The new U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas, does justice to the service’s 234-year history.
Over the course of its 234 legendary years, the U.S. Marshals Service has cut a wide swath of history, with no shortage of accounts to study and interpret and important artifacts to safeguard. No shortage, either, of many legendary figures to represent, among them, Bass Reeves, Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, and, for a short moment, Billy the Kid. In a long-planned and hoped-for answer to that need, the U.S. Marshals Museum opened its doors to the public on July 1, 2023 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
The initial groundbreaking coincided with the agency’s 225th anniversary in September 2014. Not quite 10 years later, the museum is receiving visitors in an instantly iconic star-shaped building—a concept roughly taken from the thrown badge in the last scene of the movie High Noon.
The museum had the unqualified support of the principal chiefs of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, and the location had historical relevance in spades. This is where U.S. District Judge Isaac C. “Hanging Judge” Parker had his office, popularized in Charles Portis’ famous novel and movie True Grit and still seen at the restored courtroom at the Fort Smith National Historic Site (where there’s a statue of Reeves horseback with his rifle and his dog). A good percentage of the population of the town were descended from deputy U.S. marshals (or, in a few cases, outlaws), as evidenced by the number of burials in Fort Smith’s Oak Cemetery.
Exterior of U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas
Fort Smith was an important center for outfitting forty-niners during the gold rush in late 1848 and early 1849, as well as for soldiers in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. Belle Starr’s home was across the river in Oklahoma, and her daughter Pearl ran a brothel in town. Bonnie and Clyde holed up in one of Fort Smith’s motels while on the run. Garrison Avenue, its main thoroughfare through the older part of the city, once boasted covered wagons and hordes of deputies. The scenic setting along the Arkansas River is a spot where many deputies in the Old West crossed and forded.
Inside, a mix of traditional exhibits and interactive technology with different themes flow from a central hub — “The Campfire” — featuring four deputies from different eras telling their accounts of service. The 53,000-square-foot complex also contains temporary exhibit space, an atrium, café, gift shop, and offices, with further plans for an educational and archival center underway.
Fittingly, Bass Reeves figures prominently in the museum’s collection, which includes the only legitimate Bass Reeves-attributed gun.
“The United States Marshals Museum considers Bass Reeves to be the most prolific law enforcement officer our country has seen,” says U.S. Marshals Museum curator of collections and exhibits David Kennedy. “He was a man who was born into and survived slavery, continuing on to most of three decades of service to the office of the United States Marshal. While he may not have arrested 3,000 criminals, his legacy—and that of the many other men of color who wore the badge of a deputy U.S. marshal—cannot be ignored. I’m glad the Marshals Museum can help share stories of this person who was ignored by American history for 50 years. Despite the folklore that has grown around the person of Bass Reeves, the many fictionalized accounts of Bass Reeves will hopefully drive people to learn more about the man he was and not the action figure seen in some portrayals.”
Read our Bass Reeves Special — including an interview with David Oyelowo, The Superhuman Strength of Bass Reeves, and a deep dive into the history of Bass Reeves.
This article appears in our January 2023 issue.
Read curator David Kennedy’s Top 12 Musts at the U.S. Marshals Museum for fans of Bass Reeves and the U.S. Marshals Service.