Fort Smith was established in 1817 on a bluff near the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers and named for General Thomas Smith, the military district’s commander. With its splendid command of the Arkansas River, the fort provided protection from Indian attacks and encouraged settlers to journey by keelboat up the Arkansas River to the rich river land, ideal for cultivation. A town began to grow beside the fort as settlers traded with Native Americans, who were being forcibly resettled in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The gold rush of 1848 accelerated growth, as it did for the community of Van Buren on the opposite bank of the Arkansas River. Each town promoted itself as a supply and departure point for gold rush prospectors and a distribution center for westward-bound wagon trains. Consequently, Fort Smith became a regional financial center.
After the Civil War, the fort was transferred to the Department of the Interior; it now is a National Historic Site (SB2). The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s added to the city’s convenience and importance as a commercial center, and by the early twentieth century Fort Smith became a manufacturing center for light industry. Today, the city’s wealth of historic buildings and new cultural venues have made it an important locus for tourism. The visitor center at 2 N. B Street is housed in a former brothel. This two-story Second Empire building was constructed in the late nineteenth century as the Commercial Hotel and in 1903 became Miss Laura’s Social Club. Between 1907 and 1924, Fort Smith was one of the few cities in the United States where prostitution was legalized and regulated in a district. In recent years Fort Smith has become home to immigrants from Vietnam and Laos. Whereas the Arkansas International Buddhist Temple, established in 2008 at 4601 N. O Street, has light touches of Asian forms on a plain building, the Laos Buddhist Temple (2215 High Street) employs traditional forms and decoration, though one of its buildings burned in 2015.
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