The United States Court In Indian Territory First Location At Muskogee

For many years prior to 1889 the United States District Court of western Arkansas had jurisdiction over the Creek and Cherokee Nations in matters in which non-citizens, i.e., persons not members of the Indian tribes, were interested. Judge Isaac C. Parker, who presided over that court established the reputation of being “a terror to criminals,” it being claimed that during his administration fully one hundred men were sentenced to be hanged. Judge Parker was kind and courteous to attorneys, witnesses and jurors, but he possessed no sympathy for crime or criminals. It was very inconvenient and expensive, however, for lawyers, litigants and witnesses residing in this section of the country, to attend court in Fort Smith, and repeated attempts were made to remedy the situation, but not until the early part of the year 1889 did Congress furnish the much-needed relief by establishing the United States District Court at Muskogee.

The people of Muskogee had to make a valiant fight to secure the location of the court, for other towns wanted it, and they seemed inclined to combine against Muskogee.

It was argued that Muskogee could not take care of the court; that it had no court room; that its hotel accommodations were entirely inadequate; and it was even insinuated that Muskogee and vicinity could not muster a. sufficient number of intelligent men to supply the court with competent jurors. But with the spirit which has ever since been characteristic of Muskogee, the old pioneers, Clarence Turner, F. B. Severs, Chief Pleasant Porter, D. N. Robb, W. A. Maddin and others, pledged themselves to build everything needed, and they fulfilled their pledge.

 It was a gala day in the history of Muskogee, then a border town of 2,500-inhabitants, when on the first day of April, 1889, Hon. James M. Shackelford, who had just been appointed by President Harrison, as judge of the new court, opened its first session in the old, frame “Phoenix building” which stood on the southwest corner of Main Street and Okmulgee Avenue. Judge Shackelford had gained an enviable record as a soldier during the Civil war, retiring with the rank of general. At the close of the war he began practicing law at Evansville, Ind., where he resided until his appointment as Indian Territory’s first United States District Judge.

Thomas B. Needles of Nashville, Ill., was the first United States Marshal. Colonel Needles had served Illinois for many years as a member of the state senate and also as state auditor. In later years he became well known to the people of Indian Territory, as a member of the Dawes Commission. Judge Shackelford appointed Maj. William Nelson, of Indiana, as the first clerk of the court and master in chancery.

First Grand Jury

The first grand jury of the United States District Court was composed of the following named men, nearly all of whom were residents of Muskogee:

J. A. Patterson
D. N. Robb
C. W. Turner
J. L. Thomas,
Rev. Sugar George
Ned Robins
James Sandford
W. N. Harsha
O. P. Brewer
S. B. Callahan
J. C. Davison
T. F. Meagher
Wm. A. Maddin
John O. Cobb
R. A. Evans
J. M. Rucker

Among the first lawyers admitted to practice in this new court were the following:

Frank P. Blair
E. C. Boudinot
J. S. Davenport
S. B. Dawes
S. S. Fears
Walter T. Fears
N. A. Gibson
J. M. Givens
W. M. Harrison
W. T. Hutchings
C. L. Jackson
W. C. Jackson
W. A. Ledbetter
Wm. E. Linton
Thomas Marcum
N. B. Maxey
Robt. L. Owen
Ridge Paschal
J. G. Ralls
T. C. Rails
Thos. A. Sanson
Ross Shackelford
Wm. F. Severs
John Watkins
Dew M. Wisdom
Z. T. Walrond
W. S. Wolfenberger

Of this number, only seven are at present members of the local bar and ten have passed to the court beyond.

At the close of the first day’s session, the Muskogee Bar Association was organized with Judge Shackelford as president and Robt. L. Owen, as secretary, nearly all of the above named lawyers becoming members.

The occasion of opening the new court was honored by the presence of numerous prominent attorneys and statesmen from surrounding states, among whom were Congressman Rogers, Judges Clayton and Humphrey and Attorneys Brizzolari, Reed, Sandels, Forester and others from Arkansas; Congressmen Stephens and Hare, Judge Gilbert and Messrs. Randell, Potter, Lillard and others from Texas ; and Senator Kimball and Messrs. Case, Glass, Neale, Crichton and others from Kansas. The occasion was indeed the beginning of an important epoch in the history of Muskogee, and is vividly remembered by the old residents of this vicinity.

