From cowboys and Civil War soldiers to Native Americans and pioneers, America’s Crossroads states have many claims to fame when it comes to Western heritage. When traveling through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri, groups should make a point of stopping at these Old West gems.
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center and Garis Gallery of the American West
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center celebrates the history, art and culture of the Chisholm Trail, a trail used by cowboys to move Texas longhorns from the southern tip of Texas up through Oklahoma to Kansas to meet the railroad. Cattle drives became important after the Civil War from 1870 to 1890. There were cattle drives before that, but after 1870 the trail was booming, said Scott Metelko, executive director at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center.
Groups that visit the center can learn about this important part of Western history from knowledgeable docents who tell them about how the cowboys lived and worked on the trail; how they learned to navigate, even in the dark; and how they learned to rope cattle. Visitors experience the sights, smells and sounds of a real cattle drive in the T.H. McCasland Jr. Experience Theater; and sit around a campfire with Jesse Chisholm himself to learn more about the history of the trail in the Campfire Theater.
“Over the course of the time the Chisholm Trail was used, a 20-year window, millions of cattle came through,” said Metelko. “There are still ruts visible that are feet-deep depressions in the ground.”
Groups visiting the center can organize a lunch in the museum’s multipurpose room while they learn more about the Western heritage of the area. The Garis Gallery of the American West has permanent and temporary art exhibitions that celebrate works from famous Western artists such as Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and George Catlin. Its most famous work, a large bronze sculpture by Paul Moore titled “On the Chisholm Trail” commemorates the cattle drives.
Fort Smith National Historic Site
Fort Smith, Arkansas
Fort Smith, built in 1817 at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, was established to bring peace to the Osage and Cherokee nations. That first fort was abandoned in 1824, but visitors can walk up to Belle Point and view the foundation. The National Historic Site encompasses 16 acres and includes the former barracks building that was turned into a courthouse and jails in the late 1800s.
Group travelers can organize a guided tour of the site with a volunteer or park ranger. The city’s visitors center is in a former Old West bordello and is a favorite stop for motorcoach groups, said Russ Jester, marcom and event services manager for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The fort’s most famous resident was Judge Isaac Charles Parker, known as the hanging judge of the American West. Parker was named by President Ulysses S. Grant to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, where he presided over more than 13,000 cases from 1875 to his death in 1896. He appointed many Deputy U.S. Marshals, whose job it was to track down and prosecute outlaws in the area. During his more than 20-year tenure, Parker sentenced 160 men and women to the gallows. Of those, 79 were executed at the Fort Smith gallows. Visitors can get a close-up look at what the gallows would have looked like when they were built in 1873 at the historic site’s gallows reconstruction.
Visiting groups can tour Judge Parker’s courtroom, which took over a former Fort Smith barracks building, and the two jail cells that were built in the former mess halls in the basement of the building.
Fort Smith is the gateway to the Old West, and a section of the Trail of Tears wends its way through the property to the trail’s water route on the Arkansas River where the Native Americans got into the river and made their way to Oklahoma.
Trail of Tears State Park
Established in 1957, Trail of Tears State Park in Jackson, Missouri, documents one of the saddest chapters in American history, when nine of 13 Cherokee Indian groups crossed the Mississippi River in Jackson during the winter of 1838 and 1839 on their forced relocation from North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma.
At the visitors center, groups learn more about the forced relocation of the Cherokee and the thousands of Native Americans who died along the way. They also learn more about the natural history of the park. Tours begin with a 20-minute video that tells the story of the Cherokees’ removal from the South, then proceed outside to a section of the Trail of Tears. The park has 19 miles of hiking trails and is a great place to get outside and explore nature by bicycle or on horseback.
A memorial on the site commemorates the lives of the many Cherokee who perished along the Trail of Tears. The memorial is on the gravesite of Nancy Bushyhead Hildebrand, a Cherokee woman who died after crossing the Mississippi River near Jackson. She is said to be from a prominent family in the Cherokee nation, one that had many chiefs, said Denise Dowling, park superintendent. Groups can visit the park overlook that looks out over the river and get a sense of what a terrible journey it must have been for the Native Americans to cross it during the cold winter months.
Old Cowtown Museum
Visitors take a step back in time to the 1860s and 1870s at the Old Cowtown Museum, which opened to the public in 1952 on the banks of the Arkansas River. Most of the buildings on the historic site were built from 1865 to 1880. They were brought to the property from Wichita and Sedgwick County as a way of preserving that history for future generations. The outdoor museum was designed to look like a typical Old West town and includes commercial and residential buildings.
Groups can take a guided tour with a costumed interpreter or explore the town at their own pace. The site covers 23 acres and has everything from the first home built in Wichita to a blacksmith shop, a dressmaker, a cowboy camp and a working 1880 farm.
The 1880 DeVore Farm is a five-acre farm where costumed volunteers tend the garden, feed the chickens, prepare food appropriate to the time, sew clothing, and plant, tend, and harvest corn and wheat.
Each building on the property is set up with period artifacts, making it fun to explore. The museum houses 12,000 period pieces in its collection.
Groups can set up special programming as part of their visit. Participants can take a special tour of a shop to see how it operated back in the day and can even take home a special souvenir from their visit. The site also hosts special events throughout the year, from Civil War reenactments to Cowboy Days.