of the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers by Major William Bradford, for mutual protection of the pioneers and Indians. He was in command until 1822. It was named in honor of Bridadier General Thomas A. Smith.
The water level is much higher today because of the lock and dam system put on the Arkansas in the 1960's and 70's to make it a navigable waterway. Originally, the bluff at the left would have been about twenty feet above the river.
Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels.
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Fort Smith, Arkansas Wikipedia