Isaac Charles Parker

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Isaac Parker (1838-1896)

Federal judge, fort smith, arkansas


Background. Isaac Parker was born in Belmont County, Ohio. After studying and teaching school, Parker was admitted to the Ohio when he was twenty-one. He moved to Saint Joseph, Missouri, where he practiced law and worked for the Republican Party. In 1864 he was elected district attorney and served as a presidential elector for Abraham Lincoln. Four years later he was elected to a judgeship, and in 1870 to Congress. In 1875 President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Parker to be chief justice of the Utah Territory. After the Senate had confirmed Parker, though, Grant decided to send him instead to Fort Smith, where the federal circuit court for the Western District of Arkansas had jurisdiction over thirty counties in Arkansas and the entire Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). Parker, at thirty-six, was the countrys youngest federal judge.

The Indian Territory. The Western District of Arkansas had approximately seventy-four thousand square miles of land and eighty-five thousand people. The trouble spot of the district proved to be the Indian Territory, where five Native American tribes lived Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. (They had been forcibly moved there in the 1830s by the federal government). Federal and state law did not apply to them, and their laws did not apply to the twenty-six thousand non-Indians who had illegally migrated to the region. Plains Indians not living on the reservation hunted in the western areas of the territory, and Texas cattlemen used vacant lands to graze their herds before taking them to the slaughterhouses and railroads in Kansas. Renegades fled the law in their own states to take up residence in the territory, where there was little chance of capture. It was said that There is no Sunday west of St. Louis no God west of Fort Smith.

The Hanging Judge. Parkers predecessor, Judge William Story, had resigned after only fourteen months in Fort Smith rather than face impeachment. Parker arrived to find the court in disrepute and outlaws in control of the territory. On 10 May 1875 Parkers court opened for business in the two-story brick federal courthouse, which had two jail cells in the basement. Eighteen people came before Parker that day charged with murder; fifteen were convicted. On 3 September, six of these men were executed in a public display of the laws power. Five thousand people, including reporters from as far away as New York, came to watch. Parker was quickly given the name the hanging judge; in the next twenty-one years he would sentence 160 people to death; seventy-nine would hang on the gallows at Fort Smith.

Parkers Posse. Parker hired two hundred deputy marshals to assist in the fight between the court and the lawless element in the Indian Territory. This force, though, was hardly enough to do more than chase after known criminals. A marshal received two dollars for arresting and bringing a suspect into Fort Smith. In addition, the government would pay the deputy six cents per mile and expenses when he traveled on official business and could present the proper receipts. Capturing a suspect and successfully bringing him to Fort Smith might earn a deputy marshal thirty or forty dollars. The deputy would not be paid if the suspect was not returned to the fort. For the suspect, resisting a federal officer would mean one year in prison: for a man facing execution if found guilty, this was not a severe penalty. If a suspect resisted and the deputy killed him, the deputy was responsible for paying burial expenses and would not receive any compensation from the federal government. During Parkers judgeship sixty-five deputy marshals died trying to apprehend suspects. Parker petitioned the federal government for more manpower and money, but the Indian Territory had no representation in Congress and his pleas went unheard. Congress did remove the western half of the Indian Territory from Parkers jurisdiction and divide it between the federal courts in Kansas and Texas.

Parker and Indians. In 1881 David Payne led a group of whites called Boomers onto lands that had never been assigned to any specific tribe. The white settlers began homesteading and were driven out by the U.S. Army, but they kept coming back. Finally Payne was brought to Fort Smith and charged with intruding in the Indian Territory. The Five Tribes and the cattlemen who grazed their herds on the vacant lands joined the suit, paying lawyers to assist the prosecutor at Fort Smith. Though most whites supported the Boomers, arguing that they had a right to vacant land, Parker ruled that the land rightfully belonged to the Cherokee and fined Payne $1,000. Though the Cherokee regarded Parker as their ally, in this case, as in others, he merely followed the letter of the law. When the Cherokee tried to stop the Southern and Kansas Railroad from building a line through their lands, Parker refused to grant an injunction to stop the railroad. The Cherokee tribe, Parker ruled, was not a sovereign entity and so could not claim the right of eminent domain against the superior claim of the United States. In 1888 the Supreme Court affirmed Parkers ruling, and the following year Congress opened portions of the Indian Territory to white settlers.

Parker and the Supreme Court. Since Parkers court was both a district court and a circuit court, his decisions were final. The only recourse for a person convicted in Parkers court before 1889 was a presidential pardon. In that year Congress passed the Criminal Appeals Act, giving the Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear appeals in federal criminal cases. Between 1890 and 1897 the Supreme Court reviewed forty-four cases from Fort Smith; it reviewed only nineteen cases from all the other federal courts in the country. Of the forty-four cases from Fort Smith, the Supreme Court reversed thirty-one convictions. An average of more than four men each year were hanged at Fort Smith between 1875 and 1890, with Parker generally favoring large group hangings. The average fell to two each year after 1890. The Supreme Court chastised Parker, sarcastically calling him the learned judge, for his emotional and inflammatory charges to the jury. Parker retorted that if a jury was guided it would render justice, which was the greatest pillar of society.

Parkers Death. With the Indian Territory opened to white settlement, and the Supreme Court and Justice Department almost routinely correcting him, Judge Parker grew ill in the summer of 1896. Ada Patterson, reporter for the St. Louis Republic, interviewed the dying judge, who had grown famous in the press as a blood-thirsty monster. Patterson was deeply moved by Parkers fundamental decency. I am glad to have the honor of knowing this alleged cruel judge, he wrote. According to the reporter, he was a hero, worthy of the fame of the most just of Romans. On 17 November 1896 Parker died. Prisoners in the Fort Smith jail tried to celebrate, but throughout the Indian Territory there was mourning.


John E. Semonche, Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society, 1890-1920 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978);

Glenn Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith: A History of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834-1896 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1957).