First I apologize to those who subscribe to my blog. Entries have been scarce while I wrote three western novels last year. Talk about nose to the grindstone. Don’t get me wrong, writing and western history are two of my favorite interests. Now that those three books are done and in line for publication with Oghma Creative Media, I’ve been set the task of writing a creative non-fiction novel about the US Marshals who rode for the law in the Western Arkansas District. Hundreds of deputies wore the badge when Judge Isaac Parker took over the task of enforcing the law on the borderline of Indian Territory. There outlaws by the droves sought safety. Something that didn’t last when the tough judge brought down his gavel while outside swung a noose ready for the final punishment of these tough men.
He may have earned the title of the Hanging Judge, but he was once quoted as saying that his job was not nearly as important as that of the marshals and their deputies who kept the law in the 74,000 square mile Western Arkansas District. Many stories will be uncovered as I research for this formidable assignment.
Meanwhile, I’m running across stories of life in those days and I want to share some of them here with you. Stories of families and how they survived the harsh life of the western frontier. First, because I’ve met some folks who argue that Arkansas is not part of that early western frontier, that we are a southern state, you have to realize that Fort Smith Arkansas lay within shooting distance of some of the wildest country that existed when the westward movement began following the Civil War. Indian Territory was home to five civilized tribes plus a scattering of dozens of others. Those committing crimes in Indian Territory were supposed to answer to Indian Law. I use that term because in those days there was no such thing as “politically correct.”
The enormous amount of outlaws seeking asylum in Indian Territory overpowered all efforts to contain the killings, so US Marshals and their deputies were assigned the task. Indian Territory alone was 70,000 square miles. Add to that the western counties of Arkansas and 50 square miles of southern Kansas and these brave men were given a back breaking task.
But if you want to know more about this wait for my book to come out. Here I’d like to give you an example of how ordinary people went about life under such circumstances. One man wrote that living back then was impossible to imagine. Unlike the romantizing of movies, riding in a wagon over the impossibly rough roads often caused broken bones. He added that there were no cars, electricity or tv. Never mind the absence of the electronics of today. Another woman wrote that people took a bath once a year, that they did not have toothbrushes, toothpaste or pencils. She added that the girls helpt their moms do dishes.
Here’s an example of how doing the dishes was accomplished. First build a fire, either in the cookstove if it had a reservoir, or outside under a big cast iron pot. Go to the well and draw a few buckets of water, some for washing, the rest for rinsing. Pour half the water in one or the other container to heat. Grate some lye soap to make suds in which you wash the dishes. Place the soapy dishes in another pan, get more hot water from the reservoir or put more into the outdoor pot in which to rinse. Then do your best to talk your sister or brother into drying each rinsed dish and putting away in the cabinet.
Washing the laundry was much the same only harder work. Most families did the laundry on Monday, spent all day Tuesday ironing with two flat irons kept on top of the cookstove with a fire kept burning.
The Harrison family picked up and moved from Arkansas to Indian Territory. We can’t imagine what that move must’ve been like for them. They had originally moved to Washington County, Arkansas in 1839. It wasn’t mentioned why they went on to Indian Territory later, but it was after the end of the Civil War. Imagine if you can packing all your worldly belongings in a wagon, perhaps loading down a pack mule or horse with as much as possible and lighting out for the wilderness of the outlaw west. It was not exciting nor was it romantic. It was going without bathing or washing clothing. It was nights sleeping on the ground, hoping snakes didn’t join you in your lumpy bed. It was keeping a 24 hour watch for angry Indians who wanted you off their land. It can be supposed that this family might have gone west for the land run, I couldn’t find a date that they moved from Arkansas.
They would soon have to count on the protection of US deputy marshals who were paid 6 cents a mile whether tracking a killer or delivering court papers. They drew 2 dollars a mile for delivering a summons or delivering a killer to the courthouse. Other small duties might bring in a few more cents at the end of a month. Most of their work went unpaid. Yet there were 210 deputies who signed up to serve during Parker’s first term as judge.
As I research for the US Deputy Marshal’s book, if I run across some things readers might enjoy hearing about I’ll share them. But I’m hoping this will be just enough to whet your appetite for the book and I’ll keep you posted on its progress and publication schedule.
This is a sample of one of the deputy badges used in later years. More about how those badges came about next time. Just little snippets of the information and stories to be found in the book.