FORT SMITH, Ark. — In a way, my connections to the West are more real than my Southern roots would suggest.
I’m certainly no native to New Mexico, though I’ve lived here more than 10 years now. I was born and raised in Arkansas, a southern state with a western tinge—especially here in the city where I survived high school, the “Hell on the Border” town of Fort Smith.
Last week, with the help of an audio book, I made good time to the state of my birth, where my family’s annual Thanksgiving get-together awaited. I made it from Roswell to Fort Smith in less than 10 hours, not by speeding (much) but by getting caught up in the book—appropriately titled “On The Road” (by Jack Kerouac)—enough to minimize my stops along the way.
The next morning, before continuing my trip into the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas, I went for a walk through the streets of downtown Fort Smith, where I was so at home so many years ago.
I even walked into Oklahoma by way of the bridge that connects Fort Smith to what was once known as Indian Territory—which brought back memories, not of old Indian battles but of my running days, when my best buddy and I used to run across the Arkansas River bridge, in our stocking feet, partly for cross-country training but mostly just for the hell of it.
Oh for those days of youthful health and fitness… but I digress.
On last week’s walk, I passed by the old federal courthouse where Isaac Parker once ruled with a vengeance in the latter years of the 19th century.
Founded in 1817 as a military outpost, Fort Smith had become more of a wild-west town than a southern one by the 1870s, full of saloons and brothels and more than its share of outlaws, when Judge Parker arrived on the scene to establish some semblance of law and order. After taking the bench in 1875, Parker began to try, convict and sentence to death scores of men. In September of that year, he ordered six men to be hanged at the same time, and his career as the “hanging judge” was off and running.
Over 21 years as federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas, Parker sentenced 156 men and four women to death by hanging—about half of whom died at the courthouse gallows—in an effort to bring law and order to what was part of the American West at that time.
During Parker’s reign, Fort Smith was a launching point of sorts for entering into Indian Territory, an area settled by southeastern tribes who were forced on the Trail of Tears marches, in which thousands upon thousands died, across Southern states including Arkansas. That’s why there are so many Native Americans of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creeks and other tribes that are living in the state of Oklahoma we know today.
It was a rough, tough time in American history, and one that helped shape, for better and worse, the American West we know today. For his part, Judge Parker, a religious man, believed in a vengeful God, and carried out God’s wrath with great acumen.
From the perspective of those times, that had a “civilizing” effect not only on the lawlessness so common in those days in Fort Smith, but also on the western reaches of an expanding nation. It can still be found in the mindsets of many westerners today, who believe in God and guns more than just about anything else.
I’ve felt such a heritage in Roswell, where law and order and God and the Second Amendment have become prerequisites for holding political office. That’s not always the prevailing view culturally, but at least politically, southeastern New Mexico is more akin to the South of my upbringing than to the wild-west folklore of yesteryear.
Maybe the runs into Oklahoma during my adolescence whetted my appetite for such things, though it would be years before I’d move out of the South and into the West, and even more years before I’d begin to understand, in a small way, why the American West, and particularly the Southwest, is what it is today.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.