For many years prior to this time, numerous white men had located in Indian Territory, in order to escape execution for debts previously incurred “back in the States,” and one of the first and most important questions which confronted the new court was whether or not the statutes of limitations would apply to prevent the collection of such debts. Nearly all the lawyers present participated in the discussion of this question, either for or against the proposition, and the court decided, that inasmuch as these debtors, upon coming to the Territory, had passed beyond the jurisdiction of any competent court, they could not take advantage of the statutes of limitations. This was the signal for the lawyers to get busy, and in some cases they enforced the collection of debts which had been incurred twenty years previous to that time.

The little old frame building in which the court first convened, furnished but cramped and insufficient quarters for its rapidly increasing business, and two of Muskogee’s most public spirited citizens, Clarence W. Turner and Gen. Pleasant Porter, chief of the Creek Nation, at once began the construction of the three story Federal Court building at the southwest corner of Second and Court streets, on the site now occupied by the more imposing Railway Exchange building. The corner stone of this (then magnificent) structure was laid by the Masonic Grand Lodge and a barbecue of many beeves was furnished to the large crowd of visitors.

The Act of Congress passed in May, 1890, by which the western half of Indian Territory was detached and converted into Oklahoma Territory, also divided Judge Shackelford’s Court into three divisions, providing for terms to be held at McAlester and Ardmore. The same Act made the Arkansas law governing misdemeanors applicable here and provided for the appointment of United States Commissioners in each division, who were given authority to try minor cases. Prior to the passage of this Act there was no law providing for any penalty for misdemeanors committed by non-citizens, which fact accounts for the numerous acts of lawlessness of those pioneer days. To a great extent, every man was a law unto himself, and if imposed upon, he felt justified in applying the remedy, either with his fists or his pistol. – Within a year after the commissioners entered upon their duties 1,000 criminal cases were docketed, and as the commissioners and deputy marshals were paid in fees, their work was very remunerative. During the years 1891 and 1892, 2,700 persons were charged with crime and 2,200 were found guilty. Soon after Grover Cleveland was inaugurated as President, Hon. Charles B. Stuart of Gainesville, Tex., was appointed to succeed Judge Shackelford, Clifford L. Jackson became district attorney and J. J. McAlester United States marshal, James M. Givens, assistant attorney and J. W. Phillips, clerk of the court.

The business of this court increased so rapidly that on March 1, 1895, Congress was induced to provide for two additional judges. The Territory was then divided into three districts, northern, central and southern.

William M. Springer, ex-congressman from Springfield, Ill., became judge of the northern district, Judge Stuart was assigned to the central district at McAlester, and ex-Congressman Kilgore, of Texas, was appointed as judge of the southern district, with headquarters at Ardmore, James A. Winston was appointed clerk of the Muskogee District, Wayman Crow Jackson, commissioner, N. A. Gibson, master in chancery and Morton Rutherford, United States marshal.

The election of McKinley in 1896 was the signal for another political “resetting of the docket” in Indian Territory. Hon. John R. Thomas, ex-congressman from Illinois and Hon. Wm. H. H. Clayton of Arkansas were appointed as judges in 1897, and in 1900 Hon. Joseph. A. Gill of Kansas succeeded Judge Springer in the northern district. Pliny L. Soper became attorney for the northern district, and Dr. Leo. E. Bennett, United States marshal.

The judgeship of the southern district was made vacant by the death of Judge Kilgore, and Hon. Hosea Townsend, ex-congressman from Colorado, was appointed to fill the vacancy. At the expiration of Judge Thomas’ term in 1901, Hon. Charles W. Raymond of Illinois was appointed to succeed him.

Judge Raymond was succeeded, at the close of his term, by Hon. William R. Lawrence, of Danville, Ill., a neighbor and old time friend of Congressman Joseph G. Cannon.

Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.

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