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Records from the Wild West, the Fort Smith Criminal Case Files Now Online

by on April 25, 2013


Today’s post comes from Stephanie Stegman, Volunteer at the National Archives at Fort Worth


The Fort Smith Criminal Case Files, 1866-1900 used to be difficult to search, but not anymore.  These Wild West court cases offer a glimpse of what life was like on the frontier between western Arkansas and the Indian Territory, which today is Oklahoma.  The National Archives at Fort Worth has a new website designed to guide you step by step through these colorful records.

Research Guide screenshot

The United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas was unusual because from 1851 until 1896 its jurisdiction extended westward, beyond the state of Arkansas, and into Indian Territory.  Tribal courts heard cases involving crimes committed among their own members until 1885.  However, most of the criminal offenses that occurred in this large area of 74,000 square miles were tried at the federal district court level.  These cases include a large number of liquor violations and larceny, such as stealing horses, as well as instances of murder and mayhem that we commonly associate with classic Western television shows.

John Middleton

Acting Lt. Governor of Texas, Barnett Gibbs’s Proclamation for the Apprehension of John Middleton, 04/21/1885  (National Archives Identifier 5898031)

After a fire at the original court seat in Van Buren, the Western District of Arkansas moved to Fort Smith on the Arkansas River in 1871 and into the recently closed U.S. Army barracks building in 1872.  For the next twenty years, the court heard cases from Indian Territory, where the lawless often went to hide out and ran into other criminals as well as law-abiding citizens.  The Fort Smith court records mention not only the defendants, but also some of the victims, witnesses, U.S. marshals, deputy marshals, and other court employees.

The criminal case files (also called defendant jackets) have been scanned and are available online through Ancestry.com.

Sam and Belle Starr jacket on Ancestry.com screen capture

These records tell sensational (and sometimes graphic) stories from the history of the American West with cases involving infamous outlaws: the “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr, the Dalton Gang, Crawford Goldsby (alias Cherokee Bill), and murderer-turned-silent-movie-star Henry Starr, to name a few.  Famous lawmen and jurists like the legendary black U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves and “Hanging” Judge Isaac C. Parker also make frequent appearances.

One researcher found 287 separate cases that mention Bass Reeves.  A former slave from Texas, Reeves had a distinguished career as a deputy marshal and served the federal district court for 32 years.  This number isn’t surprising, given his long career and his knack for capturing suspected criminals.  The men (and a few women) who were deputy marshals did the majority of the court’s work.  They served writs, gave testimony, and led posses as well as transporting and capturing or killing outlaws.

Oath of Office for Bass Reeves, 1889 (National Archives Identifier 6851120)

The National Archives at Fort Worth’s new research guide provides a description of these and other resources to explain the “who, what, when, and where” of the criminal case files.  In addition to case files, related court records also may help researchers to create a more complete picture of a particular case.  For a number of years, Fort Worth’s volunteers have worked to flatten documents, index records, and understand how these bits and pieces fit together.  Now all of these efforts are available online.

To learn more, visit the National Archives at Fort Worth’s website:  http://www.archives.gov/fort-worth/finding-aids/fort-smith-case-files/


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