Monday, December 29, 2014

Junior Civil War Historians: Ft. Smith National Historic Site

Even though all the Junior Ranger badges are special, there are some that are REALLY special. Will got such a kick out of earning Yellowstone's Junior Ranger badge and Young Scientist badge because they were actually sew-on patches, and so when I learned about the Junior Civil War Historian Program, which is also a patch, and which is only a limited-time program through 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I knew that the kids would like it, and that Will would love it, so I planned to make it happen for them.

The Junior Civil War Historian Program requires that the kid either earn a Junior Ranger badge from three parks participating in the program (all the parks that are participating are relevant to the Civil War, but not all parks relevant to the Civil War are participating, so you have to check before you go), or earn a Junior Ranger badge from two participating parks and complete this packet on the Underground Railroad (bring it to one of the participating parks to get it checked and signed off on when completed). I was super bummed that we'd done Gettysburg during the sesquicentennial but before we knew about Junior Rangers, but as I was checking out the parks list, trying to see if there were any two that we could hit sometime before the end of 2015, I saw that, why, yes, there ARE two parks right on our route to and from Arkansas to spend Christmas with my family, and why, my goodness, one of those parks is actually IN my hometown!

Also a major player in this story: our national parks pass that doesn't expire until July. Worth every freaking penny. Just between you and me, I don't one hundred percent know if we've actually made our money back on that purchase yet, but the fact that we go to way more national parks now than we did before we bought the pass makes it worth everything that we paid for it, and more.

On this particular trip to the Ft. Smith National Historic Site, our first of the two participating parks, I was having some major flashbacks to my eighth grade field trip to the same spot. News flash: I didn't enjoy it (adolescence=shudder), nor did I really grasp how macabre much of the site is.

Like seriously macabre. Much badness. Much blood. The site started off as a fort at the edge of "Indian" territory, to keep the peace between two Indian nations, one of which had been displaced to the area by colonial government, the other of which did not appreciate having its own land encroached on by the displaced nation. Once the colonial government decided to keep on displacing the Native Americans, including both of these nations, the fort transitioned into a supply depot for the Trail of Tears. This display--

--shows some of the crap that the Native Americans were given here, and tells the story of how they were also given rations of rotten meat while starving, their protests at the food treated with contemptuous shrugs. 

Is it even necessary to mention that I did not learn about this on my eighth grade field trip? I swear that I didn't even know that Ft. Smith was part of the Trail of Tears until I was an adult, and I lived my entire childhood next to the former "Indian Territory" of Oklahoma--

--and family lore even claims that I have Cherokee blood on my Pappa's side (I doubt that I could ever confirm this one way or another, but marriage to a Caucasian guy would surely have let a Cherokee woman avoid her forced removal...). 

Ft. Smith remained a frontier fort, and since it was evacuated by US forces after the firing on Ft. Sumter, it was easy for Confederate troops to move in. They stationed and trained there, and it was a staging area for some of the local battles, including the Battle of Prairie Grove, which my great-great-grandfather fought in, and the Battle of Pea Ridge, where we would visit a few days later. The Union retook the fort a couple of years in, and then used it as a staging and training area for themselves. 
This is the day before I learned that you're actually not supposed to climb on cannons in national parks. Oops!
Don't worry--the museum includes lots of stories of troops on both sides doing cruel things to each other there. Lots of systematic executions, lots of making captured soldiers from the other side stand on their coffins or next to their graves while preparing to be executed, etc. Sigh.

After the Civil War, Ft. Smith returned to its role as a frontier fort, and this is what we learned about in the eighth grade, particularly the history of the Hanging Judge, Judge Isaac Parker. Here's his courtroom:

The history of the US Marshals, who were kind of like a combination of bounty hunters and police officers, is big here, so the kids learned a lot about what it was like to hunt down criminals in the Wild West:
That photo on the left is of a gang of criminal teenagers who were executed for gang rape. Nice, huh?
Here's one of the jail cells:

It could contain up to fifty individuals, some simply there to wait for trial, all sleeping on pallets on the stone floor, stinking so badly that they could be smelled in the courtroom above.

Here's where many of those individuals were headed:

If you visit the site on the anniversary of an execution, there's a noose hanging there. Ft. Smith is nothing but festive!

All that hard work was then rewarded--

--and we went out for a refreshing hike to the river and back to clear our heads of the history of people being mean to other people:

This was the grimmest site that we've been to yet, but it's good, you know? Eventually, the kids have to start learning the history of people being mean to other people, if only to help them memorialize all who have been victimized and to teach them not to victimize, themselves, but I'm a softie for the hearts of my children, and I'm reluctant to teach them as much about the sad stuff as they're probably ready for.

Nevertheless, I appreciated our time at the river as a balm to all the cruelty that had taken place here, practically under our feet:

Better, just then, to let the flowing water wash it all away, and then go back to Pappa's house for peanut butter fudge, Animal Planet, and craft projects.


Tina said...

The first college history class I took made me cry on more than one occasion. I'm not normally a super sensitive person, but crap we humans are awful to each other!

We have touched a bit on the Underground Railroad here as well as the plight of the Native Americans for the simple fact that she needs to know what people are capable of- both the power to be cruel and the power to overcome that cruelty. As she gets older, we will dig into these subjects more. I refuse for her to be shocked by it all the first time she takes a college history class.

julie said...

It's actually harder for me to let the kids learn about people being mean to animals, I think. Will and I were browsing the children's nonfiction shelves at our public library for good animal books for her, and I actually removed and set up high a book that I thought would be too upsetting to read, about a horse that bit a child who was abusing it and then had its teeth pulled. The point of the story was the horse's amazing comeback, of course, but Jeez--I don't want the kid to have that in her head!

Maybe it's because the mean things that people do to each other can seem abstracted, but the mean things that people do to pets can't be? I mean, my kids absolutely play war, right on the actual battlefields, sometimes--maybe that's healthy role-playing that allows them to process the information, but I also think it's just play, because they can't process it yet.

Tina said...

That totally makes sense to me. While it's hard to fully understand, a human gets the basic idea that other humans can be cruel. Animals have no idea what is happening or why.

And again, human's capacity for stupidity and cruelty knows no bounds. Despite what people think, very few animals are mean or evil for the fun of it. Life is mostly about survival for them. I could't spend a long time on this soap box, but we have meals on wheels to deliver and I need to get going!

Happy New Year to you and your family :0)


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