Thursday, August 6, 2020

New digital collection recounts criminal history of frontier Arkansas's Western District

A jury wrote this letter to "hanging judge"
Isaac Parker, Nov. 14, 1879. Courtesy of the
Arkansas State Archives.
By Abbie Deville, digital archivist

Over the last few months, you may have seen or heard references to the Cravens Collection, which will be a prominent and, we hope, popular element of our new digital collections platform.  The collection documents the work of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, a federal court established in 1851 to bring law and justice to more than 74,000 square miles in western Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now known as Oklahoma).

The Western District held jurisdiction over all crimes committed by or against U.S. citizens in Indian Territory and disputes between tribes. A succession of judges, including legendary “hanging judge” Isaac Parker, dispatched U.S. deputy marshals, such as Bill Tilghman and Bass Reeves, from Fort Smith into the vast Indian Territory to arrest and bring to trial individuals accused of crimes. In doing so, the court created a lot of paperwork; from this the Cravens Collection is drawn.

The Cravens Collection consists of 41 boxes of documents both large and small, most dating to the late 1800s. The documents are all two dimensional — no artifacts or irregular attachments — which makes it easier to process and scan them for online viewing. Currently, there are about five staff members working, full or part-time, on scanning documents and creating access copies which will be uploaded for public viewing on our website.

The process begins with scanning the documents. Archives staff have established a standard procedure for scanning these documents, so everything looks as uniform in terms of resolution, brightness, color and orientation as possible. The standardized procedure allows multiple archivists to work on the project with the resulting scans looking as though one individual had performed the work. As scans are completed, Abbie Deville, digital archivist, checks each one to see if re-scans or any edits need to be made. After this proofing and editing, Deville creates PDF copies of each item to be uploaded to the Arkansas Digital Collections website. These PDFs are what viewers will download from the site for further research. 

Creating the images is only part of the process of making the Cravens collection ready for researchers: Patrons must also be able to search within the collection, which is made possible by metadata - literally, “data about data.” The staff members create the metadata for each image, referring to the PDFs on individual computers, zooming in on the images to examine tiny or unclear writing. The metadata created for each item both allows the viewers to search the document and also makes it possible for the powerful digital collections platform to virtually arrange the larger collection, facilitating searches.  Metadata includes terms like “title,” “date original” or “geographic area.” Without such information entered accurately, it would be rather hard to find specific documents online without having to scroll through every submission on the site. 

In 1877, T.A. Teryman served as a U.S. Marshal,
 an officer of the court, but by 1878
he was being charged
with “bribery in the Indian Country.” 
Currently, seven boxes have been completed with scanning and metadata created for each item in the boxes. Going through the first seven boxes has been revealing and even intriguing, according to Deville.

“You start to feel like you know these people personally,” she said. “After seeing the same name repeatedly for different crimes, it starts to feel like a family member. You start saying to yourself, ‘O goodness, what did he do now?’”

Crimes referenced in these documents range from murder and rape to larceny and stealing from the U.S. Post Office. One of Deville’s favorite threads to follow in these boxes is the one of T.A. Teryman. In 1877, Teryman served as a U.S. Marshal, an officer of the court, but by 1878 he was being charged with “bribery in the Indian Country.” 

The collection also contains letters like the one written to Judge Isaac C. Parker on Nov. 14, 1879, by the members of the jury about the “uncomfortable conditions” of their accommodations while in Fort Smith; this makes one wonder about what those conditions were really like.