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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fort Smith History Defined by the Arkansas River

Old fort remains overlooking river

The Arkansas River begins its journey in Colorado and flows through Kansas and Oklahoma before it reaches Arkansas, where it finally flows into the Mississippi.

Many cities along the way can trace their history to the Arkansas, which is the sixth-longest river in the US. It is the second-largest tributary of the Mississippi. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase brought it into the US.
Fort Smith began as a military post at Belle Point, the junction of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. The 1817 post overlooked Belle Point and the Oklahoma Territory across the river. Although the original fort closed in 1824, the Army moved back in in 1838 to supervise the ending point of the Federal government’s Cherokee and Choctaw resettlement policies. Known as the Trail of Tears, the forced journey left thousands dead along the way.

As I stood at the overlook, my heart ached for all those who made the march and those who never completed it. I had recently visited a Cherokee campsite in Pulaski County, Missouri, ( and learned about the various routes the government chose. I didn’t know until Fort Smith, that removal by river was also a major route. In any case, thousands suffered the loss of their homes and history.
Cherokee Nation

While some of the Cherokee stayed in and around Fort Smith, the majority moved on the Oklahoma territory. The Cherokee Nation is now centered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (

Today, the Fort Smith National Historic Site maintains the grounds where only the foundations of the old fort remain. When you visit, take the time to walk the trails – to the overlook of the fort and Belle Point. Then walk down to the Trail of Tears overlook at the river’s edge.  It’s not a history to take pride in, but it is a part of our heritage that we need to know, part of the 19th-century belief in Manifest Destiny.

Just over 60 years later, Fort Smith played a major role as a starting point in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, which provided the race-to-claim-land settlement of the territory.

During this period the Federal government appointed Fort Smith as a Federal District, determined to bring law and order to the town and the Wild West. That’s another story for another day!

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