If you know Barboursville, Virginia, native Zachary Taylor’s name at all, you likely know him from reciting presidents’ names in middle school, or from his prominent role in the Mexican-American War. But Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, also had a brief but tumultuous tenure in Arkansas, commanding the military at Fort Smith from 1841 to 1843. He bristled with locals over construction of the fort, which Taylor considered far too big and expensive.
The locals who profited from selling whiskey and other items to soldiers fought to build up the military installation in Fort Smith. Those locals succeeded in keeping Taylor from halting construction. Taylor closed another fort in his command in present-day Oklahoma instead.
Once he became president in 1849, Taylor put an end to fort construction in Fort Smith, but his decision was reversed once Taylor died in office in 1850 and Millard Fillmore became president.
“Zachary didn’t try to make any friends,” said Billy D. Higgins, associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Today, there are scant reminders of Taylor’s tenure in Arkansas.
The Arkansas Archaeological Survey performed an excavation in Fort Smith in 2005 near the intersection of 13th and Garrison streets. This plot was once part of Camp Belknap, where Taylor and his troops lived while the fort was under construction. A chimney on the grounds of what is now Immaculate Conception Church was found to be part of a kitchen near Taylor’s cabin, archaeologists Jamie C. Brandon and Jerry E. Hilliard wrote in the book, “Historical Archaeology of Arkansas.”
Former Circuit Judge Jim Spears led a movement to build a statue of Taylor, but the idea got scrapped in favor of a statue of former Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves.
Taylor’s leadership in Fort Smith and his personal feelings about his work and family life are documented in letters housed at the Pebley Center at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. The roughly two dozen letters in Taylor’s hand are available to view on microfilm. In them, Taylor complained about how his superiors were treating him and how he wanted to leave to tend to his plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.
“He was kind of a sour personality,” Higgins said.
A main source of Taylor’s frustration in Fort Smith was the construction of the huge, expensive fort resembling a large coastal fortification like Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The Fort Smith structure included stone walls designed to be as high as 12 feet. Since Fort Smith didn’t have many masons, some workers had to travel in from out of town.
The design of the fort is a source of curiosity itself because, in addition to being very large, many of the turrets on the fort faced east. The fort was located at the edge of the Western Frontier near independent Texas, while the rest of the United States was located to the east.
Why would Fort Smith need such a large, expensive fortification with turrets facing east toward the United States? There is no hard answer among scholars, Higgins said.
“That’s the $64 question, because three of the five turrets were facing east or one quadrant of the east direction,” Higgins said. “So, the attacks are going to come from where? The U.S. is going to attack itself?”
After less than two years at Fort Smith, Taylor moved to a new post in Texas. He would go on to fame after winning battles in the Mexican-American war. The Whig Party believed Taylor would make a good candidate for president even though he was not interested in politics and there is no record of him having voted in a presidential election. Taylor was elected president in 1848 over Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren. Arkansas’s three electoral votes went to Cass, the Democratic candidate.
Taylor died in 1850 while in office and was buried in Louisville. He was disinterred in 1991 amid speculation he may have been murdered. An examination found that he died of natural causes, Higgins said.