Clayton seventh-grade GEAR UP students recently visited the Fort Smith National Historic Site in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Students viewed a short film about the history of the area and the fort.
Following the film, students went on a tour of the museum led by John Hagan, historian and docent. The first stop on tour was the prison nicknamed “Hell on the Border.” Students learned about the unpleasant living conditions that were found in prison and about how difficult life was for the prisoners. Hagan then gave students a short history lesson over the area and the relationship that existed between the whites and the Native American tribes in the area and the need for the original fort. He also explained the need for a court in the area for law and order to be maintained.
The Clayton students continued up the stairs to the exhibits that included clothing, guns, pictures, and even a hangman’s noose from the time. Students were given another short lesson about the criminals that spent time in Ft. Smith including the Starrs; Crawford Goldsby, a.k.a. Cherokee Bill; and the Rufus Buck Gang. Also highlighted were US Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves and George Maledon, who was chief executioner during Judge Isaac C. Parker’s time on the bench at Ft. Smith.
Also located upstairs is a replica of the jail cells where prisoners were housed after “Hell on the Border” was no longer used. Prisoners were kept in three levels of cells depending on the crimes for which they were convicted. The jail cells were not pleasant, but still an improvement over the larger mass incarceration of everyone in one place that they had to know before.
Students ended their tour in Judge Parker’s courtroom where they sat in the trial area of the courtroom where the lawyers, defendants, jurors, court personnel, and the judge would have sat during the time of its use. Students had a lesson in court procedure and the arrangement of the court, including who sat where and why. Students ended their time on the tour as well as in the courtroom with a question and answer session.
“Taking our students to the Fort Smith Historical Site gives them a glimpse of history and allows it to come to life,” said GEAR UP Education Coordinator LaDonna Baldwin.
The field trip was sponsored by Eastern Oklahoma State College GEAR UP. Participating schools take two field trips each academic year—one to tour a college or university and one that is cultural/educational in nature. In 2017, Eastern received a $17 million federal GEAR UP grant and serves over 3,000 students in 39 area schools for seven years.