Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 1
FROM PARKER TO POE
BEING A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE EARLY JUDICIARY OF TULSA COUNTY
John Bartlett Meserve.
The area that is today Tulsa County, Oklahoma, came under the jurisdiction of the United States on April 30, 1803, when the
Louisiana Territory was purchased from France. New Orleans was formally entered by the United States authorities on December
20, 1803. The colors of Spain had initially waved over this region from 1541-2 to 1682 when the French moved in and continued
their possession until 1755. Spain again resumed its claims in that year and continued intermittently to exert its ownership
until October 1, 1800, upon which date the vast tract was ceded to France. A court was established by the French, at Biloxi
in 1699 and at New Orleans in 1723. We were subjects of the First Consul when he crossed the Alps, fought the Austrians at
Marengo, dictated the peace of Amiens and reached a peak in his famous career. But there were no white people here during
those twilight years and the wild Indians knew nothing about these claims of ownership of their domain and cared less.
An Act of Congress was passed on March 26, 1804, creating the District of Louisiana, north of latitude thirty-three, wherein
it was provided, "The governor and judges of Indiana Territory shall have power to establish in said District of Louisiana,
superior courts and prescribe their duties and jurisdiction and make all needful laws which may be conducive to the good government
of the inhabitants." The fact that Old Vincennes was so far away affected no one and the savage native continued to sport
along the Arkansas utterly oblivious of any disciplinary measures by the Indiana courts. On March 8, 1805, by Act of Congress,
the District of Louisiana was made the Territory of Louisiana with headquarters at St. Louis. Section four of this act provided,
"There shall be appointed three judges who shall hold office for
four years and shall possess the same jurisdiction which is possessed by the judges of Indiana Territory." An enabling act
was passed in 1811 under which the State of Louisiana as now constituted, was admitted into the Union, the succeeding year.
Tulsa County became, by Act of Congress of June 4, 1812, a part of the newly created Territory of Missouri, section ten of
which act provides, "That the judicial power shall be vested in a superior court and in inferior courts and justices of the
peace. The superior court shall consist of three judges." The judges were to be appointed by the President. Tulsa County was
at that time a part of Arkansas County of the Territory of Missouri. This county embraced the present State of Arkansas and
also the entire present State of Okahoma, save the Panhandle. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821 and Arkansas Territory
was formed by the Act of March 2, 1819, section seven providing, "That the judicial power shall be vested in a superior court
and in such inferior courts as the legislative department shall institute and in justices of the peace. The superior court
shall consist of three judges, who shall reside in the territory." The new Territory so created embraced the present limits
of Tulsa County but on May 6, 1828 the western boundary line of Arkansas Terirtory was moved eastward to a line approximately
forty miles west of the present western boundary line of the State of Arkansas. On June 30, 1834, Congress passed an act to
regulate trade and intercourse with the Indians and to preserve peace on the frontiers, wherein it is stated, "All that part
of the United States west of the Mississippi river and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana or the Territory of
Arkansas, shall be deemed Indian country." The act further defined what should be crimes and extended the "Federal laws of
the United States as to punishment of crimes committed therein." Section twenty-four of this act provided, "All that part
of the Indian country west of the Mississippi river, bounded north by line of lands assigned to Osages, west by Mexican possessions,
south by the Red River and east by the west line of the Territory of Arkansas, shall be annexed to the Territory of Arkansas."
Arkansas as now defined became a state on June 16, 1836.
In the thirties of the last century, the enforced removal of the Cherokees and Creeks to the old Indian Territory, was accomplished.
Tulsa County was subsequently carved out of an area formerly embraced within the domain of each of these tribes. The northern
portion of the county is within the 7,000,000 acres which had been originally assigned by the Government to the Cherokees
in 1828. This tribe, after its removal and on September 6, 1839, adopted a formal written constitution wherein provision was
made for "A supreme court and inferior courts as the National Council may establish." The Cherokee domain was divided into
eight districts, the northern part of what is today Tulsa County falling within Cooweescoowee district established in 1856
and presided over by a circuit judge who held court, first about four miles northeast of Claremore and later, at Claremore.
The remaining portion of Tulsa County fell under the jurisdiction of the lower Creeks presided over by Chief Roley McIntosh.
The Creeks were rather indifferent and careless about their self-government and adhered to their primitive government of town
chiefs. The Creeks composed their factional differences and, in October, 1867, adopted a written constitution wherein they
provided for a "supreme court" and for "district courts" in each of the six districts into which the Creek domain was divided.
