Sun Hasn't Set on Fort Smith's Western History, Heritage

Like El Paso or Dodge City, Fort Smith is one of those city names closely associated with the Old West. The city was founded near a military post, named after an army general who commissioned the fort to be built in 1817, but never made it down from St. Louis to see it for himself.

Its name was made famous in the latter half of the 19th century as a notorious border town, the last stop before Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and the lawlessness that laid to the west. True stories of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and fictional stories as depicted in novels like Charles Portis’ “True Grit” kept not just the name, but the heritage of Fort Smith alive into the 20th century.

The gallows and bordellos have long since closed, but visitors interested in the history of the Old West are still coming to Fort Smith. The Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission decided long ago that “branding” (a word also with its Western roots) the community as one that prized its colorful and historic frontier past would attract tourists to enjoy the local hospitality.

Slogans such as “Fun on the Frontier” and “Live the History” invited visitors to explore Fort Smith’s past while enjoying the many features that made the city an economical and family friendly destination. The current slogan “Where the New South meets the Old West” touts Fort Smith’s place as the second-largest city in a very Southern state and still pays tribute to its frontier heritage.

The “Frontier” brand was a natural for Fort Smith since so much of the community embraced its history, anchored by the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the Fort Smith Museum of History, the Fort Smith Trolley Museum and even the Fort Smith National Cemetery. The tourism industry coined a phrase in more recent years for what Fort Smith had been involved with for years, called “Cultural Heritage Tourism.” The official definition is “…traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes irreplaceable historic, cultural and natural resources.”

Over the years, attractions intended for the local population to enjoy, like the Bonneville House, the Clayton House, the Belle Grove Historic District and even the Park at West End also provided an important benefit of entertaining visitors and helping to attract them to the River Valley. The two versions of the movie “True Grit” and the naming of Fort Smith as the future home of the United States Marshals Service national museum have done much to solidify and expand the Fort Smith tourism brand.

The brand has led to Fort Smith being recognized in 2013 as a “Top Ten True Western Town” by True West Magazine, a designation “given to towns that have made an important contribution to preserving their Old West heritage.”