|A History of Frontier Justice in|
the Indian Territory, 1834-1896
|by Glenn Shirley|
|Illustrated with Photographs|
|HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, NEW YORK|
|Copyright © 1957 by Glenn Shirley,|
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce
this book or portions thereof in any form*
In Canada, George J. McLeod, Ltd.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 57-6193
Printed in the United States of America
|FOR THE PEOPLE, LIVING AND DEAD,|
WHO SAW THE LAW COME WEST OF FORT SMITH
|Most works of Western American history and
lore tell of the acts of men performed within the law, detailing
their lives that made ours better by their living. We like to
exult in our American greatness, particularly the resounding
booms of the Southwest. This is good. But too often we fail
to make sober investigation into how these things came about
and the reason for our being here in a state of opulence and
good repute. We shy from the fact that all history is crowded
with deeds of lawlessness; but without recording these, the
complete history of an era or the subject dealt with cannot be
Crime is sordid; dragging it from the grave doesn't better its reputation. It is not done here to perpetuate the infamy of men who transgressed the law. In Law West of Fort Smith I have written a full account of the lawless conditions on our last and wildest frontier, and how a lone federal judge became a potent influence in the regulation of affairs that brought order out of chaos in a vast section of country. By the same token, I have preserved the gallant acts of the quiet men with rifles and six-shooters who aided him in the legal side of the controversy.
Ignoring the efforts of such officials and portraying criminals as picturesque figures, unfortunately, is an old and shameful practice. Robin Hood slants have been given atrocious careers. Homicidal exhibitionists like Jesse James and Billy the Kid have been painted as good men who got their thinking twisted be- cause they were victims of passion and mistaken loyalty, or were sinned against by society, and an industrious school of fiction has embroidered this theme with lariats and rattlesnakes and lies. In the same way, or simply out of thin air. illusions have been built around the gangster of the Oklahoma frontier; but a little serious consideration of the facts shows that here, too, he prevailed only through illegal acts, continuous cruelty, and brutality.
The land on which he thrived was all that territory west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, from Texas and Kansas to Colorado And no man's land, called "Indian country." Over it roamed the native red man, and to it in the 1830"s came the Five Civilized Tribes, who brought their own laws and tribal courts.
But the Indian courts took no cognizance of the white nun, Tribal laws had no application. The white intruder fell directly under the laws of the United States then & vague and distant thing in this land now called Oklahoma.
What really happened?
Soldiers of fortune rode the plains. The cattle and horse thief, the prostitute, the desperado, the whiskey peddler all sought refuge where there was no white man's court and no law under which they could be extradited to the state or territory where they had committed their crimes,
The Civil War wrecked the peace of the Five Tribes. Its aftermath was a maelstrom of racial hatred and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and pillage became common offenses. Killers traveled in gangs.
Some of these outlaws, like the Daltons, Bill Powers, Dick Broadwell, and Henry Starr, were hard livers who turned to a life of outlawry with little effort. A few, like Jim Reed and Belle Starr, were products of the war.
Others were like Ned Christie, Smoker Mankiller, John Billee, Blue Duck, and Cherokee Bill, whose wanton whim was shedding blood.
Martin Joseph and Jason Labreu were rapists. And many were simply renegades and looters, like Bob Rogers, Jim French, the Cook gang, and the Rufus Buck outlaws.
Their savagery flaunted itself. It seemed that every white man, Negro, and half-breed who entered the country was a criminal in the state from which he had come; that the last thing on his mind at night was thievery and murder, and it was his first thought in the morning. No American frontier ever saw leagues of robbers so desperate, any hands so red with blood. By 1875 this civilization was in the balance. Decent men, red and white alike, cried to the government for protection.
The only court with jurisdiction over the Indian country was the United States Court for the Western District of Arkansas at Fort Smith. To it came Judge Isaac Charles Parker. It fell upon him to rout these gangs of criminals. He was given only two hundred marshals to police nearly seventy-four thou- sand square miles and sixty thousand people; but he issued warrants for the gangs and number-one bad men and ordered the deputies to bring them in alive or dead. Sixty-five of these marshals gave their lives in the field in line of duty before they were able to hold the outlaws in check and, in a gratifyingly large number of cases, extinguished them.
A brutally picturesque drama it was with amazing inter- ludes punctuated by the dull thud of the gallows trap as men, singly, in pairs, or six at a time, were plunged to oblivion. The death penalty was prescribed more often and for more flagrant violations of law than anywhere on the American continent. That Judge Parker's administration was stern to the extreme is attested by the fact that he sentenced 160 men to die and hanged 79 of them.
His court was the most remarkable tribunal in the annals of jurisprudence, the greatest distinctive criminal court in the world; none ever existed with jurisdiction over so great an area, and it was the only trial court in history from the decisions of which there was, for more than fourteen years, no right of appeal. He helped to build, and loved, an empire. He lived only a short time after it crumbled before the march of white aggression.
Certainly no man of his time exerted a greater civilizing influence on this section of the West, and it may almost be said that no other one man could have accomplished the great work that his intellect, strength, and unswerving administration of justice enabled him to do. If it appears that his efforts were fanatical or bloodthirsty, it is well to remember that the times produced this hero. The people owe him a debt of gratitude they should not forget. Even in the town in which he lived and presided with distinction he deserves more than a meaner marker in the National Cemetery.
From authentic sources, an accumulation of material result- ing from extensive correspondence and research over a ten- year period, this volume is designed to throw light on the real story of why he hanged men, the kind of society he served, and the law that created and destroyed his jurisdiction. As a faithful record of fact, it is offered with the hope that his great service will be better understood by a generation that knows little of our indebtedness to him, and that his example will not only interest but strengthen our faith in and admiration for human courage and unselfish purpose.
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