Isaac C. Parker was appointed United States District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas in 1875, a post he would hold for more than 21 years. Parker’s jurisdiction was extraordinary, encompassing half of Arkansas and all of Indian Territory, roughly 74,000 square miles. In this huge area, the court exercised jurisdiction over all criminal cases. Until 1891, the judgments of the court were final, with no appeal from a conviction.
Judge Parker recruited 200 deputy marshals to hunt down criminals in Indian Territory. Photographs of famous Indian Territory marshals, Heck Thomas, Bill Tilghman, Chris Madsen, and Bass Reeves, show them as handsome and stalwart. True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn, however, may be more true to type. He is dumpy and grouchy, with only one eye that works. The court official describes him to Mattie Ross as not the best marshal but the meanest. “He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Rooster’s relationship with Mattie Ross begins with her characteristically direct comment: “They tell me you are a man of true grit.”
The majority of the 200 deputy marshals that “rode for Judge Parker” were by and large men of “true grit.” Their dangerous duty was to find and arrest the killers and robbers who lurked in the mountains of eastern Indian Territory and to transport them to Fort Smith for trial. The country was wild and trackless and ambushes by criminal gangs were common. Rooster Cogburn’s testimony in court illustrates the nature of the marshals’ work. Cogburn approached suspected killers with his forty-four Colt revolver in his hand. “I always try to be ready,” he said. When asked if the gun were loaded and cocked, Cogburn replied, “If it ain’t loaded and cocked it will not shoot.” Judge Parker’s deputy marshals always had to be ready, with guns loaded and cocked. Almost seventy of the two hundred marshals died, killed by the men they were sent to arrest.
The deputy marshals received two dollars if a suspect was arrested but they worked for no fixed salary. Only approved expenses were reimbursed. Rooster struggled over his fee sheets for good reason.
Judge Parker is known to history as “the hanging judge.” Statistics of his court tell a different story, however. Of 13,000 criminal cases heard in Judge Parker’s court, 9000 of the defendants were convicted or entered pleas of guilty. Three hundred and forty-four of those accused were tried for murder, rape and other offences that could result in execution. One hundred and fifty-one were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Eighty-three were actually executed.
Judge Parker and his deputy marshals were “The Law West of Fort Smith.” In a vast and lawless country, they worked to bring order out of the chaos.