Many of the most cherished images of the Old West are of the lone lawman pursuing and ultimately apprehending criminals. The image has been exploited effectively by novelists and filmmakers. In fact, such is the influence of fictional accounts of lawmen in the West that the truth, though no less interesting than the fiction, is not well known.
The image of the federal marshal, riding out in search of a desperate, evil criminal does not begin to show the complexity of the times or the disparate influences that the men who became deputies brought to the job.
The history of U.S. Marshals and their deputies has its roots in the Judiciary Act of 1789. One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the first Congress, the Judiciary Act, created the federal court system and the office of U.S. Marshal. Appointed by the president, a marshal served each of the newly created federal district and circuit courts. These men were broadly empowered to carry out all lawful orders issued by judges, Congress or the president. With the U.S. Marshal acting as the administrative head, it was the deputy marshals that carried out most of the work
The marshals’ principal function was to enforce orders and decisions of the federal courts. They served subpoenas, summonses, writs and warrants, and other processes issued by the judges and magistrates.
They made arrests and handled all of the prisoners confined by the courts until final application of sentence. They also distributed money, paying the fees and expenses of the jurors and witnesses, and contracting for the feeding of prisoners.
The marshals were also responsible for renting spaces for the courts and jails, and they hired bailiffs, criers and janitors.
As American settlement moved west, the U.S. Marshals went with it to uphold the law in remote, sparsely populated territories. The Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas was created in 1851 and, until 1896, held jurisdiction over 13 Arkansas counties and all or parts of the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). This vast area was home to the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, removed from their homelands in the Southeast by the U.S. government during the 1830s.
Treaties in 1866 reduced the territory of those nations as a result of alliances of at least some portions of each tribe with the Confederacy. This resulted in the relocation of additional Indian tribes in the territory, as well as increasing pressure from whites to open the lands to settlement. The treaties also granted the railroads access, creating a transportation link that enhanced the possibility of huge profits in cattle, lumbering and mineral mining.
With these opportunities for wealth, the overlapping jurisdictions of the U.S. government and independent Indian nations, and the vast acreage and distances that made avoiding justice easy, the Indian Territory became a chaotic refuge for the lawless.
Responsibility for policing this area fell to the federal court in Fort Smith. The Western District of Arkansas derived its uniqueness from the authority to handle cases between Indians and those who were not tribal members. The court, unlike most of its federal counterparts, handled an extraordinary criminal caseload, with most of this activity erupting after the Civil War. Until 1875, when Judge Parker arrived from Missouri, the court’s reputation for justice was poor.
Parker’s predecessor had resigned under the threat of impeachment; the past five U.S. Marshals had all left under similar clouds of scandal; and the deputies had a history of using perjury and bribery for their own ends.
In his 21 years at Fort Smith, Parker would restore the court to respectability. He gave much of the credit for his success to his deputies, once commenting that "without these officers, what is the use of this court?"
The deputy marshals who served the Fort Smith court came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were Civil War veterans. Others had been cowboys or ranchers. Most deputies knew a great deal about the Indian Territory and were independent, self reliant and willing to take great risks.
While the majority of deputies were white, the law enforcement force working in Indian Territory was probably the most integrated on the frontier at that time, having its share of both Indian and African American members. The use of these officers was an efficient and effective way of carrying out the work of the federal court because of the multicultural population in the jurisdiction.
As one historian has noted, "A deputy’s authority to a great extent depended on his being accepted and respected by the Indians." African American deputies held a decided advantage here because of the Five Tribes’ history of slaveholding. Unlike white deputies, many African American officers had lived with the Indians, understood local customs and possessed knowledge of tribal languages.
Deputies could arrest for any crime committed in the 74,000 square miles of the federal court’s jurisdiction. A set of instructions issued by the U.S. Marshal’s office in Fort Smith give an idea of the crimes and problems involved: "U.S. Deputy Marshals for the Western District of Arkansas may make arrest for: murder, manslaughter, assault with intent to kill or to maim, attempt to murder, arson, robbery, rape, bribery, burglary, larceny, incest, adultery. These arrests may be made with or without warrant first issued and in the hand of the Deputy or the Chief Marshal."
It was an occupation fraught with danger and over 65 deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty during Judge Parker’s tenure, a testament to the difficulty of the job and the bravery and ability of the marshals.
One would think the financial reward for putting life in danger would be substantial, but most deputies did not earn more than $500 per year. This was due to the fee system that would not be reformed until 1898. A deputy received $2 for making an arrest and could receive 6 cents per mile for going to the place of arrest and 10 cents per mile for himself and a prisoner returning to court.
If a deputy failed to make an arrest, he received no payment. If he killed a suspect while attempting an arrest, the deputy had to bury the dead man at his own expense unless he was fortunate enough to find relatives to claim the body. In that case, the deputy could collect $1 for the time and money he would be out in making that arrest.
Serving subpoenas, finding witnesses and other routine court business earned 50 cents per service. A deputy could receive 6 cents per mile for going to the place of service, but nothing for the return trip. After totaling the fees for a trip, the U.S. Marshal deducted his 25 percent before the deputy received payment.
Despite the risks and uncertainties of the job, conscientious deputy marshals did much to curb the disorder in rampant in the Indian Territory. These men enforced the law and established the idea of justice in the region. Their history remains one of the most colorful chapters of America's story.
Last updated: April 10, 2015