About 13 years ago, when I was living in northwest Arkansas, I was excited to hear about plans for a U.S. Marshals Museum, which was going to be built in Fort Smith.
I thought the idea of having a U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith was brilliant. As you may already know, Fort Smith was the wild frontier and the final civilized outpost before you entered the Indian Territory in the 1800s.
Established in 1817 as a military post, the town served as the Butterfield Overland Mail’s 7th Divsion Center in the 1850s, part of the Butterfield Company’s mail route from Memphis to Texas.
But Fort Smith’s most notable resident, when it comes to the history of the West and Arkansas, was Judge Isaac Parker.
Parker served as U.S. District Judge from 1875 to 1896.
He was nicknamed the “Hanging Judge” partly because during his first term as judge, he tried 18 people for murder, convicted 15 of them, and sentenced eight of them to die.
Six of these men were later hanged on the same day.
Over the course of his career in Fort Smith, Parker sentenced 160 people to death, according to Wikipedia. Of those, 79 were executed on the gallows.
Parker also had some notorious U.S. deputy marshals patroling the Indian Territory for him.
Famous outlaws and criminals sentenced by Judge Parker include the Cook Gang, Cherokee Bill and Belle Starr.
Some of the most well-known deputy marshals served in the Western District of Arkansas – Bass Reeves, Heck Thomas, Zeke Proctor, Frank Dalton and Addison Beck, to name a few.
During the 19th century, fugitives often fled to Indian Territory, which is now known as Oklahoma, in an effort to escape prosecution.
Catching these criminals was a dangerous assignment for the U.S. deputy marshals, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Consequently, there are more deputy and special deputy marshals buried in the Fort Smith region than anywhere else in the nation.
From 1851 to 1896, the Western District held jurisdiction over 13 counties and all or parts of the Indian Territory. The history of Fort Smith is intricately connected to the U.S. Marshals Service, and, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Fort Smith was once known as “Hell on the Border.”
During Judge Parker’s tenure, more than 65 deputies died in the line of duty.
In fact, Parker’s courthouse is now marked as a National Historic Site, where “more men were put to death by the U.S. Government ... than in any other place in American history.”
At the Fort Smith Historic Site you can visit a recreation of Parker’s famous gallows.
The gallows served as an instrument of federal justice for 23 years, from 1873 to 1896. During those years, 86 men were executed for capital offenses.
While the gallows that stands today is a reconstruction, visitors are still drawn to the place where these executions were conducted, according to the National Parks Service website.
Even as a recreation, the gallows, rigged to allow six hangings at once, is an eerie site.
And of course, Fort Smith is the setting of Arkansas’ most celebrated novel, “True Grit,” which introduced the most famous fictional U.S. deputy marshal of all, Rooster Cogburn.
All of that combined makes Fort Smith the perfect place for a U.S. Marshals Museum. The only problem is, the museum still hasn’t been built.
The $50 million museum is being funded by donations from foundations, businesses and individuals.
“Unlike other museums that have a single underwriting patron, this Museum is being funded by many – many generous foundations, people and businesses that want to make a significant impact on Fort Smith and the surrounding region, provide continuing civic education, and create a lasting legacy to brave men and women of the United States Marshals,” states the museum’s website, usmmuseum.org.
Set on the banks of the Arkansas River, the U.S. Marshals Museum is housed in a facility named the Mary Carleton and Robert A. Young III Building.
The 53,000-square-foot building was finished in the fall of 2019. The museum features a unique exterior with a modified star-shaped design signifying the star badge worn by courageous U.S. Marshals, according to the website.
“Inside, five immersive galleries will educate guests about the critical, ever-evolving role the Marshals have played in upholding the Rule of Law, driven by justice, integrity and service,” the museum website states.
“The Museum’s National Learning Center will combine the Museum experience with education programming focused on the Constitution, the Rule of Law and civic literacy. It will engage local and national audiences using a variety of resources,” according to the website.
Guests will also get to pay tribute to the more than 350 Marshals killed in the line of duty since 1789 by visiting the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor.
The Mary Carleton and Robert A. Young III Building and the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor were dedicated on Sept. 24, 2019, marking the 230th anniversary of the creation of the United States Marshals Service.
The museum hasn’t opened its doors yet, and a spokesperson for the museum said Thursday the museum has $13 million left to raise in the current capital campaign, with focus on $8 million of that amount, which will allow a soft opening of the museum in late 2021.
Meanwhile, the museum has been hosting virtual events, and you can follow them on the museum’s Facebook page.
As a big fan of all things Western, I personally can’t wait for the museum to open for real. If you’re also a Western or history buff, visit the website, usmmuseum.org, and make a donation.
Also be sure to visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site if you haven’t already. It’s a national park, so it’s closed presently due to the coronavirus, but when things return to normal, it’s worth a visit.