That portion of Tulsa county lying south of the Cherokee line and north of the Arkansas river was situated in the Coweta district,
with court held at Coweta. That part of the county lying south of the Arkansas came within the Okmulgee district with court
convening at Okmulgee. The judges were appointed by the National Council. The tribal courts of the Cherokee and Creek Nations
took no cognizance of the white man and their tribal laws had no application to him or to his activities, but were limited
in their jurisdiction to the tribal members.
An Act of Congress was passed on June 17, 1844, extending the jurisdiction of the Federal courts of Arkansas over the Indian
Territory. The Western Federal District of Arkansas was established in 1851 with headquarters at Van Buren but were later
removed to Ft. Smith. This court was invested with complete and sole jurisdiction over all persons of non-Indian blood within
Indian Territory only to offences against the laws of the United States, but had no jurisdiction over the Indians for "crimes
committed by one Indian against the person or property of another Indian." The anomalous situation was presented of two peoples
occupying the same jurisdiction but each responsible to an entirely different set of laws and courts. For upwards of thirty
years, this Arkansas Federal Court evidenced little interest in restraining the lawless whites which began to infest the Territory.
This inertia provoked a situation which has no parallel in our history. The aftermath of the Civil War, the settlement of
the border States, the development of the Texas cattle trade and the advent of the railroads resulted in an era of unparalleled
disorder. The Territory became a convenient rendezvous for irregulars from the States seeking a sanctuary among the Indians
and where there was no "white man's court." It became a "port for missing men." The crime which became rampant was one which
the tribal courts could not restrain and a condition developed which defies prosaic description.
Into this seething maelstrom of unbridled vice, in the spring of 1875, came Isaac Charles Parker, the newly appointed "carpet
bag" United States District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. On May 10, 1875, when Judge Parker entered upon his
duties in the Ft. Smith court, a vindication of the law was inaugurated and for twenty-one strenuous years, he fearlessly
met the last open challenge of outlawry of the plains. His court was unique in that there was no appeal from his decisions
as they affected the Territory, for the first fourteen years of his tenure, save that for clemency to the President. During
the years of his service our thirteen thousand criminal cases were docketed in his court. In nine thousand of these, convictions
were had either by juries or by pleas of guilty. One hundred and fifty-one, upon conviction were sentenced to be hanged and
eighty-three of these actually were hanged and all for offenses committed in the Territory. This gruesome record manifestly
reflects the vicious condition which obtained and likewise acquaints us with the unafraid judge who composed the desperate
situation. Gradually the opposition to the law's enforcement
became weakened and order came out of chaos. Congress destroyed the finality of his judgments in 1889 and in 1896, having
established a judiciary for the old Territory, divested the Ft. Smith court of its most unusual jurisdiction. Death summoned
the tired jurist before the Bar of Eternal Justice on November 17, 1896, but the yeoman service of Judge Parker will ever
linger, a hallowed memory.
The Act of March 1, 1889, created the first United States Court for the old Indian Territory, investing that court with jurisdiction
throughout the entire Territory, of all offenses as defined by previous legislation, save those offenses punishable by death
or hard labor. The laws of Arkansas relating to "practice, pleadings and forms of procedure" were extended over the Territory
but jurisdiction over controversies between persons of Indian blood was denied the newly created court. Each succeeding Congress
enlarged the jurisdiction of this court and on June 28, 1898, the tribal courts were abolished and all tribal laws suspended.
The dual system which had so long been a source of dissension and misunderstanding was to become but a memory.
Judge James M. Shackleford of Indiana, the newly appointed United States Judge for the Indian Territory opened court at Muskogee
on April 1, 1889. His Civil War record doubtless influenced his appointment. Upon his retirement, he was succeeded by the
capable Judge Charles B. Stuart of Texas, in 1893. On March 1, 1895, the Northern District, composed of the Cherokee, Creek,
and Seminole Nations, was created and Judge William M. Springer of Illinois was appointed. An extra floating judge was provided
for the entire Territory on June 7, 1897, and Judge John R. Thomas of Illinois was designated. Judge Thomas sentenced to death
the first man ever sentenced to pay the supreme penalty in the Indian Territory, being a man by the name of Cyrus Brown, who
was hanged at Muskogee after his conviction had been affirmed by the Supreme Court. The first man ever actually to hang in
the Territory was E. V. Brooks, a negro who was also sentenced by judge Thomas at Muskogee. The erratic Judge Charles W. Raymond
of Illinois succeeded Judge Thomas in 1901. The western
District was formed on May 27, 1902, and was composed of the Creek and Seminole Nations while the Northern District thereafter
embraced only the old Cherokee Nation, and Judge Charles W. Raymond was appointed judge of the newly created Western District
and Judge Louis Sulzbacker who came to the Territory from New Mexico via Porto Rico, became the floating judge of that district
in 1904. A floating judge in each District was created on April 28, 1904. Judge Raymond was succeeded by Judge William R.
