It 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.
The 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.
Being 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.