Legacy Tree researcher Melissa Finlay takes you back to the old west to find your “Most Wanted” ancestors to determine if they were outlaws, bandits, or rustlers. Did your ancestors ride with notorious outlaws or did they obey the law of the land in the old west?
Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid. You may have heard about some of these famous outlaws of the Wild Western United States. But have you ever wondered if your ancestor was a criminal in the Wild West? Or perhaps they were a victim of a crime or a lawman fighting for law and order in the Wild West? There are records available to find out if your ancestor was involved!
Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S. Federal District Court
Men and women living in western Arkansas, the Indian Territory, or any part of the 74,000 square miles covered by the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas were tried for their crimes at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The fort sat just across the Arkansas River from Indian Territory. The court did not try crimes between native peoples but tried all federal crimes involving non-natives, from larceny to cattle rustling, forgery, murder, and everything in between.
Until 1889, the court’s say was final; one could not appeal to any other court—the only chance for a reprieve after a conviction was a pardon by the President of the United States.
Over the years, the court’s case files were moved to several repositories, shuffled and reorganized, and a fair number – destroyed. The files that remain paint a colorful picture of the actual frontier and wild west during the period.
The National Archives provides a detailed online finding aid explaining how the case files were created, organized, and interpreted. Although the original filing system was complex, modern digital databases make access easier.
- Find the general research guide here:
- Ancestry.com ($) houses a digital index for the case files:
- Many of the full case files can be found digitally on Ancestry.com as well:
Although the case documents were filed under the name of the alleged criminal, many court papers named victims. A victims’ index is available on the National Archives finding aid to assist in finding your ancestor who may have been the victim of a crime instead of a perpetrator. https://www.archives.gov/fort-worth/finding-aids/fort-smith-case-files#victimindex
Fort Smith, Arkansas, newspapers were filled with daily court notices and stories about the most sensational crimes during this time period. Several websites offer digital copies of the newspapers, including the Fort Smith Elevator, the Fort Smith Weekly Herald, and more.
Search for the newspapers articles about the court case your ancestor was involved in with one of these newspaper sites:
- Fort Smith Public Library Digital Archive (FREE)
- GenealogyBank ($)
- Newspapers ($)
All the resources together combine to create an interesting story of the outlaws and criminals, lawmen, and victims of the true Wild West our ancestors lived in. One such story involved counterfeit silver dollars.
On 13 January 1897, J.W. Shook and L.W. Partridge were charged with possessing and knowingly spending counterfeit silver dollars in Yell County, Arkansas. The U.S. Marshals were sent to apprehend the men.
During the trial, J.W. Shook volunteered the name of the actual counterfeiter, Tom Rauhong of Pope County, Arkansas, who was also arrested after the counterfeiting materials were found in his home.
Researching your ancestors can be exciting whether your ancestors were famous or infamous! If you want to know if there are outlaws in your family tree, consider hiring a professional. Contact us today for a free quote!
 “The Good, The Bad, and The Legend of the Fort Smith Federal Courthouse,” Ultimate History Project, http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/fort-smith-and-belle-starr.html, accessed February 2021; and,
“Research Guide to the Criminal Case Files of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1860-1896,” Archives.gov, https://www.archives.gov/fort-worth/finding-aids/fort-smith-case-files, accessed February 2021.