Staunton, VA and Fort Smith, AR – Historical Ties

Residents of the Greater Fort Smith Region are breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the U.S. Marshals Service decision to locate its museum in Fort Smith instead of Staunton.

The leadership behind the effort in Virginia’s Queen City has been very gracious and supportive of the USMS decision. For months, I’ve had my eye on Staunton. She seems to be a wonderful place, with people who are passionate about their history, just like Fort Smith.

In fact, I’m hooked on the Staunton News Leader. Keeping an eye on the competition first brought me to the newspaper, but good writing and an interest in the city will keep me coming back. I almost feel like the guy in the Andy Griffith Show who showed up on a bus one day and seemed to know everything about the town and its residents. It kinda upset guys like Barney and Floyd and Aunt Bee, because they had no idea who he was. Turns out he’d been reading the Mayberry paper for so long that he fell in love with the town and wanted to be part of the community. (Episode 10, Season 1, by the way).

I probably won’t ride into Staunton and move in. 🙂 The last time I tried to live outside Arkansas, I failed.

Anyway, Staunton and Fort Smith have many similarities.

The City of Staunton revolutionized municipal government in 1908 in adopting the city manager form of government.

The City of Fort Smith operates under the City Administrator form of government.

The recently retired mayor of Staunton is an energetic, dynamic man who makes history his business every day. John Avoli is director of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton.

Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker was just elected to another term, yet his “day job” continues to be teaching high school history. When he’s not in the classroom, Mayor Baker is Fort Smith’s most enthusiastic cheerleader.

Also, I know of at least one Fort Smith resident who graduated from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton.

But this next little tidbit took my breath away when I discovered it. William Ben Cravens was among Fort Smith’s — and Arkansas’ — leading citizens in the late 1800s. Cravens represented Western Arkansas in Congress from 1907 to 1913, and was on the defense team representing Bass Reeves in the famed deputy marshal’s murder trial in Judge Parker’s courtroom back in about 1897.

Cravens died in Washington DC and is buried in historic Oak Cemetery not far from my house. Cravens descendants still live in Fort Smith and are, indeed, prominent citizens.

Here’s the thing. Congressman Cravens apparently attended Staunton Military Academy sometime prior to 1893. Interesting, huh?

Staunton understands that the U.S. Marshals Service is the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency, that George Washington created the organization with the stroke of his pen when he signed Senate Bill 1. A Virginian — Edward Carrington — was among the first 16 U.S. Marshals appointed.

Even though Fort Smith’s history with the Marshals Service picks up a little later — in the post civil war era — it’s encumbent on the Greater Fort Smith Region to now become ambassadors for the Service — before and after the Wild West era.

I’ve held in my hand a white riot helmet worn by a deputy marshal as he escorted James Meredith to Ole Miss in 1962. The helmet has a big dent in the side — from one of the many bricks thrown by the angry mob.

Historian Dave Turk has written a detailed, tension-packed account of the entire episode.

I cannot describe what it meant to me — holding that helmet in my hands. Hearing the insults and the threats. Feeling what must have been fear and anger coursing through the arm of James Meredith. Knowing the deputy marshal must be frustrated, angry, and somewhat saddened that so many fellow law enforcement officers from state agencies reviled him and the other federal officers for upholding the United States Constitution.

Today, the U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for tracking down fugitives. One of my favorite scenes in The Fugitive, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford is an unarmed Tommy Lee Jones (Chief Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard) facing Harrison Ford (Dr. Richard KImble) in a drainage culvert. As the fugitive points the lawman’s service revolver at the crouching chief deputy, Ford angrily cries, “I didn’t kill my wife!” Jones looks at Ford like, “You don’t get it, do ya?” and says incredulously, “I don’t care!”

The Marshals Service catches people who would rather run than face justice. Deputies are tasked with bringing in bad guys and transporting them to appropriate jurisdictions. The Service is tasked with judicial security in every federal courthouse in the U.S. — and some courtrooms around the world.

More and more, the Service is placing more emphasis on tracking down child predators and putting them behind bars.

Fort Smith is now home to the United States Marshals Service National Museum. Our duty is to be ambassadors for the men and women who currently wear the badge, as well as every single law enforcement officer who ever donned a badge on behalf of the Service since its inception in 1789.

I hope that, as we move forward in the museum development process, Fort Smith will form a lasting friendship and a productive partnership with Staunton, Virginia. I suspect we have more in common that what this amateur history head has uncovered by using a Google search engine.

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