Fort Smith celebrated its 200th birthday Christmas Day with a re-enactment of the U.S. Army landing at Belle Point — complete with volunteer actors singing "Amazing Grace" as they arrived on a keelboat at the National Historic Site.
"If you were to go on Google and search 'early Fort Smith military history,' you might find something like the following: 'On Christmas Day 1817, a group of soldiers arrived and established a fort at Belle Point," said Michael Groomer, park ranger at the National Historic Site. "They named it Fort Smith in honor of Gen. Thomas Smith, commander of the U.S. Army Rifle Regiment. Gen. Smith never actually visited the fort named after him. The soldiers remained there for about seven years before abandoning the fort and moving farther into Indian territory to establish other forts.'"
But that doesn't quite get across the human story of what happened, he said.
Fifty-seven men, some of whom were snipers in the War of 1812, were recruited out of South Carolina. Four women, who washed and mended clothes and made soap, were also on the trip.
"Belle Point and the surrounding area offered abundant hardwood trees and wildlife — and not much else," Groomer said. "When they arrived, there was nothing here. The soldiers had to quickly go about the business of making shelters, finding food and setting up camp. Little did they know that it would be over a year before they would receive supplies or paychecks. As beautiful as Belle Point was, it was also in the middle of a war zone, which is what brought them here to begin with. Their mission was to establish peace between the Osage, a well-established tribe that had lived in the area for many many years, and the Cherokee, who had been slowly moving into the area."
The re-enactment marks the beginning of a yearlong Bicentennial Celebration with events planned all throughout 2018.
Several of the re-enactors were members of volunteer organization Friends of the Fort.
Re-enactor Tom Wing is a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and is the director of the university-owned Drennen-Scott Historic Site.
"I worked here as a park ranger," he said at the National Historic Site.
Re-enactor Greg Hall, who was born and raised in Fort Smith, said he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
"We were on the river for a little over an hour. It was a little cool, but not too bad."
The keelboat was built by the Early Arkansaw Reenactors Association and launched in 2004.