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

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK


In the 19th century, Indian Territory was home to not only law-abiding Indians, but also desperate criminals trying to hide out from U.S. law.

While Indian courts had their own tribal courts and tribal police, they had no jurisdiction over cases involving non-Indians. Deputy marshals from Fort Smith were sent into Indian Territory to find and arrest those individuals who were to be tried by the federal court. With a territory of over 74,000 square miles, the outlaws knew that finding them would be a difficult job.

While the stories of the outlaws charged with violent crimes such as rape and murder are most commonly associated with this court, the majority of cases heard by Judge Parker were not capital crimes. Individuals were arrested and brought to the Fort Smith jail on charges such as petty theft, whiskey peddling, arson, illegal timber cutting, and violation of the postal laws.

For an outline of the steps that a criminal case would follow, from complaint to sentencing, click here.

Did You Know?

Portrait of Anna Dawes

A woman was responsible for the building of a modern federal jail at Fort Smith, AR, in 1888. Anna Dawes, daughter of Sen. Dawes of MA, visited the "Hell on the Border" jail in 1885 and wrote an article describing its conditions. When read in Congress, money was quickly approved for a new jail.