Early Federal History in the Western District of Arkansas
Judge Issac C. Parker, circa 1875
"The Hanging Judge"
Although relatively small in geographical size, the Western District of Arkansas stands out in the annals of American history as one of the most famous judicial districts in the country. Headquartered in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the District became synonymous in the 19th Century with justice. Judge Isaac C. Parker, with the help of the United States Attorneys and the United States Marshals, forged what was then a lawless frontier into a civilized and peaceful territory. Known as the "Hanging Judge," Parker sentenced 160 men to death during his 21 years on the bench. Judge Parker once discounted his role in the sentences by saying, "I never hanged a man. It was the law."
Fort Smith as viewed from Indian Territory side of the Arkansas River - circa 1853
Fort Smith was first established in 1817 by a company of United States soldiers led by Major William Bradford. They built a fort at the spot where the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers merge. The Army abandoned the fort in 1824, but returned and rebuilt in 1838. Poised literally only several hundred feet from the edge of the Central Indian Reservation (now Oklahoma), Fort Smith became the security for settlers pouring into the territory. As Indians were forced to move from the East, they settled in increasing numbers near the Arkansas border. As time progressed, the federal courts at Fort Smith served to protect both the Indians and the whites from "ruffians" as Judge Parker once called those who crossed the law. The court had responsibility not only for the lands of western Arkansas but the vast Indian territory as well. Since by treaty the federal government had no jurisdiction in reservation lands, numerous criminals of the day crossed the borders into the safety of Indian territory. The United States District Court at Fort Smith was responsible for bringing them to justice.
Congress had originally established the federal court in Van Buren, Arkansas, on March 3, 1875. Twenty years to the day, however, Congress moved the court to Fort Smith and appointed the Western District their own judge. The district had previously shared a judge with the Eastern District. After the resignation of the first judge under suspicion of corruption. Parker took office in May, 1886. That first term saw the sentencing of eight men to death.
William Henry Clayton
This famous period in the history of the Western District revolved around the personality of Judge Parker. But the United states attorney who served Fort Smith at the time was just as instrumental in bringing about law and order. Throughout most of Judge Parker's tenure on the bench, William Henry Clayton served the office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Clayton, a native of Pennsylvania, had been named for the man who was president at his birth. He moved to Arkansas in 1864 and began the study of law three years later. Known in the area for his hard work as the Superintendent of Public Instruction, he established some 30 schools before leaving office. Clayton resigned the position in 1870 and was admitted to the Bar in 1871. Before becoming United States Attorney, Clayton was appointed as the Prosecuting Attorney for the First Judicial District of Arkansas, becoming judge of that district in 1873. Ulysses S. Grant appointed him United States attorney to serve with Judge Parker in 1874. Clayton is said to have prosecuted 10,000 cases during this time and won the conviction of 80 people for murder. Judge Parker said of him: "He is a close, shrewd and prudent examiner of witnesses," And from another associate at the bar: "Judge Clayton has a most wonderful method of presenting to a jury the strong points of his case. He is a man of great energy and concentration of thought, active and pushing, prompt and reliable." After leaving office, Clayton became judge for the United States Court for the Central District of Indian Territory.
The famous "Hanging Judge" resigned in 1896 but those appointed to the office of the United states Attorney continued to protect the citizens of the Western District through the investigation and prosecution of "ruffians." James Seaborn Holt became United States attorney in 1920. For three years prior to that, he had been the Assistant United states Attorney in the district. In 1938 Holt became a Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court where he served for the next 23 years. Holt retired in 1961 but tragically died in an automobile accident two years later.
Successors to those first United States Attorneys for the Western District of Arkansas continued to demonstrate the spirit evidenced by Judge Parker, who once said, "I have this much satisfaction after my twenty years of labor: the court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, stands as a monument to the strong arm of the laws of the United States and has resulted in bringing . . . civilization and protection.