by: J.B. Weisenfels
There’s an unmistakable romance to the Old West. The drama of the untamed wilderness on the new frontier, the conflict between lawlessness and the stern or swashbuckling law enforcers tasked with bringing law to the outlands. The Old West is part of America’s story, and it’s part of Fort Smith’s story, too.
Downtown Fort Smith is full of history, brimming with the wild stories of a place once tasked with bringing order to its neighboring territory, which was full of outlaws. Year after year, the historic aspects of Fort Smith bring out-of-towners into town, boosting the economy by sending them to locally-owned restaurants and retail businesses during their visits. The events held at the National Historic Site and the Fort Smith Museum of History also help locals remember a now-distant past that sometimes feels buried under the silt deposited on the river’s banks.
People coming to town with visions of Judge Parker’s courtroom in their heads or a grim fascination with the gallows of our hanging judge may owe some of their desire to visit Fort Smith to a book written by a native Arkansan, which was published fifty years ago, in 1968, and has seen two high-performing films made in its image.
Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, is the harrowing tale of a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, who undertakes a somewhat successful mission to “avenge her father’s blood.” She does avenge him, but she loses her arm and her innocence along the way. Its two film adaptations, one featuring John Wayne made in 1969 and one adapted by the Coen Brothers and released in 2010, vary wildly in how they’ve interpreted the source text. There is, however, one thing that the book and both films have in common—the way they’ve all portrayed Fort Smith.
The 1969 film may have made a grave error in allowing the imperious Rockies to be seen as the backdrop to Mattie’s story, as the Rockies look nothing like the Ozarks, and the 2010 version may have added a few conflicts and extraneous scenes, but the Fort Smith of all the interpretations looms large.
Mattie Ross very often has a critical remark for everyone she meets and everything she encounters, and Fort Smith bears the weight of that judgment. She first describes Fort Smith as “no city at all compared to Little Rock.” She later goes on to say, “Fort Smith ought to be in Oklahoma instead of Arkansas,” and “I know many fine people live in Fort Smith and they have one of the nation’s most modern waterworks, but it does not look like it belongs in Arkansas to me.”
Mattie alters her tune a bit when she finds herself in the office of Colonel Stonehill, who complains incessantly about Fort Smith and says that he “would rather be a county road overseer in Tennessee than governor of this benighted state.” Mattie replies by telling him, “People who don’t like Arkansas can go to the devil!” Fort Smith, then, has won Mattie’s strong mind over to the state in which it is located, at least. This is a familiar theme for many Arkansans. We give ourselves carte blanche to complain about Arkansas and her cities, but let not the newcomer look down upon our home state.
The Fort Smith present in True Grit is a town where everyone goes out to watch a hanging, where at the city police station Mattie says, “we found two officers, but they were having a fist fight and were not available for inquiries.” The image of Garrison Avenue being like “places out in the west,” the idea that even the lawmen were a little wild—these paint the picture of Fort Smith as a border city at the edge of the wilderness, a place tasked with taming the wildness to the west while refusing to be fully tamed itself.
In a very real way, the Fort Smith of True Grit is not entirely unlike the Fort Smith of today. The city is diverse—as is the cast of characters in the novel. The reputation for sitting on the edge of a frontier, straddling the constructs of wildness and order is similar, too. Fort Smith residents and community leaders have begun to re-envision that reputation, filling the wide street of Garrison Avenue with art and working to bring tech, culture, and diversity to the forefront of people’s minds when they think of Fort Smith.
At the beginning of this hallmark year of 2018, when the city will spend its time and resources celebrating the bicentennial, it’s nice to read a fifty-year-old novel telling a story that spirals out from and returns to Fort Smith. It’s nice to find that Fort Smith has changed drastically, but has remained true to the themes of the centuries before. Let this year be a year of reflection, when we consider what it means to live in a place with a distinct history and a hopeful future. One thing is certain—like Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, Fort Smith has true grit. After all, cities without true grit don’t survive two centuries, just like girls without true grit never avenge their father’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation, when the snow was on the ground.