New Fort Smith structure honors oldest law enforcement agency
Marshals Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” and Rooster Cogburn of “True Grit” became television and movie legends. Their fictional fame is noted at the splendid new United States Marshals Museum in Fort Smith — but only as a sidelight to the thousands of real-life lawmen who’ve worn that federal badge since 1789.
The sleek museum with its abundance of hands-on exhibits is expected to draw at least half its projected 125,000 first-year visitors from beyond Arkansas. The low-slung structure opened last month along Fort Smith’s riverfront, 16 years after the city was chosen over a half-dozen other applicants to honor the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency.
Founded the same year that George Washington became president, the U.S. Marshals Service has extra resonance locally due to the region’s frontier status in the late 19th century. The judicial Western District of Arkansas then included the mostly lawless Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma Territory in 1890. Among deputy marshals serving between 1875 and 1895 in the jurisdiction of “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker, 65 are recorded as having been killed on duty.
Their names are engraved in the museum’s Hall of Honor among those of at least 400 marshals who’ve died overall in the line of duty over 234 years. On display in the hall is a twisted piece of steel from the World Trade Center terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, which took the lives of many lawmen. “Please feel free to touch this piece of history,” a sign tells visitors.
“Most people know of U.S. marshals only through their depiction in movies and TV, with the vast majority of that content centered on the Old West,” says Ben Johnson, the museum’s president and CEO. “The Marshals Service is probably the least known federal law enforcement agency.”
Its history, Johnson says, “is deeply connected to our nation’s history. Everyone will have a better understanding of U.S. history when seeing it through the lens of the U.S. Marshals Service. It continues active operations to this day in a wide variety of critical functions enforcing the law.”
Johnson notes that while the service’s Wild West history is important, “only about 20% of our 18,000-square-foot permanent exhibit features people and events from the late 19th-century era of Judge Parker. The remainder covers a wide variety of people, events and activities from all 200-plus years of U.S. history.”
At the heart of the museum are five permanent exhibit areas. “All of them are totally immersive,” Johnson says.
In the first gallery, “To Be a Marshal,” a series of timeline exhibits introduces visitors to the assorted duties of U.S. marshals, from supporting federal courts to protecting witnesses, from tracking down fugitives to helping with disaster relief. A head marshal is appointed for each of the 94 federal court districts, with about 3,600 deputy marshals and criminal investigators working for the service.
“The Campfire: Stories Under the Stars,” the second gallery, features one of the museum’s most vivid tableaux. It spans the agency’s long history by presenting the figures of four marshals from four historical periods gathered around a campfire. Shadowy images appear on the rock wall behind them as recorded voices tell stories of marshals’ lives and achievements.
The third gallery, “Frontier Marshals,” includes figures from the Western District of Arkansas’ frontier decades. A saloon with an interactive casino game involving figures from that era is proving to be among the museum’s most popular attractions. Another exhibit tells the amazing story of Bass Reeves, who escaped slavery and later became a deputy marshal.
“A Changing Nation,” the fourth gallery, focuses on the ever-changing work of marshals over the decades on issues including Prohibition, Civil Rights, bombings, domestic terrorism, riots, and natural disasters. An interactive exhibit challenges visitors to pursue a criminal by running on a treadmill in front of a head-to-toe video screen that shows him fleeing along a sidewalk.
In the final main gallery, “Modern Marshals,” the faces and names of the 15 most-wanted criminals on the FBI list are shown on a running display that indicates when any of them have been captured. Marshals speak onscreen about why their work matters and what the future might hold for the agency.
As for movies and television series featuring U.S. marshals, posters for 15 of them are emblazoned as a wall-size exhibit. Some are vintage classics like “True Grit,” while others, such as HBO’s “Deadwood,” are more recent
Also displayed is a badge worn by James Arnett in TV’s “Gunsmoke,” which ran for 20 seasons and 635 episodes. John Wayne, an Oscar winner for “True Grit,” is represented by one of his decorative parade saddles. Both men were only actors, but their stardom stoked interest in the real-life U.S. marshals so vividly portrayed at the new Fort Smith museum.