Cherokee history along the western frontier

By Krystan Moser
on March 29, 2018

On Dec. 25, 1817, Major William Bradford and 64 men of the Rifle Regiment, Company A, landed at Belle Point, in what would become the state of Arkansas. Bradford and his men established the first Fort Smith there.

The area was initially part of the Osage tribe’s traditional hunting territory. European-Americans began settling the area following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By that time, as many as 2,000 to 4,000 Cherokees were living in the area. In 1808, the Osage ceded lands in southern Missouri and northwest Arkansas as part of the Treaty of Fort Clark. As a result, conflicts developed between the Osage and the Cherokees living in the area. This led to the establishment of Fort Smith in 1817 as part of an effort to maintain peace between the tribes. The location of this post, however, was too far removed from the hostilities. Colonel Matthew Arbuckle, new commander of the post, moved the troops northwest up the Arkansas River to establish Fort Gibson in 1824.

By 1838, a new garrison was built at Fort Smith. Congress authorized the reoccupation and enlargement of the military post at Fort Smith. Several detachments of eastern tribes, including the Cherokee, traveled through the area during the Trail of Tears.


(Commissary Building at Fort Smith, ca. 1933. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress.)

In September 1865, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dennis N. Cooley met with representatives of 13 Native American tribes at Fort Smith to formally reestablish relations between the tribes and the federal government in the aftermath of the Civil War. This became known as the Fort Smith Council, or the Indian Council. The projected goal of this commission was to negotiate treaties of peace with the tribes, but in exchange the federal government wanted land and a unified government for all of Indian Territory. Commissioner Cooley set forth a number of stringent requirements for these new treaties, thus setting the stage for the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866.


(Cherokee Nation Principal Chief John Ross, ca. 1850. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief John Ross was among a number of delegates from Indian Territory present at the Fort Smith Council in 1865. Image courtesy of the Daguerreotype Collection of the Library of Congress.)

In 1872, Fort Smith became the home of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The barracks were converted to a courthouse, offices for officials and a jail. The court had jurisdiction over Indian Territory (as well as a portion of Arkansas) since tribal courts in Indian Territory held no jurisdiction over non-Indian settlers. This legal loophole gave an advantage to a number of outlaws, and the federal court sought to bring these offenders to justice. The court at Fort Smith is best known for Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, also known as the “Hanging Judge.” During his tenure, Judge Parker heard thousands of criminal complaints involving disputes between Natives and non-Natives in Indian Territory. The court’s authority was removed in 1896 due to the imminent dismantling of the tribal court systems.

Fort Smith, while just outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, played an active role in Cherokee history. For nearly 80 years, the fort served at times as a peacekeeper, a refuge, a catalyst for change and a center for justice. The Fort Smith National Historic Site became a National Historic Landmark in 1960. In 1966, it was added to the National Register for Historic Places. In 1987, the area was designated as part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. If you would like to learn more about the history of Fort Smith, please visit the fort or its website, https://www.nps.gov/fosm/index.htm.