Lawrence of Illinois in 1906. Judge Springer yielded the judgeship of the Northern District to Judge Joseph A. Gill of Kansas
in 1899 and in 1904, Judge Lumen F. Parker of Missouri became the floating judge for the Northern District. At Statehood,
the Northern District was presided over by judges Gill and Parker and the Western District by Judges Lawrence and Sulzbacker.
Tulsa County as today constituted, lay partially in both districts during those early days.
The 28th recording district was created in 1906 and Tulsa became a court town in the Western District. Judge Lawrence held
several terms of court here. Theretofore, the portion of Tulsa County embraced within the Creek domain had been attached to
the recording district of which Sapulpa was the court town. Otis Lorton who had been appointed clerk of the new recording
district formally opened the recording office in Tulsa on July 3, 1906. The office was on Second Street in the building now
used by the city fire department and it was at that place that Judge Lawrence held his first term of court in Tulsa. The portion
of Tulsa County which was formerly a part of the Cherokee Nation, was attached to the recording district of which Claremore
was the court town.
Under the laws of Arkansas which had been extended over the Indian Territory, the mayor of Tulsa possessed certain minor judicial
powers, which in his absence were discharged by the city recorder. These powers were not altogether of a police character
but extended to the trial of minor civil matters. The mayor was always conveniently absent and the city recorder was busy
throughout the day, disposing of these matters. Judge Warren D. Abbott
occupied this position when Statehood came and functioned in a most efficient manner. United States Commissioners with justice
of the Peace jurisdiction were appointed by the various judges and the late Charles W. Butterworth served as such in the 28th
recording district, which position he held upon the advent of Statehood.
The laws which were administered in those early days, now of history, were enactments by Congress at Washington in which the
good folk of the old Indian Territory had no representative. These laws were construed by judges and enforced by marshals
who came from without the Territory. But long range government was approaching the shadows. Statehood had been authorized
and stood expectantly at the threshold with a written constitution providing for a supreme court and for district and county
courts. This organic instrument defined the boundaries of Tulsa county, substantially as they are today. The bells rang and
the whistles blew at eleven o'clock on the morning of November 16, 1907, in Tulsa, when the word came through from Washington
that President Theodore Roosevelt had formally signed his proclamation of Statehood for Oklahoma.
The initial judiciary of Tulsa County after Statehood was of a high character. We pause to mention the patient, kindy Judge
Ralph E. Campbell who ascended the Federal bench of the Eastern District at Muskogee which position he so capably filled for
eleven years. Judges Robert L. Williams, Samuel W. Hayes, John B. Turner, Jesse Dunn and Matthew J. Kane graced the bench
of the State Supreme Court with an efficiency, dignity and poise of the highest character. The new county court of Tulsa County
was opened by the late Judge Nicholas J. Gubser.
Judge L. M. Poe, the first district judge of Tulsa county, is a native of Arkansas, came to the old Okahoma Territory in 1893
and settled at Pawnee where he began the practice of law. He arrived in Tulsa on July 5, 1895, and opened his offices, since
which time he has been actively engaged in the practice of his profession. These preliminary years fitted him most capably
the task and no member of the Tulsa bar was so well advised of conditions during those early formative days of Statehood as
was Judge Poe. He brought to the bench a thorough knowledge of the law, a wealth of practical experience in the practice and
a judicial poise which marked him as one of the ablest jurists of the young State. He was a marked evidence of the fact that
it was quite unnecessary to import our judiciary from Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, Missouri or Porto Rico. Judge Poe
was then as he is today, one of the most highly respected and loved characters in Tulsa.
The first and only judicial execution in Tulsa county resulted from the trial in the district court, of Frank Henson, a negro,
charged with the murder of Charley Stamper, a deputy sheriff, at Dawson on October 9, 1910. The negro was prosecuted by Maurice
A. Breckinridge, the capable young county attorney and was convicted by the jury on November 23, 1910, with the death penalty
inflicted. The conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Criminal Court of Appeals, after which Judge Poe imposed the death
penalty as fixed by the jury and, on March 31, 1911, the supreme penalty was exacted by W. M. ("Bill") McCullough, the sheriff
of Tulsa County, near the old county jail at the corner of Detroit Avenue and East Second Street.
The period of law enforcement from Parker to Poe is a unique chapter in the history of our country. The annals of the judiciary
of Tulsa County since those early, hectic days, are not, as yet, far enough removed to become matters of history.1
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