#1 Fort Smith, Arkansas
Location is everything in real estate. It’s also pretty darned important in history.
The western Arkansas town of Fort Smith sits tucked in a bend of the Arkansas River, up against the border of what was once the Indian Territory, on the very edge of the Wild West.
Its proximity to those lawless and unsettled lands shaped the history and people of Fort Smith in a way that still fires the imagination, which is why this town is not only a prime destination for Old West enthusiasts, but also the top True Western town of 2013.
Last year was a banner year for Fort Smith and its 86,000 residents:
• Nearly one million people visited Fort Smith.
• The town dedicated Harold T. Holden’s statue of legendary lawman Bass Reeves, who brought around 3,000 fugitives to justice over the course of his career. This year is the 175th anniversary of the birth of the former slave, who was one of the first, if not the first, blacks to serve as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River.
• The town marked the 140th anniversary of the federal courthouse where Isaac C. Parker (a.k.a. the hanging judge) dispensed justice for more than two decades.
• Restoration work continues at Fort Smith National Historic Site.
• Plans for the U.S. Marshals Museum, awarded to the town in 2007, proceed apace.
Looking ahead, this year, the Fort Smith historic site will offer visitors an exhibit on the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears, the forcible removal of Cherokee Indians begun in 1838.
With strong community backing, Fort Smith boasts an impressive array of historical buildings for us to enjoy.
The former bordello known as Miss Laura’s Social Club, a lovely two-story Victorian-style “hotel” on Front Street, was the first such structure to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now the town’s visitors center.
Visitors can experience Fort Smith’s Victorian-era digs at the Clayton House, built in the 1850s and remodeled in 1882.
The Fort Smith historic site holds a wealth of fascinating items. Popular attractions include the replica of the Fort Smith gallows, a fully restored courtroom of Judge Parker’s and an early frontier jail known as “Hell on the Border.”
Firearms enthusiasts will enjoy the assortment of Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles on display at the site, along with a shotgun stamped “Wells and Fargo.” Some of those weapons are reputed to have belonged to frontier characters such as Nathaniel Reed (a.k.a. Texas Jack) and George “Prince of Hangmen” Maledon.
The fort is also a great place to glean information on some of the region’s infamous outlaws (Belle Starr, Bill Doolin, Cherokee Bill and Ned Christie) and renowned lawmen (Heck Thomas, Frank Dalton and Bass Reeves).
The Fort Smith Museum of History, located in the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building, has been the keeper and teller of the town’s history for over a century. It, too, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Citizens celebrate the town’s history through events such as the birthday party for Judge Parker every October (don’t miss the shoot-out!), the Heritage Festival and the fall Murder & Mayhem Trolley Tour fundraiser.
We can see why the U.S. Marshals Museum picked Fort Smith as its future home. This town already does such an awe-inspiring job of sharing its historic role in peace keeping that we can’t wait to see how the museum shares the history of the U.S. Marshals Service from its inception in 1789 up to the present.
For now, though, folks have plenty of Old West heritage they should honor in Fort Smith. This town truly deserves our highest accolades.