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The United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas was created by an act of Congress approved March 3, 1851, to enforce federal laws in nine counties of Western Arkansas and in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). Two additional Arkansas counties were added to the district in 1854. One judge presided over both the eastern and western Arkansas judicial districts until 1871 when Congress created a separate judgeship for the Western District and moved its headquarters from Van Buren to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The Western District Court held jurisdiction over all crimes committed by or against U.S. citizens in Indian Territory from 1851 to 1896. Both the sheer size of the region (over seventy-four thousand square miles) and the presence of American Indian courts whose jurisdiction extended only to tribe members complicated federal law enforcement efforts. Such conditions attracted fugitive criminals from surrounding states.

With population and crime in the Indian Territory increasing, Pres. Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 appointed William Story as district judge. Charges of corruption soon surfaced. Characterizing Story as a carpetbagger, his opponents accused him of accepting bribes and overcharging the government for court expenses. In 1872 a Secret Service investigator uncovered further corruption in the U.S. marshal's office. Story resigned in 1874 to avoid impeachment.

Story's replacement not only restored the court's reputation, but also gained national attention for himself. Isaac C. Parker presided during the most notorious era of the Western District Court's history. Opening court on May 10, 1875, Parker began a forceful, twenty-one-year campaign to establish justice in his jurisdiction. Three mass executions of fifteen felons within his first two years on the bench secured Parker's reputation as the implacable "Hanging Judge." By 1896 he had ordered 161 executions for murder and rape, seventy-nine of which were carried out. The vast majority of more than twelve thousand cases before his court, however, represented minor offenses, of which most involved bootlegging in violation of the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Western District Court's powers was that, under a vaguely worded statute, Parker held both district and circuit court powers, effectively denying convicted felons the right of appeal. After Congress remedied this situation in 1889, nearly two-thirds of the convictions appealed from Fort Smith to the U.S. Supreme Court were remanded for new trials.

Congressional expansionists who favored opening the Indian Territory for white settlement pointed to such statistics, as well as other to criticisms of the Western District Court and its notorious judge, to advocate extinguishing the court's jurisdiction over Indian Territory. Congress dealt with part of the problem in 1883 and divided jurisdiction over the region among federal district courts in Texas and Kansas as well as in Arkansas. In 1890 the creation of Oklahoma Territory further reduced the Western District's size. Finally, with the Courts Act of 1895 Congress created federal courts within the Indian Territory, eliminating the jurisdiction of the Western District of Arkansas over the region on September 1, 1896.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Larry D. Ball, "Before the Hanging Judge: The Origins of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Autumn 1990). Jeffrey Burton, Indian Territory and the United States, 1866-1906: Courts, Government, and the Movement for Oklahoma Statehood (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995). S. W. Harman, Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men (1898; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

Roger H. Tuller

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