The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 7, 2012

Frankie Meyer: Fort Smith’s vast history creates family destination

By Frankie Meyer
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The best way to get relatives and descendants interested in their family history is to organize trips to sites where ancestors lived, and to also visit historic sites that significantly affected their lives.  

Many of the earliest settlers in Southwest Missouri traveled from the St. Louis area down the Old Wire Road, also known as the Old Osage Trail or Military Trail. Few people know that thousands of families also traveled to the area via Fort Smith, Ark.

Early trappers and settlers reached Fort Smith by traveling from the Mississippi River up the Arkansas River. From that town, they traveled to Northwest Arkansas, Southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma.

During the 1830s, several groups of Native Americans were forced to travel along one leg of the Trail of Tears through the Fort Smith area on their way to the Indian Territory. The town provided the last chance for those Native American families to buy supplies before crossing into their new land.

Fort Smith developed around a fort that was built on a hill overlooking the Arkansas River. The fort was built to promote peace between tribes in that area. Later the fort was used as a training ground for soldiers who fought in the Mexican War.

During the Civil War, the fort was used as a supply depot. Between 1872 and 1896, the fort served as a site where the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas meted out punishments for heinous crimes of outlaws, many of whom had fled to the Indian Territory to avoid prosecution.

If any of your ancestry has ties to Fort Smith, plan a trip south through the scenic Ozark Mountains to the area. The Fort Smith National Historic Site, located downtown near the Arkansas River, has restored Judge Parker’s courthouse.

At the site, one can also see remnants of the original fort built in 1817. The Ft. Smith Museum of History, Fort Smith Trolley Museum and the Fort Smith National Cemetery are all nearby.

The trolley museum has restored electric streetcars that frequently take visitors on historic rides. The trolley line stops at the national cemetery, Ross Pendergraft Park, the FSTM rose garden and the parking lot of Varsity Sports Grill.

Motormen (including my husband Jim and our friend, John Shomin, who sometimes volunteer there) point out area attractions and historic sites. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children.

For more details, call the Fort Smith Trolley Museum at 479-783-0205 or the Fort Smith Museum of History at 479-783-7841. The Fort Smith Public Library, located at 3201 Rogers Ave., also has many historical and genealogical resources. Those interested may contact the library at 479-783-0229.

Suggestions or queries? Send to Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168, or contact: