French trappers called this spot, where the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers meet, "Belle Point," a beautiful place.
But for thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee Creek Indians, Fort Smith was the end of a long Trail of Tears.
At Fort Smith National Historic Site, you can walk three-quarters of a mile along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to the Trail of Tears Overlook. Here, more than 46,000 American Indians crossed the river into Oklahoma, completing their forced relocation from Georgia and Florida. Tens of thousands died en route.
Two forts actually stood on this site. The foundation of the first, built in 1817, is visible at Belle Point. Of the second Fort Smith, built from 1839 to 1846, the parade grounds, commissary, and storehouse remain.
In the 1850s, the second floor of the warehouse also served as the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Here, Judge Isaac C. Parker sentenced 160 rapists and murderers to death, earning the nickname the “Hanging Judge.” Less violent criminals won time in the basement jail, known as “Hell on the Border.”
Fort Smith National Historic Site is a good place to contemplate the concept of justice as it was practiced on the American frontier.