Special Event at Fort Smith NHS Features Deputy U.S. Marshals, Light Horsemen and True Grit

Deputy Mashals in 1892
Deputy marshals posed for this photo in 1892. Photo courtesy of Fort Smith National Historic Site.

A special event at Fort Smith National Historic Site on April 10 will offer the chance to interact with historical characters portraying U.S. Deputy Marshals and Chickasaw Light Horsemen. Tours of the jails, the gallows and Judge Parker's courtroom plus a photo op with a reproduction 1890 jail wagon will be followed by an outdoor screening of the movie True Grit.

Fort Smith National Historic Site has a colorful history spanning the years 1817-1896, and the stories that can be told at the park includes quite a cast of characters: soldiers, laundresses, Native Americans, federal judges and marshals, deputy marshals, jail guards, lawyers, outlaws and ordinary citizens.

The park includes the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Judge Isaac C. Parker, known as the "hanging judge," presided over the court for 21 years.

This was a busy place during the court's heyday. According to the park,

The Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas employed over a thousand men, and a few women, between the years 1872-1896. While the majority of the men were sworn in as Deputy U.S. Marshals, others served as jailers, court clerks, bailiffs, guards, posse, jail physicians, US Commissioners, and U.S. Marshals.

An impressive list of free programs will be offered at the park on Saturday, April 10, and they highlight several of the key groups in the area's history.

Throughout the day, living historians will portray the dangers and hardships faced by U. S. Deputy Marshals and Chickasaw Light Horsemen encamped in Indian Territory.

Special vignettes will be offered on the hour beginning at 10:00 a.m. and ending at 4:00 p.m. to tell the story of three individuals found guilty of murder in Judge Isaac C. Parker’s court in 1889. Each tour is limited to 30 individuals on a first come first serve basis. Participants will be guided through both jails, the courtroom, and the gallows, allowing visitors a chance to interact with the historical characters.

Everyone is welcome to visit the U. S. Deputy Marshal and the Chickasaw Light Horse encampments, which will be open to the public from 10 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. In honor of the 60 known deputies who died in the line of duty, the park’s Walk of Honor will be on display in their memory.

Activities will continue well into the evening. The park has just received a reproduction of the 1890 jail wagon that transported prisoners from the jail to the Sixth Street courtroom.

From 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. the public is invited to experience the wagon from a prisoners view. A uniformed guard will prepare visitors for transport and a local park partner, Bedford's Camera and Video, will capture an image of the experience for visitors—at no charge. The jail wagon will remain on permanent display at the park.

John Wayne fans are already acquainted with a character associated with Fort Smith. The movie True Grit features the adventures of Rooster Cogburn, a fictitious deputy marshal from Judge Parker’s court. This classic movie is currently being remade for release in December, and the 1969 version of the film will be shown outdoors at the park at 7:45 p.m. If you'd like to see the movie, the park staff encourages you to bring blankets and lawn chairs and be prepared for cooler temperatures.

Fort Smith National Historic Site is located in downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas, along the Arkansas River. To access the parking lot from Garrison or Rogers Avenue, turn south on 4th Street and right on Garland Avenue. The park website includes additional information to help you plan a visit, including driving directions to the site.