U. S. Marshals in Indian Territory


By 1870, The Indian Territory had become a hellhole to live in and the honest citizens were in constant fear for their lives.  The Court at Ft. Smith was considered a joke by the citizens of the territory since the Judge and Federal District Attorney were known to 'rig' cases to see that guilty felons were found innocent and released to commit more atrocities in the Nations.  The criminal element in Indian Territory carried a lot of clout in Ft. Smith.  In that year a great outcry was heard from the Five Civilized Tribes leaders and attorneys over the lawlessness that was going on in the territory committed by intruders such as whites and Negroes.  The five Nations had their own courts and jails for the Indians of the Nations.  The problem was with the intruders.  The Indian courts had no jurisdiction over these renegades.

In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker, a Republican was appointed, by President U.S. Grant, also a Republican, to what later became the Western Judicial District of Arkansas.  This area included the counties in Arkansas that ran north and south along the western Arkansas border, all of Indian Territory and a strip 50 miles wide along the southern Kansas boundary.  Indian Territory was an area of more than 70,000 square miles and the "Men who Rode for Parker" numbered less than 200.

There was only one U.S. Marshal in the district.  All the rest were Deputies.  The U.S. Marshal drew a salary of $90 per month and the deputies drew damn little.  They received no salary.  The deputies drew mileage of 6 cents per mile whether tracking a killer or delivering court papers and summons.  The deputies also received pay of $2 each upon delivery of a summons or for each prisoner they delivered, no matter how violent or dangerous they may have been.  The court paid the cost of transporting the prisoners.  The prisoner transport usually consisted of a cook, chuck wagon, prisoner wagon, driver and several extra mules and horses.

The three deputies that became known as the "Three Guardians" were Chris Madsen, Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas.  These three were responsible for many of the arrest of some of the most ruthless and dangerous criminals in the Nations and later Oklahoma Territory. These men were absolutely fearless when trailing and capturing fugitives.  The outlaws such as Ned Christie, Dick Glass and Rufus Buck would kill you for the gold in your teeth.

The old saying of "bring them in dead or alive" did not bear well on Judge Parker.  He did not want a bunch of killers wearing badges on his behalf.  In fact, when a Deputy Marshal killed a prisoner that he was bringing to Ft. Smith, he was required to pay for the dead prisoners funeral, casket and headstone out of his own pocket.  A $60 funeral would take a lot of miles to cover at 6 cents a mile and $2 per summons.  

The deputies were allowed to keep any territorial or State reward for the capture of an offender.  They were not allowed to keep any Federal reward since they already 'worked' for the U.S. Government.  There is one story of Alva Roff  of Ardmore that had two brothers killed by the Lee Brothers, a notorious gang of rustlers.  Roff offered the two Deputy Marshals 2,000 head of cattle to kill the Lee Brothers  instead of bring them to Ft. Smith.  When the marshals tracked the rustlers to a creek near Delaware Bend on the Red River, they identified themselves as marshals and shot and killed the Lee Boys.  The marshals took the two bodies to the sheriff at Gainesville, TX and got a receipt for the bodies.  Alva Roff ordered his foreman to cut out the two thousand cattle and the debt was paid.  At that time in Indian Territory, a steer would bring $6 to $10 each.  This would be a reward of about $20,000, a tremendous sum of money for the time.  

The truth about Judge Parker is that in 21 years, he tried over 17,000 cases. In all the convictions, he sentenced less than 1/10 of 1 percent to the gallows.  That is why he insisted that the Marshals bring in the prisoners and let him decide the sentence.  Judge Parker seemed to be very equal in his justice.  Of those hanged, only one woman was hung.  The races of those who were hung  were equally divided as well.  One third was White, one third was Black and one third was Indian.  Judge Parker did not seem to be prejudiced at all when it came to the gallows.

Of the 200 marshals that were on the payroll at any one time, 86 of these paid with their lives while on duty.  Many were ambushed on the trail.  The turnover in the men who were deputies were numerous.  The low pay along with the sprawling prairie to police and long days or weeks separated from the families made it difficult to keep a deputy.


- Contributed by Dennis Muncrief, September 2001.