Federal Courts in the Indian Territory

   Prior to 1889 jurisdiction over Indian Territory was divided among three Federal courts. From 1844 to 1883, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas at Fort Smith heard all cases from Indian Territory. In 1883 Congress assigned jurisdiction over the northern portion of the region which eventually became Oklahoma Territory to the U.S. District Court at Wichita, Kansas and the southern portion to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (22 STAT. 400). The rest of Indian Territory remained under Fort Smith.

   The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations operated courts which had jurisdiction over most cases involving Indians. These courts had no jurisdiction over non-Indians and could not hear cases involving default of debt. In 1885 Congress began limiting the powers of these tribal courts by requiring that all Indians accused of murder, man-slaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, burglary, larceny, or arson be tried in the Federal courts at Wichita, Fort Smith, or Paris even if the crime was committed on Indian land. The tribal courts were eventually abolished by an act of Congress of June 28, 1898 (30 STAT. 495). Most of the existing records of these tribal courts are in the custody of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

   On March 1, 1889, Congress authorized the establishment of a U.S. District Court in Indian Territory to be held at Muskogee in the Creek Nation (25 STAT. 783). It exercised jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory except for the Chickasaw Nation and the southern portion of the Choctaw Nation which were assigned to the U.S. District Court at Paris, Texas. All proceedings of the court were to be in English with translators provided for witness who could not speak English. In cases were citizens of the United States were defendants, only other citizens could serve as jurors. The court at Muskogee had jurisdiction over all civil controversies involving $100 or more if at least one U.S. citizen was involved. It had jurisdiction over all criminal offenses except those punishable by death or imprisonment at hard labor. The court ruled that there was no statute of limitation in force in Indian Territory which gave it authority to hear cases involving default of debt going back to the Civil War.

   Congress authorized creation of Oklahoma Territory on May 2, 1890 (26 STAT. 81) with a court at Guthrie. Indian Territory was divided into three Judicial Divisions. Muskogee was headquarters. for the First Division which included the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations and the Quapaw reservation. South McAlester was headquarters of the Second Division and exercised jurisdiction over the Choctaw Nation. The Third Division included the Chickasaw Nation and held court at Ardmore.

   The First Judicial Division at Muskogee became the Northern Judicial District under an act of Congress of March 1, 1895 (28 STAT. 693). It was authorized to hold sessions at Vinita, Tahlequah, and Miami. The Second Division at South McAlester was redesignated the Central District and authorized to hold sessions at Atoka, Antlers, and Cameron. The Third Division at Ardmore became the Southern District and held sessions at Chickasha, Pauls Valley, Purcell, and Ryan. The act of 1895 terminated all jurisdiction of the federal courts in Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas and authorized the judge of each district to appoint U.S. Commissioners who functioned as justices of the peace (as defined by the statutes of Arkansas).

   At the July, 1902 session of the court held at Muskogee, Judge Charles W. Raymond assumed the office of district judge of the Western District of Indian Territory with jurisdiction over the Creek and Seminole Nations. Judge Joseph A. Gill of the Northern District retained jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation and the Quapaw Agency. The Western District held court at Muskogee, Wagoner, Tulsa, Sapulpa, Okmulgee, Wewoka, and Eufaula. The Northern District met at Miami, Sallisaw, Pryor, Creek, Vinita, Claremore, Nowata, and Bartlesville. The Central District held sessions at South McAlester, Poteau, Antlers, Atoka, Wilburton, and Durant. The Southern District court towns were Ardmore, Pauls Valley, Purcell, Chickasha, Ada, Duncan, Marietta, Ryan, and Tishomingo.

   The U.S. Courts in Indian Territory exercised jurisdiction over many matters which would normally have been heard in state rather than federal courts. Criminal cases involving robbery, assault, and other non-federal offenses were tried in these federal courts which also became involved with divorce, registration of corporations, incorporation of towns and benevolent societies, licensing of ministers, recording marriages, and probate and guardianship.

   When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Congress authorized two judicial districts (34 STAT. 276). The Eastern District with headquarters at Muskogee exercised jurisdiction over the former Indian Territory while the Western District at Guthrie controlled what had been Oklahoma Territory. In 1910 the headquarters of the Western District were moved to Oklahoma City. In 1925 the Eastern District was divided in half with the new Eastern District remaining at Muskogee and a Northern District headquartered at Tulsa (43 STAT. 693).

   From 1907 to 1911, there were both district and circuit federal courts. The circuit courts heard appeals from the district courts and also exercised original jurisdiction over some types of cases. In general, the same judges, clerks, and other court officials served both the district and circuit courts. Congress abolished the circuit courts on January 1, .1912, and all pending circuit court cases were transferred to the district court.

   This preliminary inventory describes approximately 4600 cubic feet of records of United States Courts in Indian Territory and the District and Circuit Courts located Oklahoma. The records are deposited with the National Archives-Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas which also has custody of the records of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas at Fort Smith. The records of the U.S. Court at Paris, Texas were destroyed by fire. Records of the U.S. District Court at Wichita, Kansas are in the custody of the National Archives-Great Plains Region, 2312 East Bannister Road, Kansas City, MO. 64131. No records have been located for the U.S. Court at Guthrie. For additional information about the records covered by this inventory, please write the National Archives-Southwest Region, P.O. Box 6216, Fort Worth, TX 76115 or call (817) 334-5525. For additional information about Oklahoma courts, see The Judicial History of Oklahoma by Judge R.L. Williams, a manuscript in the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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dat 05-2002


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