Fort Smith to house U.S. Marshals Museum

May 7-13, 2018

By Jay Edwards


Scheduled to open in Fort Smith in late September of 2019, the United States Marshals Museum will tell the story of the men and women of the Wild West, and the peacekeepers who came to be when President Washington signed the Judiciary Act Of 1789, during the nation’s First Congressional Congress.


The new museum promises to showcase the Marshal’s colorful history, through recollections of courage and sacrifice that will give a sense of what life was like in the new frontier. What follows is a small piece of that history.


Fort Smith’s chapter of the story began nearly three decades after that first Congress, in the fall of 1817, when General Andrew Jackson ordered Major Stephen H. Long to travel west to the area that in two years would become the Arkansas Territory. Long’s mission was to end hostilities between the Osage and Cherokee tribes, and also to map out and build the first Fort Smith, in the place where the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers converged, an area known as Belle Point.


In December of the same year, General Thomas Smith in St. Louis, ordered Major William Bradford to lead Company A’s Rifle Regiment to assist Long.


Bradford, along with sixty-four of his men, arrived on Christmas Day, and soon were at work building the new fort.


Balthazar Kramer


The progress went well, but this was the frontier, where hardship and illness were commonplace. One example of that concerned a soldier under Bradford’s command, a man named Balthazar Kramer.


The son of German immigrants, Kramer was born in Maryland in 1779. When he was 18, his family moved to Pennsylvania where his father started a glass factory.


It was there that young Balthazar met Elizabeth Ingles and the two married in 1800. They had eight children.


Early in Bradford’s expedition, Kramer contracted a disease and had to be hospitalized. Dysentery, pneumonia, and fevers were common at the time, however Kramer’s malady remained a mystery. Even though he was still two years away from the end of his enlistment period, the Army discharged him early, but he was too weak to return to his home back east, and was allowed to remain at the post.


Bradford wrote the War Department, explaining the situation and that he would not release Kramer, fearing that the trip home would surely kill him. He wrote that the illness was “not from old age or intemperance,” and also that Kramer was too sick to “earn a living while in the duty of the US Army,” and that he should be “as much entitled to the bounty of the government as if he had lost an arm or a leg in battle.”


On October 12, 1822, Kramer wrote Elizabeth that he wasn’t improving. His one wish was to see her and the children again, but feared his illness made that impossible. “The bank was broke and I have no hopes of getting any money,” he wrote. He also explained that he had sent money enough to hire a man to take him to the mouth of the Arkansas but the water was too low for boats to travel on the river.


Sergeant Kramer died at the post on December 5, 1823 without ever being able to return home. The cause of his death, written on the certificate, was arthritis. His widow Elizabeth was still trying to obtain a pension from the U.S. government three decades after her husband’s passing.


Trail of Tears


For the two decades after 1830, a systematic removal by force of Native Americans from their homes in the southeast took place. Signed off on and encouraged by President Andrew Jackson, and later Martin Van Buren, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people were robbed of their land and homes and relocated farther west, forced to march to their destinations, accompanied by state and local militias.


Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831:

“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered. I could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.” - Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”


Nearly 17,000 Choctaws made that move to what would be called Native American Territory and then later Oklahoma. Estimates are as many as 6,000 died along what would become known as the “trail of tears.”


This new territory became home to not only law-abiding Native Americans, but also ruthless and desperate criminals trying to hide out from U.S. law. But while the Native Americans had their own tribal courts and tribal police, there was no jurisdiction over cases involving non-Native Americans.


Deputy United States Marshals from Fort Smith were sent into the Native American Territory to find and arrest those individuals who were to be tried by the federal court in Fort Smith. But with only around 200 men covering a territory of over 74,000 square miles, it was a difficult job.


The hanging judge


“I have ever had the single aim of justice in view... ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’” - Judge Isaac C. Parker, 1896


Born to farmers in Ohio in 1838, Isaac Parker decided early on that the plow was not the life for him, choosing instead law school at the age of 17. After passing the bar in 1859, he went to work for his uncle in St. Joseph, Missouri, where his career in politics began when he ran for and won the position of city attorney.


It would lead him eventually to a seat in the US Congress, where, during his second term, he put most of his effort into Native American policy and the fair treatment of the tribes that were living in the Native American Territory. It was after that term that he began to seek a presidential appointment as judge of the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith. President Ulysses S. Grant, on March 18, 1875, granted Parker’s wish.


He stepped foot in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, and held his first court six days later. In his first term, he found eight men guilty of murder. Six of them died on September 3, 1875, on the gallows at Fort Smith.


Parker held court six days a week, each day often lasting up to ten hours each, in order to try as many cases as possible. For twenty-one years he held the position, during which time he heard thousands of criminal complaints involving disputes and violence between Native americans and non-Native Americans. He sentenced 160 people to death, and for fourteen years he did so while the condemned had no right of appeal.


Marshal Bass Reeves


One of Parker’s first deputy hires was a former slave from Texas named Bass Reeves. Proficient with a pistol and rifle, he stood six feet two and had superhuman strength. He was known as the marshal who could catch the bandits others couldn’t, supposedly killing 14 men in self defense and claiming to have arrested over 3000 men and women.


In the late 1800’s, the Native American and Oklahoma Territory was the most dangerous place in the land. More than 120 peace officers lost their lives before Oklahoma became a state in 1907.


Bass Reeves escaped numerous assassination attempts on his life, he was the most feared deputy U.S. marshal to work the Native American Territory. He even arrested his own son, Bennie, for the murder of his wife. Bennie was convicted and sent to Leavenworth.


Another time he was sent to arrest Belle Starr, but she turned herself in to the Fort Smith Court before Reeves found her. His legend grew as one of the greatest lawmen of the western frontier. Bass Reeves died on January 12, at the age of 71, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.


See other legends like Judge Parker and Bass Reeves when the museum opens in 2019. It will be easy to spot. It will be the only museum in the area with the star shape, which architect Peter Kuttner says his inspiration came from one of the last scenes in the classic western, “High Noon,” when U.S. Marshal Will Kane tosses his badge to the ground at the feet of the cowardly townspeople. “It hits at an angle, with some of the points jutting out of the ground,” Kuttner said, explaining why his design is “low on the front, and high on the back.”


Sources: National Park Service, Arkansas Encyclopedia Of History and Culture, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Marshals Museum  




Iconic in design and transformative in experience, the United States Marshals Museum will be a 50,000 square foot world-class facility on the banks of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith, Ark. (Renderings courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Museum, created by Thinkwell)