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Legends in the “Twin Territories”

by on September 22, 2011


This post was written by Katy Berube, who was a summer intern in textual processing.

When Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves began to sing softly to himself, people who knew him ran for cover.  An uncommon reaction, you might think, but from many accounts it was best to steer clear of a singing Bass Reeves as it was a sure sign that guns were about to start blazing.  In Art T. Burton’s book titled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, the author noted that “territorial newspapers stated repeatedly that Reeves had killed fourteen men in the line of duty.”1 Burton asserts this estimate might be conservative given the lawlessness saturating the Oklahoma and Indian territories, frequently called the twin territories, in the late nineteenth century.2 Even if fourteen killed in the line of duty is an accurate statement, Burton further argues that “Reeves would have killed more outlaws in the line of duty than any other lawman of that era…mak[ing] him the preeminent gun fighter of any Old West lawman on record.”3

Never heard of Bass Reeves?  Few records exist as newspapers of that era more often than not turned a blind eye to the exploits of African American deputy marshals like Bass Reeves.  Although considered one of the most famous African American U.S. Deputy Marshals, Bass Reeves, a former slave, was one of many African American lawmen hired due to their unique familiarity with the language, customs, and geography of the twin territories.4 The first page of a notarized statement written by prisoner Annie James describing her arrest and transportation to federal court for trial on the charges of larceny provides a description of deputy marshals in the twin territories at work.5  The full text of this notarized statement can be viewed in the 1873-1877 appointment file for U.S. Marshal D.P. Upham (ARC Identifier 5966237) for whom each of these deputy marshals, including Bass Reeves, worked.

Click twice on the document image to enlarge.

Ultimately, however, all of U.S. Marshal Upham’s deputies worked for the federal court responsible for dispensing justice in the twin territories.  This court was located in Fort Smith, Arkansas and from his appointment as U.S. District Judge for the Western Arkansas District on March 18, 1875 to his death on November 17, 18966,7 Judge Isaac C. Parker administered justice believing that the “certainty of punishment rather than punishment itself was the only way to combat crime.”8 Upon his arrival in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875 on the steamboat Ella Hughes, Judge Parker, a former U.S. Congressman from Missouri, and his lawmen began to clean up the corrupt court responsible for the largest geographic territory in U.S. history.9 By September of 1875 the first six men tried and found guilty of murder were executed at the gallows and the Parker legacy as “The Hanging Judge” was born.10  For the next twenty one years the court in Fort Smith fought lawlessness in four annual and often continuous terms in February, May, August, and November and operated six days a week with a ten hour daily schedule.11  Over Judge Parker’s career in Fort Smith, 13,490 defendants were tried and 8,500 were convicted of crimes ranging from larceny to murder.12  Of the 88 sentenced to die for their crimes, only 79 met their death at the gallows while the others convicted of lesser crimes were given prison sentences ranging from one to forty five years in length.13

A letter of support written by New York Attorney Jefferson Chandler on behalf of Judge Parker for an appointment to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia dated September 20, 1892 provides a testament to the work done by Judge Parker and the marshals in the twin territories during this period as follows:

Judge Parker’s splendid honesty intelligence and impartiality renewed respect for the court, restored order throughout the territory over which he presided and secured for himself the confidence of the people affected by his judicial action.14

The original letter of support can be viewed in the District of Columbia 1889-1993 appointment file for Judge Isaac C. Parker (ARC Identifier 5968038).  To achieve this record of accomplishment, a diverse group of lawmen, like Bass Reeves, “rode for Parker” and risked their lives daily in the name of justice.  In fact, of the 200 deaths of deputy marshals recorded by the U.S. Marshal Service, more than 120 lost their lives in the twin territories prior to 1907.15 As a result, it is easy to see why the Indian and Oklahoma territories can be considered the most wild and dangerous of the territories of the old Wild West and how “a few good men” made a significant difference during this period of 19th Century U.S. history.

Click twice on each document image to enlarge.

 

 

__________

Endnotes

1 Art T. Burton Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), p. 89.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 6.

5 James’ Notarized Statement; Arkansas 1873-1877, 1.

6 “I.C. Parker, U.S. District Judge,” National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site, accessed August 11, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/district-judge.htm.

7 “Judge Parker is Dead — 1896,” National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site, accessed August 11, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/judge-parker-is-      dead.htm.

8 Art T. Burton Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), p. 30-31.

9 “I.C. Parker, U.S. District Judge,” National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site, accessed August 11, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/district-judge.htm.

10 Ibid.

11 “Judge Parker: An Able Jurist,” National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site, accessed August 11, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/able-jurist.htm.

12 Art T. Burton Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), p. 30.

13 Ibid.

14 Chandler to Harrison, District of Columbia, 1889-1893, 1.

15 Art T. Burton Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), p. 6.

Bibliography

Annie James Notarized Statement of Arrest and Imprisonment, May 11, 1877, (James’ Notarized Statement); Arkansas 1873-1877 Upham, D.P. (Arkansas, 1873-1877); 350 Appointment Files for Judicial Districts.1853-1905; RG60 Records Relating to the Appointment of Federal Judges, Marshals, and Attorneys; National Archives Building II, College Park,   MD.

Burton, Art T. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Letter of support for Judge Isaac C. Parker from Jefferson Chandler, Counselor At Law to President Benjamin Harrison, September 20, 1892 (Chandler to Harrison); District of Columbia 1889-1893 Parker, I.C. (District of Columbia, 1889-1893); 350 Appointment Files for Judicial Districts.1853-1905; RG60 Records Relating to the Appointment of Federal Judges, Marshals, and Attorneys; National Archives Building II, College Park,   MD.

National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site. “I.C. Parker, U.S. District Judge.” Accessed August 11, 2011. http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/district-judge.htm.

National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site. “Judge Parker: An Able Jurist.” Accessed August 11, 2011. http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/able-jurist.htm.

National Park Service: Fort Smith National Historic Site. “Judge Parker is Dead – 1896.” Accessed August 11, 2011. http://www.nps.gov/fosm/historyculture/judge-parker-is-dead.htm.


Comments

Jason Clingerman September 22, 2011 at 8:22 am

Seems like those deputy marshals had “true grit”

Daria Labinsky September 22, 2011 at 10:03 am

For a kid’s-eye view of Bass Reeves, see Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, which won the Coretta Scott King Award a few years back.

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