Marshal Bill TilghmanIt was said, “There is no Sunday west of St. Louis–no God west of Ft. Smith.”
Indian Territory.  A perfect haven for outlaws of every kind. They could run west of Ft. Smith where lawlessness reigned, where there were no consequences for any crime–until Judge Isaac Parker and his U.S. Deputy Marshals took charge.
By 1870, the Indian Territory had become a hellhole not fit for honest citizens. The last civilized gateway into the territory was in Arkansas–Ft. Smith.
The Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) who had been relocated to Indian Territory, had their own judicial system for the Indians of the Nations. But their courts had no jurisdiction over intruders who found their way into the Territory.

In 1875, President Grant appointed Judge Isaac Parker to what later became the Western Judicial District of Arkansas, including not only several counties in Arkansas and a strip along the Kansas border, but all of Indian Territory as well. The total area of the court’s jurisdiction was nearly 74,000 square miles, with Indian Territory accounting for over 70,000 square miles of that area.  Marshal Bill Tilghman (above left) was one of the most famous marshals of this era.

Judge Isaac ParkerThe lawmen, or the “Men Who Rode for Parker,” numbered less than 200 at the outset. Only one carried the title, “U.S. Marshal.” The rest were deputies. The marshal’s salary was $90 per month. the deputies received no salary at all. They could arrest for any crime committed in the 74,000 mile area–with or without a warrant. They earned usually no more than $500 per year. Up until 1898, a fee system was in place that allowed a deputy to collect $2 for each arrest he made. In addition, he could receive 6 cents per mile for going to the location of the arrest, and 10 cents per mile for himself and his prisoner to return to court.
No arrest meant no payment, and if he should happen to kill a suspect in attempting the arrest, the deputy was expected to pay for the suspect’s burial.  Judge Parker (above) ruled with an iron fist, and was known as “The Hanging Judge.”

After all the deputy’s expenses were tallied, the U.S. Marshal deducted 25 percent from the total before he paid the deputy the remainder.
During the 21 years of Judge Parker’s tenure, over 65 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty. Some references list the number as high as 100.

Marshal Christian MadsenBeing a U.S. Deputy Marshal was even tougher in real life than Hollywood could ever portray. Christian Madsen (left), Bill Tilghman, and Heck Thomas were known as “The Three Guardsmen” throughout the Territory for their unending fight to bring lawfulness to the rough borderlands and the unsettled lands beyond.

 The lonely existence these men led, riding out in search of desperate criminals over vast areas of land for a $2 arrest fee, is unimaginable today. The turnover rate was high due to the danger, the low pay, and the enormous amount of territory they had to cover. Weeks of separation from their families was also a deterrent.

But the facts show what those deputy marshals did to bring Indian Territory back under the law again. Judge Parker tried over 17,000 cases during his time at the Western Judicial District of Arkansas–and there were never more than 200 men on the payroll to accomplish these arrests. Order could not have been restored without these men, willing to risk their lives to bring justice back to the wild borderlands of Arkansas, Kansas and Indian Territory.

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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22 thoughts on “HELL ON THE BORDER”

  1. Hi Cheryl! I had no ideal marshalls made so little money. There’s a scene in a John Wayne movie where he’s dickering to get paid for the man he brought in. Now I know why it’s there.

    Did Bill Tilghman have a cookie-duster moustache or what!

  2. Wow, rough life. Have read several historicals lately where he lawman quit his profession…no wonder.

    Peace, Julie

  3. Wow, losing more than 65 deputies in the line of duty. That’s gotta take a toll. Great post, Cheryl. I learn so much here from my filly sisters. oxoxo

  4. Love reading these ineresting posts. They often send me looking for more information.

    My grandfather was a sheriff in the 20s and 30s. My grandmother used to tell all kinds of interesting stories. The town only had one jail cell and so any women arrested were taken to their home where grandma became jailer. I think that most ‘crimes’ my grandpa investigated were minor ones but I do have some interesting memories of her stories.

  5. Interesting post, Cheryl. Those deputies had it tough. But I’m glad they were only paid if they brought the criminal in alive. It’d be too tempting to start shooting anything that moved otherwise.

  6. Interesting post, Cheryl. I had no idea they were so poorly paid. I didn’t think they mad a lot of money, but basically working for mileage wasn’t much. Of course, there were a lot of miles to cover. I am sure having to pay for the burial was partly to keep them from taking the sentencing part of the law into their own hands.
    I would think very few of them had any sort of family life.
    Why did the Marshall deduct 25% of their earnings? What did it go for or did it go into his pocket? Seems like an awfully big percentage to loose.

