Like many frequent travelers, we have a list of destinations that we hope to visit in our lifetimes. Every once in a while, we will discover one that has flown below our radar. This was the case for Fort Smith, Arkansas. The city’s slogan is “Where the New South meets the Old West”. It is one of the largest cities in Arkansas, with around 90,000 residents. Its position along the Oklahoma border meant that it was on the edge of the Western Frontier. While the days of the wild west are long gone, the city has worked hard at preserving the past.
We want to thank Experience Fort Smith for hosting our visit. rest assured all opinions are our own.
To get a true taste of the past, we have to transport our minds back to a time when Arkansas was the western edge of the United States. By the end of the 1800s, Fort Smith was a bustling town that had already seen more action than many cities ever will. The Indian Removal of the 1830s had seen the Five Civilized Tribes relocated to Oklahoma Territory. By the end of the Civil War, the town had become a launching point for outlaws to escape U.S. law by escaping into Indian Territory. President Grant appointed Judge Isaac Parker to bring justice to the area. His deputy marshals not only patrolled Arkansas but often ventured into Oklahoma Territory to bring outlaws back to court.
The city’s brothels and saloons made it a popular border town. During the early 1900s, the city not only legalized but regulated prostitution in an area called the Row District. At its height, there were seven “row houses” near the river. A catastrophic fire destroyed all but one, which today is used as the city’s visitor center. Our first stop in Fort Smith was at Miss Laura’s for a short education about how the city is preserving the past. Today it is the only former bordello, in Arkansas, on the National Register of Historic Places.
During our visit to Miss Laura’s Visitor Center, we spotted a nefarious character from the past. A local actress was decked out like Belle Starr who hailed from Carthage, Missouri. Born with the name Myra Belle Shirley, her parents were well-to-do and provided their daughter lessons in a life of style. In the meantime, her older brother Bud taught her to ride a horse and handle a gun. The calamities of the Civil War caused the family to pack up and move to Texas. In 1866, members of the James-Younger Gang fled to Texas after robbing a bank in Liberty, Missouri. This would allow the chance meeting of Myra and Cole Younger, who would capture the girl’s attention.
Preserving the Past
She met Jim Reed, her first husband, and they had a daughter named Rosie Lee. Belle adored the child and nicknamed her “Pearl”. Jim turned outlaw and Belle assumed the role of “Bandit Queen”. After Jm was gunned down by a member of his own gang, Belle fell in with a Cherokee outlaw named Sam Starr. It would be Belle Starr who would be the brains behind a new gang. The daring couple were caught red-handed in the act of horse rustling and were brought before Judge parker in Fort Smith. Previous attempts at convicting her had failed due to a lack of evidence. This time the charges stuck and the couple wound up in a federal prison in Detroit. This seemed to do the trick and Belle would live a relatively calm lifestyle after release.
As we continued our tour at Miss Laura’s, we noted an abundance of interesting artifacts. Many of these are period pieces that would have been commonplace during the early 1900s. One of the most unique pieces was a replica of the tokens that were used by the bordello. Serving as patron currency, they would be exchanged for “one favor” at Miss Laura’s.
Getting Our Bearings
Now that we had our bearings, we were ready to explore downtown Fort Smith. The city has seen other infamous characters, such as Bonnie and Clyde, who hid out during their outlaw days. While our plans were to remain on the right side of the law, we now knew that this city has drawn in all kinds of visitors. These days Fort Smith is in a transition period, much like many Midwest cities. It is working to rebrand itself, while still preserving the past that includes so much rich history.