• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

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Cherokee Bill's First Murder Trial

Cherokee Bill's trial for the murder of Ernest Melton began on February 26, 1895. His defense attorney was the renowned J. Warren Reed, known as "That Lawyer Who Always Wins His Cases." Reed's strategy was to establish an alibi for Bill by having several witnesses place him at various locations between Fort Gibson and Tulsa on the day before and of the murder. That would mean Cherokee Bill had been 75 miles from the crime scene, making it impossible for him to participate in the robbery and murder.

The federal prosecutors in the case, however, put witnesses of the crime on the stand, all of which positively identified Cherokee Bill as the perpetrator of the crime. In addition, Ben Vann testified that at a dance shortly after the murder Bill had confessed to the killing, saying "I didn't intend to kill Melton, I only shot to scare him."

On February 27, 1895, the jury rendered the verdict in the case: "Guilty as charged in the … indictment."

According to a local Newspaper, Cherokee Bill simply smiled but his mother who had attended the trial and testified on his behalf, broke into wails of grief. He reportedly turned to her and said "What's the matter with you? I'm not dead yet." In the federal jail that afternoon Cherokee Bill was "engaged in a game of poker with Bill Cook and several kindred spirits, as if nothing had happened."

On Saturday morning, April 13, Cherokee Bill was brought before Judge Parker to be sentenced for the murder of Ernest Melton. Defense attorney Reed was present to argue for a new trial and when the request was denied, he vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. Parker then proceeded with the sentencing, saying "From the evidence in the case there can be no doubt of your guilt. That evidence shows a killing of the most brutal and wicked character… Melton was the innocent, unoffending victim of the savage brutality which prompted the robbery and murder." The judge then told the convicted murderer that he was to be executed by hanging on June 25.

The Fort Smith newspaper reported that Cherokee Bill "took the sentence very calmly… [and] disclosed no emotion whatever. The only show he made that he regarded the matter more seriously than when he was convicted, was the absence of his smile."

On April 29, Reed appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court listing 14 "manifest errors to the prejudice and great damage" to himself and his client. That appeal nullified the execution date of June 25, as the case was still in the hands of the Supreme Court. It was in the middle of that Arkansas summer of 1895 that Cherokee Bill planned his escape from the jail at Fort Smith.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Marauders of the Indian Nations by Glenn Shirley.

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Did You Know?

Park staff and volunteers demonstrating using lindstock and slowmatch to ignite the cannon's primer

The soldiers who came to Fort Smith in 1817 were still using some 18th century technology and drill. The cannon was discharged using a lindstock and slowmatch to ignite the primer, which originally was loose powder or a turkey quill filled with powder.