words: Tom Wing, Historian
image: courtesy Tom Wing via the New York Historical Society and Fort Smith National Historic Site
Women in 19th century Fort Smith have much to teach us in the “Bicentennial School.” In many cases, the women of early Fort Smith lived in obscurity. Social practices of the time relegated women to second-class citizenship. They could not vote, serve on juries, in some places own property, hold elected office, attend college, or pursue certain professions. As a result, their historical voices are somewhat silenced in a male-dominated world. Even so, there are records that identify some of these women, whose stories, thankfully, survive today.
For example, UAFS Professor of History, Billy Higgins, in his book, A Stranger and Sojourner, documented four women present when the fort was established in 1817. These women were laundresses, who drew rations like the soldiers did for their sewing, washing, and other work. Three of the four are unnamed, but one appeared by name on the post records. According to Higgins, Mary Loving was probably the wife of a soldier at the post named William Loving and likely gave birth to the first child in Fort Smith’s history, on September 17, 1820. In December 2017, the commemorations at the site appropriately honored these pioneer women as well as the soldiers.
Life for military wives and children involved a great deal of travel (much as it does today) and postings sometimes in isolated locations. Jerusa Wilcox, originally from Connecticut, knew this life well when she married Captain Samuel Sturgis. Sturgis was a company and post commander of Fort Smith from the late 1850s till the beginning of the Civil War. Jerusa and Samuel’s children grew up for a time in our town and like most children, caused their mother (and father) great worry.
Twelve-year-old Jack Sturgis and another soldier’s son “borrowed a quantity of black powder from the post magazine.” Only intending fun, the boys set it off, but were too close and suffered burns and scars. Jack followed his father’s footsteps, attending West Point, and in 1876 was a lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry serving under George Custer. Sadly, he did not survive, and Jack’s grieving mother was allowed to see the place of his death and burial, although controversy remains as to the actual location and identification of the body.
Still other stories come from Juliet Golanska, former National Park Service Historian at Fort Smith, who surmised that the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas made women more visible, both in good and not so good ways. Her research shows that while four women were convicted of murder at Fort Smith, three (Mollie King, Elsie James, and Fanny Echols) had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The fourth, Mary Kettering, was acquitted after an appeal forced a new trial. While 19th century women faced inequality in almost every area of life, criminal punishment was one exception. Convicted and facing the same federally mandated sentence as a man, the women were allowed some sense of discretion.
Of course, the majority of the women were honorable citizens, working hard, living upright lives, helping bring up the next generation. Florence Hammersly, a graduate of Fort Smith High School, delivered a commencement speech that garnered the attention of Fort Smith School Board member Isaac C. Parker. Florence studied stenography at the Fort Smith Commercial College and upon graduating, became Deputy Court Clerk in the Federal Court. At a time when men dominated most law-related positions, Hammersly had a reputation for efficiency and accuracy. A contemporary of hers wrote, “Her abilities and her refinement mark her as a sample of American womanhood to which the land of her birth may point with pride.” After serving a number of years, she went on to become a U.S. Deputy Marshal in 1922 and 1927.
Lastly, no discussion of women in Fort Smith would be complete without the mention of Anna Dawes. In 1885, Anna, the daughter of Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, and Chairman of the Dawes Commission dealing with Indian affairs, wrote an article describing the dungeonlike conditions of the “Hell on the Border” jail after a brief visit to Fort Smith. Her article was reprinted in the congressional record and helped secure funds to build a new and more accommodating jail.
In conclusion, we should note, that in reality, most women in 19th century Fort Smith were not activists, court staff members, military wives, or criminals. Most set themselves about the hard work all around them, laboring at home, on farms or sometimes other employment, and simply doing their part to move life forward. We owe so much to these women.