Illinois Ancestors: Court cases give glimpse of frontier life

Illinois Ancestors: Court cases give glimpse of frontier life

Court cases can provide a glimpse of what life was like on the frontier between western Arkansas and the Indian Territory, which is Oklahoma today. The files containing these cases used to be difficult to search, but the National Archives at Fort Worth, Texas, has a new website designed to guide researchers with a "who, what, when, and where" of the criminal case files. The "Research Guide to the Criminal Case Files of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1866-1900" can be found at

The guide's introduction states, "If you know of an individual who lived in, walked through, or breathed near western Arkansas and the Indian Territory, you should look at the criminal case files for the U.S. District Court for Western District of Arkansas, Fort Smith Division. This was the Wild West of murder and mayhem — especially involving liquor, 'Hanging' Judge Isaac Parker, and lawmen like Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves.

"Fort Smith's criminal case files are not typical court records. The court's original filing system was unique and makes the records difficult to search. Records were also moved or burned and intermingled with other court records."

The six steps for searching the files also covers presidential pardons, a victim's index, federal court employees' database, and transcripts of testimony.

Archivist Stephanie Stegman has written in a National Archives blog, "These records tell sensational (and sometimes graphic) stories from the history of the American West with cases involving infamous outlaws: the 'Bandit Queen' Belle Starr, the Dalton Gang, Crawford Goldsby (alias Cherokee Bill), and murderer-turned-silent-movie-star Henry Starr, to name a few. Famous lawmen and jurists like the legendary black US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves and 'Hanging' Judge Isaac C. Parker also make frequent appearances.

"One researcher found 287 separate cases that mention Bass Reeves. A former slave from Texas, Reeves had a distinguished career as a deputy marshal and served the federal district court for 32 years. The number isn't surprising, given his long career and his knack for capturing suspected criminals."

Might your ancestor have been a defendant, victim, witness, U.S. marshal, deputy marshal, or court employee and mentioned in these files? This new guide can perhaps find such an individual now.

New HBO show debuts May 12

A new "Family Tree" comedy series will begin its eight-episode season Sunday on HBO. According to Dick Eastman's online genealogy newsletter, the story line is based on an inheritance of a mysterious box and the main character's search for his lineage.

Written and created by Christopher Guest and Jim Paddock, the star of the series is Tom Chadwick.

Genealogy search engine

GenealogyInTime Magazine now offers a free genealogy search engine "designed to make it quick and easy to find recent obituaries." At, click on "Free Genealogy Search Engine," and then enter the name of a person in quotation marks in the search box.

Elgin genealogical society

The Elgin Genealogical Society was founded in 1972 and maintains a helpful website at From the toolbar across the top of the homepage, one can click on a pertinent category for more information.

"About" provides links to member benefits, research, surnames, and queries.

"Death Records" offers links to Channing Street Cemetery, funeral home records, servicemen buried in Elgin, Reber mortuary index, and more.

"Church Records" pertain to St. Johns Church, Faith United Methodist Church, and Grace UMC Scrapbook.

A click on "Other Records" provides links to Elgin Civil War soldiers, divorce records, probate, etc. (Information on EGS was featured on a recent blog of the Illinois State Genealogical Society.)

McLean County poor farm

At 7 p.m. May 21 in the second-floor courtroom of the McLean County Museum of History, 200 N. Main Street, Bloomington, Jack Moody will speak on the history of the McLean County Poor Farm and Cemetery.

It was formerly known as the Twin Groves Nursing Home, and later McLean County Nursing Home. The residents who died there were buried on the property. Only the cemetery remains, with 360 burial sites landlocked on the Shirk Farm.

Moody has researched the cemetery for 10 years and has a binder full of information that he will share. The public is invited to attend.

For more information, phone Eleanor Mede at 309-454-2688 or Sara Cushing at 309-828-9848.

Queries, genealogical questions from researchers and genealogical materials readers would like to share will be printed in this column free. Joan Griffis may be reached via email at or by sending a letter to Illinois Ancestors, c/o The News-Gazette, P.O. Box 677, Champaign, IL 61824-0677.

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