Pioneer women helped shape Fort Smith
For centuries, women helped shape the area’s communities into what they are today.
While lawlessness abounded on the Fort Smith frontier in its early days, many of the community’s early matriarchs either helped tame the town in maternal roles or quietly supported their husbands while they brought law and order to the border town.
Among the earliest matrons of the community was Mary Rogers, wife of Capt. John Rogers, who came to Fort Smith in 1822 and is known as the founding forefather of the city. While her husband was instrumental in recommissioning the second fort and buying up land in the downtown area, Mary Rogers ran the family hotel, according to her death notice in the Sept. 30, 1854, edition of the Southwest American.
“She was working quietly behind the scenes,” explained Leisa Gramlich, executive director of the Fort Smith Museum of History. “That’s what they did.”
A museum exhibit lists Mary Rogers as the “matron of the community” and that she was a “woman of great energy” and had a “persona of character.” Her death notice also states she had the “domestic superintendence of a public house during all the time of her residence in Fort Smith.”
Gramlich said many of the first women in Fort Smith were associated with the fort.
“The first women here were either wives of soldiers or came along as laundresses,” she added. “Four came with the first group and would go to John Rogers’ store on … Sunday afternoons and would enjoy a drink with the men, a Cherry Bounce with whiskey, sugar and wild cherries.”
Another notable Fort Smith woman was Dr. Minnie Sanders Armstrong, who is known as being the first female juror in the world, having to be officially declared a “person” by a judge in order to serve as a physician-juryman in an Illinois courtroom in 1891, according to information from the Fort Smith Museum of History, which has several exhibits of notable Fort Smith and Arkansas women scattered among permanent exhibits at the museum through the end of March in observance of Women’s History Month.
Born in 1867 in Illinois, Armstrong came to Fort Smith as a single woman with a medical degree in 1892. She practiced medicine at an office in downtown Fort Smith until she met and married Henry Clay Armstrong, at which time she retired from her medical practice to raise their four children. She is known as the first female physician in Fort Smith.
Sue Neis Bonneville, widow of Gen. Benjamin Bonneville, is another early pioneer who raised her family while her husband was busy blazing trails across America as an explorer and a military man who commanded the second Fort Smith more than once in the 1830s and 1840s, according to information from “Hidden History of Fort Smith, Arkansas,” by Ben Boulden. After Gen. Bonneville’s death in 1878, his widow purchased a home on North Seventh St. that has been restored.
Fort Smith women were making a mark on the aviation world in the early 1920s. Betsy Kelley Weeks, daughter of Leigh Kelley and granddaughter of Harry E. Kelley, was a pilot and charter member of the Ninety-Nines, a national organization of women pilots organized in 1929.
The wife of Fort Smith’s famous “Hanging Judge,” Judge Isaac C. Parker, also has a place in history as her husband was sentencing outlaws to hang for their crimes in the nearby Indian Territory. In 1888, Mary O’Toole Parker founded the Fortnightly Club, a women’s literary and social group instrumental in establishing a local library, the forerunner to the Fort Smith Public Library.
Sue Robison, who portrays Mary O’Toole Parker at local events along with her husband, Floyd Robison, who portrays Judge Parker, will share details of Mrs. Parker’s experience when Judge Parker died in 1896 regarding the handling of his will during this month’s Clayton Conversations, slated for 2 p.m. today at the historic Clayton House, 514 N. Sixth St.
Fort Smith resident Sheryl Flanagin will headline the Clayton Conversations program with a slideshow presentation of women leaders in history, helping promote the National Women’s History Project.
“Girls and women during the 1800s and earlier were, as pioneer suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, ‘considered an inferior order of beings,’” Flanagin, a retired English teacher and Realtor, said in a news release. “Married women were especially affected because they were considered legally dead under the law. Any property a woman previously owned legally belonged to her husband, as did any wages she earned, her clothes and their children.”
Flanagin participated in a Women’s Rights Historic Bus Tour in 2013 that visited 10 homes and historic sites of the early women’s rights movement in New York.
“Obviously, in our country, we have fewer barriers. But we still have a way to go, when women are paid 77 cents to the man’s dollar,” said Flanagin, a district advocacy chair for Zonta International, which works to advance the status of women and girls worldwide. “The National Women’s History Project’s interest is not in changing history, which can’t be done, but to make history known.”