Friday, January 25, 2013

Over in the Territory

I think I must have first read Charles Portis's True Grit not long after seeing the film version starring John Wayne as marshal. The Coen brothers more recent version is more faithful to the book and I liked it too, but I'm glad there is no necessity to choose between them. The book is best of all. The Western is not a genre I read much but I have re-read this one and I think it transcends the category. Today I came across this description of the actual historical context for the novel:
In the year of the Centennial of the United States, the last of the West left relatively unscathed by the forces of law and order was that part of present-day Oklahoma set aside as homeland for the native Indian tribes. This was a 70,000 square mile territory in which anything went … and usually did. Among what was called the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) there were native law enforcement officers, who upheld the law among their own. But they had no jurisdiction over interlopers of any color, or tribal members who committed crimes in company with or against an outsider, and the Territory was Liberty Hall and a refuge for every kind of horse thief, cattle rustler, bank and train robber, murderer and scalawag roaming the post-Civil War west. Just about every notorious career criminal at large for the remainder of the 19th century took refuge in the Oklahoma Territory at one time or another, including the James and Dalton gangs.

Judge Parker
....Officers of the law were stretched as thin as a pat of butter spread on an acre of toast; by 1875 the situation was intolerable to law-abiding settlers along the Territorial borders, and to the equally-law abiding members of the Civilized Tribes within it.

The man – and those whom he appointed to serve under his authority – who came to the rescue of the embattled and crime-plagued citizens like a 19th century super-hero appeared in the year of the Centennial. Isaac Charles Parker ... was in his mid-thirties, a legalist of impeachable moral character, long experience in Federal administration and government, and deep sympathies for the situation of the Indians. He was also a demon for hard work, which he commenced barely a week after he arrived in Fort Smith. In his first two-month session of his court, he heard 91 cases. Of those convicted, six were condemned to death. The sentences were carried out publicly and en masse – as an encouragement to those considering a life of capital crime to re-consider their career options. In short order, Judge Parker earned the nickname of “The Hanging Judge.” He spent the next twenty-one years on the bench in Fort Smith; the scourge of evildoers, criminals and scoundrels and the highest law of the land. Only a presidential pardon could set aside a Parker court death sentence.

Besides conducting his court with efficiency and dispatch, Judge Parker took other steps in establishing the rule of law rather than the gun. His chief marshal, James Fagan, was authorized to hire two hundred deputy marshals, more than any other state or territory. Parker’s marshals were sent out in teams, acompanied by a wagon for supplies and captured criminals, a cook and a small posse of assistants. Generally, they avoided actually killing a wanted man; a live criminal arrested and brought back to Fort Smith meant a payment of $2.00 a head. The only payment for a corpse was if there had been a dead-or-alive reward posted by a civil authority or an express company – a rare circumstance, but not entirely unknown. And so it went, nearly until the end of the 19th century. .... [more]
Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » History Friday: Bass Reeves and the Last of the Lawless West