Zachary Taylor (Leadership of Fort Smith)

Prior to becoming the twelfth president of the United States, Colonel Zachary Taylor commanded the military at Fort Smith (Sebastian County) from 1841 until 1844. Taylor frequently clashed with local Arkansans who sought to preserve their access to the soldiers stationed at the fort who bought their whiskey and other goods. Most notably, locals resisted Taylor’s desires to cease the construction of the fort at Fort Smith as well as abandon nearby Fort Wayne in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

On May 1, 1841, Taylor was promoted from his military position in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to lead the Second Military Department at Fort Gibson (in present-day Oklahoma near the Arkansas border) and Fort Smith. Taylor’s promotion was opposed by locals who were upset that longtime commander Colonel Matthew Arbuckle had been removed from the post. U.S. senator Ambrose Sevier echoed the local frustration when he offered a resolution in the U.S. Senate asking President John Tyler to explain the transfer of Taylor and the “exile” of Arbuckle to Baton Rouge. The resolution was eventually tabled.

When Taylor arrived at his new post, Fort Gibson and Fort Wayne were already established, and Fort Smith was under construction at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers. Taylor believed that Fort Smith was located too close to the Arkansas River and other marshy land and that the plans for the fort were too grand. If completed according to plan, Taylor declared, Fort Smith would “serve as a lasting monument to the folly of those who planned, as well as him who had executed.” Taylor further wrote to a friend that Fort Smith “will cost three times as much, or even more than there was any necessity for….A more useless expenditure of money and labor was never made by this or any other people….The sooner it is arrested the better.”

In 1841, Taylor also fought with the Arkansas residents over the closing of nearby Fort Wayne in present-day Watts, Oklahoma, about a half-mile from the present-day northwestern Arkansas border. Taylor believed Fort Wayne occupied some of the best Cherokee land and that all interests would be better served if a new post were built farther north to protect against the Osage, whom he believed to be thieves. Arkansas residents fought the closure of Fort Wayne vigorously, petitioning President Tyler to preserve the fort in order to protect Arkansas against the Cherokee, whom they described as “bloodthirsty savages.” Taylor found these arguments absurd, because, in his experience, the Cherokee were peaceful. Instead, Taylor believed that the Arkansans were trying to protect their own selfish interests, since many Arkansans profited from the sale of whiskey and supplies to soldiers occupying the fort. Taylor pleaded with Secretary of War John Spencer and President Tyler to ignore the wishes of the Arkansas residents and proceed with the plan to close Fort Smith and open another fort farther north. As a result, Fort Wayne was abandoned in 1842, and Fort Scott was opened to the north in 1842 in present-day Kansas.

In the spring of 1844, Taylor was promoted to the command of the First Military Department, and Colonel Arbuckle resumed command of the Second Military Department. Taylor would go on to national fame in the U.S.-Mexican War and then be elected president as a member of the Whig Party in 1848 when he defeated Democrat Lewis Cass. Taylor served in office from 1849 until his unexpected death in 1850.

For additional information:
Bearrs, Edwin C. “Fort Smith: 1838–1871.” Unpublished Manuscripts, 1963. Park Archives, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Bearss, Edwin C., and Arrell M. Gibson. Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas. 2nd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Brandon, Jamie C., and Jerry E. Hilliard. “Zachary Taylor and the Sisters of Mercy: An Archaeology of Memory, Landscape, Gender, and Faith on Arkansas’s Western Frontier.” In Historical Archaeology of Arkansas: A Hidden Diversity, edited by Carl G. Drexler. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016.

Fort Smith National Historic Site. National Park Service. (accessed October 12, 2021).

Griffin Coop
Little Rock, Arkansas


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