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Old West Marshals in Indian Territory
In Fort Smith, Arkansas there were over 200 U.S. Marshals during the late 1800s. They were tasked with the impossible job of policing an area of 70,000 square miles. This vast territory comprised the Indian Territory in which every brand of thief, murderer, scalawag and cattle rustler could be found. Of these 200, 86 were killed in the line on duty. Many were simply ambushed on the trail. Low pay, the inherent danger and long periods being separated from families made the job hard to fill.
It’s evidently clear, wearing a badge in those days was mostly a thankless, dangerous job and one often hindered by the press. The Arkansas Democrat Newspaper once printed a story accusing peace officers of being “…too quick on the trigger.” The story went on to add “There are entirely too many persons murdered in making arrests."
Some U.S. Marshals who died in the line of duty were family men, such as Dan Maples. In 1887 he was sent to investigate rumors of whiskey peddling in Indian Territory. On the way he met up with notorious outlaw Ned Christie and some friends. He was shot and killed.
Judge Parker didn’t want a bunch of renegade killers wearing badges. That’s why he insisted prisoners be brought in alive if possible. In fact, if a Deputy killed a prisoner he was made to pay for the funeral, casket and headstone.
Many John Wayne fans may not be aware the character of Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit,” was based on a real person. His name was Calvin Whitson, the only one-eyed deputy marshal in Judge Parker's court. The evidence is mostly circumstantial but strongly indicates Whitson was the "real" Rooster Cogburn.
But, being Hollywood, there was obviously some dramatic action added for effect. Not all lawmen were as courageous as that portrayed by Cogburn. For example, in West Fork a rather more timid U.S. Marshal took 36 deputies to assist in serving a legal process. All in the posse and their families became targets of violence. Their stock was killed, homes were fired upon and some family members were assassinated.
"The Three Guardians"
Other lawmen in the territory besides Federal marshals also had their lives on the line. In 1879 Fayetteville City Marshal Patton and Deputy Sheriff J. Mount were both gunned down. A year later a witness came forward and testified another deputy marshal had placed a bounty on Marshal Patton’s head. Apparently he didn’t want Patton killed too badly. The reward offered was only “two fine mules.”
No doubt, the territory provided a relatively safe haven for desperados on the run. Many sought safety by living amongst the intial Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. They were called the Five Civilized Tribes because they eventually adopted many European customs, including African slavery. But, they ran into problems with the law there also. There, they had to contend with Indian police who became probably as important as the Federal marshals if not more so. But, it hadn’t always been so.
In the early 1800s, the Cherokee Nation had "regulators" to deal with rustlers and other law breakers, but didn't have any jurisdiction over white or black men who were not citizens of their nations.
However, they could detain them to be later turned over to Federal marshals. But, to balance the situation, Federal marshals frequently deputized these agents to pursue Indian criminals.
There were three deputies who earned the title of the "Three Guardians." They were Chris Madsen, Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas. These lawmen arrested some of the most ruthless and dangerous criminals in the Territory.