A brief tribute to the men who were responsible for enforcing the law in the lawless Indian Territory

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The Lawmen of Old Fort Smith

Judge Parker is given credit for cleaning up the nest of outlaws, rapist and murderers that stalked the Indian Territories. But, as he said about the lawmen who arrested and brought to trial these desperadoes, "Without these men, I could not hold court a single day."

Parker's chief prosecutor was William H. H. Clayton, District Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Clayton had served with the Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War and been part of many historic battles. In 1864, after leaving the Army he came to Pine Bluff to study law. He was admitted to the Arkansas bar in 1871 and was soon appointed prosecutor for the First Judicial Circuit of Arkansas and in 1874 was appointed by President Grant as United States Attorney for the Western District at Fort Smith.

"Prince of the hangmen" was George Maledon, pictured below.  Maledon was a Civil War veteran and a crack shot and always wore two pistols. He was not only hangman but executioner by gun shot for several men attempting escape from the jail at Fort Smith. One man, aware of Maledon's reputation, escaped knowing he would probably be shot. He said he preferred death by Maledon's gun rather than by his noose.

Federal Prosecutor William H. H. Clayton

Hangman George Maledon

Maledon was a man proud of his work. His ropes were the finest from St. Louis and he tied the knot in such a fashion to break the man's neck instantly rather then have him strangle. During his career he hung 60 of the 79 men to die on the Fort Smith gallows. Once asked if he feared the ghosts of the men he hung, he replied that he never hung a man that came back to have it done over.

After the end of the federal court and his career in Fort Smith, hangman George Maledon toured the country displaying his his ropes and hangman knots at carnivals and county fairs displaying some of the nooses he used and to explain his craft. 

Notice the badge worn by Deputy U. S. Marshal Heck Thomas in the photo below. It is not much like those worn by real U.S. Deputy Marshals portrayed in movies. Someone's hand is resting on the Marshal's right shoulder when this picture was taken. I would guess that it is his wife's cut out of the photo. Marshall Heck Thomas was one of the more famous Western law men. Later in life he acted as technical advisor on several western movies.

Almost 100 deputy marshals were killed while serving under Judge Parker.  This stands in stark contrast to the 79 men who died on the gallows in Fort Smith. Angels by no means, yet most had a dedication to their jobs and their duties as lawmen. Only 200 deputy marshals covered an area of 74,000 square miles. The job was huge and the risks just as great.  These men really did have "true grit" and fictitious deputy marshal Rooster Cogburn as portrayed by John Wayne was not that far off the mark.

 

Seven Deputy U.S. Marshals with deceased outlaw Ned Christie. The men are identified as (1) Paden Tolbert (2) Capt. G.S. White (3) Coon Ratteree (4) Enoch Mills (5) deceased Ned Christie (6) Thomas Johnson (7) Charles Copeland (8) Heck Bruner

 

Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas

In 1908 former Deputy U.S. Marshals for the Federal Court of The Western District of Arkansas, Judge Isaac Charles Parker's court held a reunion in Fort Smith. This is one panel from the picture of the reunion on the previous page. The buildings on the right in the picture no longer stand near the north end of Garrison Avenue. Some were destroyed in the devastating storm of 1990.

The man on the far left in the photo below is former marshal Bob Fortune, one of the few African American deputy marshals working for Parker's court. That number includes Bass Reeves. At the time of this reunion Bass Reeves was living in Muskegon, Oklahoma where he died in 1910. These black deputies, among some of the best serving Judge Parker have been mostly overlooked by the authors of books about Fort Smith and Parker's court. Bass Reeves, the best of the best now has a statue along Garrison Avenue of him mounted on his horse with his dog. It is standing near the Fort Smith National Historical Site as a reminder that African and Native Americans also served the court that brought the law to the Indian Territory when there was "No Law West of Fort Smith".

The photo above is of seven of the U.S. Deputy Marshals and posse that finally put an end to the long criminal career of renegade Ned Christie. On the right is another picture that includes an additional three. A total of seventeen deputy marshals and other men were part of the group that used a cannon brought from Fort Smith after a days long battle to dislodge Christie from his fortress and bring him to an untimely end.

Little known to many and sadly neglected in the history of Fort Smith is African American Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves. He was born a slave of the white Reeves family in Crawford County, Arkansas. The Reeves and Bass's slave parents moved to Texas in a covered wagon when he was a small child. The story of how he came to the Indian Nations is mostly legend with few facts really known. It is said that he escaped from the Reeves' ranch about the time of the Civil War and sought refuge among one of the tribes. Bass spoke fluently more than one native language, which served him well as a marshal. Before he became a Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his young family are listed in 1870 census in Van Buren with his occupation given as "farmer." In 1880 his occupation is listed as "Marshal" indicating that he went to work for Judge Parker's court soon after Parker arrived in Fort Smith in 1875. Bass Reeve's exploits are chronicled in the book, "Black Gun, Silver Star" by author Arthur T. Burton. For more about Bass Reeves click on this link.

Some of the former marshals are buried in Fort Smith's historic Oak Cemetery. Judge Parker died in 1896 after a months long illness. He is buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery near the front entrance. His grave site can be found by using the registry at the front of the cemetery.

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Ronald N. Wall
Modified: 17 November 2017