Enacting the frontier

by Daniel Maher ([email protected]) 126 views 

guest commentary by Daniel Maher

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Talk Business & Politics to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Daniel Maher is the assistant professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. He can be reached at [email protected]

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics or the administration of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.


The recent use of live rounds in a frontier reenactment during “Helldorado Days,” in Tombstone, Arizona seems an appropriate time to reflect on ways in which Fort Smith represents its 19th century history.

I have previously discussed how Fort Smith has mythologized Judge Isaac C. Parker and Bass Reeves to reinforce the white male power structure, and how the U.S. Marshals Museum is hanging great hope upon the frontier tropes associated with these men despite a good body of museum studies literature that points to the U.S. Marshals Museum being a gamble. My next commentary will be on the historical record of the military fort from 1817-1871 in relation to commemorating the bicentennial, but this commentary will focus on how Fort Smith got into the business of repackaging and selling frontier heritage representations.

Presciently, Larry McMurtry’s (of Lonesome Dove fame) most recent novel, “The Last Kind Words Saloon,” frames Buffalo Bill Cody coaching Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp (of Tombstone shootout fame) on how to do a reenactment of a shootout. The character of Cody exasperatedly declares, “How to explain to these men [Holliday and Earp] that a show had to be real and yet not real at the same time?”

Indeed, that is the question of all historical reenactments and in that gap between the “real and yet not real” lies the seeds from which spring the rich vines of heritage. Following a critical analysis of heritage, I define heritage as the use of the past for present day purposes. After all, reenactments are by definition not the real thing, they are simulations of an imagined past. The manner in which reenactments are presented therefore has a great deal to do with the now, the present, as much if not more so than the past.

In “Long May Their Legend Survive: Memory and Authenticity in Deadwood, South Dakota, Tombstone, Arizona, and Dodge City, Kansas,” Kevin Britz brilliantly documents how these quintessential frontier towns had all but forgotten their frontier days until the rise of automobile tourism in the 1920s. When tourists began showing up looking for the mythic frontier heritage they had read about in pulp fiction, these three towns obligingly fabricated new false-front facades and Wild West shows to create the frontier ethos tourists were eager to consume.

Scholar of the frontier, Hal Rothman, suggests in “Devil’s Bargains” that “Western tourism stands at the heart of the American drama precisely because it occurs on the same stage as the national drama of self-affirmation. To Americans the West is their refuge … and home to the mythic landscapes where Americans become whole again in the aftermath of personal and national cataclysm.” Fittingly, it was in the midst of heightened Cold War fervor that the mythic frontier was fully embraced across the nation and in Fort Smith. Homer Croy, in his 1952 book, “He Hanged Them High,” declares that he, “told the [Fort Smith] Chamber of Commerce that the only thing the town was known for was the court, and the gallows was the most dramatic part of the court, and suggested that it should be rebuilt as a tourist attraction.” At that time the city had not yet caught on to this idea as Croy reports, “I was frowned into the street. Fort Smith is still sensitive about the death machine.”

Indeed, the city burned the gallows down in 1898 because it was felt to be an embarrassing eye-sore. The 1950’s saw a burst of frontier films, and frontier-themed amusement parks began cashing in on them quickly. Disneyland opened Frontierland in 1955, for example. Fort Smith jumped on this frontier-band-wagon on May 26, 1957, when Public Historical Restorations Inc. opened the “Historical Federal Court of Judge Isaac Charles Parker.”

The first brochure for the tourist attraction declared “as the trials went on through 21 years, as the gallows took its toll, the impact was felt on the lawless and they either retreated further west out of the jurisdiction of the court or, out of regard for the hard won authority of the law, checked their depredations.” These few small lines perpetuate large mythic imagery. The Parker court only got busier in the 21 years he was on the bench, and that was with an ever shrinking jurisdiction, down to 22,000 square miles in Indian Territory for the last third of his career.

In lieu of historical facts, Fort Smith wagered on the side of mythic frontier tropes with the hopes of garnering big tourist dollars.  The 1957 brochure concludes that “The Indian Territory became the great state of Oklahoma in 1907, and it may safely be asserted that if it had not been for this great and unique court, its courageous judge, jurors, deputy marshals and its gallows, that the mantle of statehood would have been much later in falling on this part of our country.” Indeed, Jeffry Burton, in Indian Territory and the United States 1866-1906, would agree that the Parker court aided in statehood, not because of its alleged greatness, but because the legal institutions of the United States strangled the sovereignty of Indian Nations in the Territories.

To the all too pat tropes of the military fort and Parker Court “keeping the peace in Indian Territory,” Fort Smith added the similarly suspect and egregious whimsy of “Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good,” and most recently the preposterous claim that Bass Reeves is the basis for the story of the Lone Ranger. When Mel Brooks made “Blazing Saddles,” in 1974, he had in mind to lampoon, among many others, the 1939 film Dodge City. To compare the two films it becomes clear why Brooks had to go so over-the-top to create his satire – the standard mythic frontier image is itself already a long stretch from the historical reality of the late 19th century west.

Gallows, brothels, and an apocryphal link to the Lone Ranger may sound, to some, like money making messages in Fort Smith, but from a larger perspective the use of these elements of the mythic frontier is laughable, and embarrassing. More problematically, these tourist quips do serious damage to understanding the complex intersections of power, race, and gender in Fort Smith’s, and the nation’s past and present.

Fort Smith has some amazing history, but for many decades organizations and individuals have wantonly fashioned Fort Smith’s history into mythic frontier heritage with impunity. Is Fort Smith still willing to wager its historical soul that large numbers of octogenarians on tour buses will pay money to come hear these mythic narratives? Is Fort Smith willing to hand over the reins of telling its significant history to poorly executed Wild West shootout reenactments? Hopefully, closer scrutiny of these frontier tourist discourses that fundamentally privilege the white male power structure – in the past and up through the present – will lead to more rigorous presentation of Fort Smith’s complex, and very important, past.

At a time when museums are struggling to attract an audience, a fresh look at the difficult and compelling complexity of our past might be helpful in attracting new audiences. At a minimum, Fort Smith may want to consider Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition that, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”