  7. Anyone remember this line from True Grit?

    “I aim to kill you Ned or see you hanged at Judge Parker’s convenience, which’ll it be?”

    Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper, said, “That’s mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

    John Wayne says, “Fill your hand you SOB.”

    Then he takes those reins in his teeth and charged four armed men, twirling his rifles to cock them. A great, great scene.

    You suppose he meant THIS Judge Parker????

  8. wow! that’s so very interesting!
    what crappy pay…it took a long time to cover a mile back then
    i would be nervous that they’d just arrest some people willy nilly for a couple bucks
    and seriously..how tough to get them in alive if they really were criminals
    i mean–they knew they were likely to get hung so i’m sure they were desperate for escape

    i’m really bad at recognizing faces…so unless i witnessed someone do something wrong and arrested them right there…i’d be in trouble
    i think i would just sit in the bar and watch the drunkards cause problems…then haul them in…it’s stay close the the “haul ya in” place too i think, lol
    guess i’m not marshall material

    was it two bucks no matter the crime?

  9. Very interesting. I’m sure $2 was worth a lot more back then but doesn’t seem like enough considering the lives they lead and risked.

  10. Hi Vicki,

    I love that scene–I think it’s from True Grit…maybe Rooster Cogburn. I know they are re-making True Grit, but it will be really hard for me to think of anyone else as Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne was so perfect in that role. Thanks so much for commenting!

  11. Hi Julie,

    Yes, I can sure understand that too! I write a lot about marshals in my books, and I have some of them quitting and settling down, even though they had thought once that marshalling was a wonderful way to live–once they meet the heroine, they are ready to give it up and try something a bit safer. The money really wasn’t all that great.

  12. HEY TANYA!!!

    I love learning all these tidbits from my filly sisters, too! This is a great place, isn’t it? I’m so glad you came by and commented–I know you are really busy.


  13. Connie,

    That is so interesting about your grandparents. You know, I had never thought about WOMEN prisoners and where they might be held. Boy, I have to say, your grandmother was courageous to let them stay in her house. If a woman did something bad enough to be arrested they probably wouldn’t be the type you’d want in your home, for sure!


  14. Hey Karen,

    You are right–but I would think there would be some times that it just wouldn’t matter about the money–times were really rough back then, and those criminals they brought in were pretty desperate. I’m sure there were a lot of them that were killed because it was a “kill or be killed” situation. Paying them for live criminals just helped even the odds for everyone a little.


  15. Hey Patricia,

    Yes, that 25% was part of the Marshal’s “earnings” from what I can tell. That’s pretty amazing isn’t it–as you say, that’s a high percentage to have to just turn over. I really enjoyed doing the research for this blog, as I write a lot of stories with marshals in them. Technically, there was only one “Marshal” and the rest were deputies, but I fudged a little in my books. LOL

    Thanks so much for commenting!

  16. Hi Cheryl, when I first saw your headline I immediately thought of our current day border hell. Our border patrol are the closest we have to those old time marshals. What we’re missing is Judge Parker.

  17. Hi Mary,

    OH I LOVED THAT SCENE SO MUCH!!! That was one of my dad’s favorite movies and that scene was one of his all time fave scenes in any movie. Yes, that was who John Wayne was talking about for sure, Judge Parker–he was something else. In Ft. Smith there is quite a lot of history about him and those times–I’d love to go there and spend about a week, just researching.

    Thanks so much for your comments–that quote brought back some wonderful memories.


  18. Hey Tabitha,

    Somewhere I read that there was a bit of variance though not much–there had to be, or everyone would just sit around and haul in the drunks and the hardened dangerous criminals would go free. LOL Of course, there was reward money, and now we can see why it was so sought after and such a huge deal! Even a $100 reward was big money back then, especially in light of the small amount these marshals actually made. I would be like you, hauling in the small time crooks. LOL


  19. Hi Catslady,

    Yeah, $2 was worth more then than now, but like you say, not worth as much as what they had to risk and the rough and tumble lives they led.

    Thanks for commenting!


  20. Margaret,

    WOW, I never thought of that, but you are so right! That’s really true! Unfortunately, those border patrol agents don’t have much of a support system from our own gov’t. Not like in the old days, for sure!


  21. Hi Tracy,

    when I worked at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum here in Oklahoma City, there was a young couple who came in with their little boy, a fiery little redheaded 3 year old. The woman was showing the boy a picture and some memorabilia in one of the cases, and I heard her say something about “grandpa.” I started talking to her, and she told me that Bill Tilghman was her great grandfather. She and her husband had named their little boy “Tilghman” as a first name, in his honor.


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