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Indian trackers for Parker’s court left a ghost trail

Scott Cutlip
Special to the Times Record
A man identified as Bill Smith, and thought to also be known as William Harvey Smith, is seen with other deputies in an 1892 photo taken after pursuit of Ned Christie. Pictured are Tom Johnson,  back left, Bill Smith, John Tolbit, Abe Allen, Wes Bauman; Captain G.S. White, front left, Charles Copeland, Paden Tolbert, Heck Bruner, and Dave Rusk.

Native American trackers hired by the U.S. Marshals Service with the Western District of Arkansas are as difficult to find information on as the suspects they hunted for in the 1800s. But one Fort Smith woman and her cousin in Arizona are pretty sure they found their man.

Since the men who were Indians trackers for the Marshals were rarely written about in the newspapers of the day, they have left a ghost trail. Some simply did not even tell their tales to family members.

Virginia Shepherd of Fort Smith and Donna Weekley of Surprise, Arizona, are cousins who found out late in life what could be the shared history of their grandfather. They believe it was Deputy U.S. Marshal William “Bill” Smith, an Indian tracker and posse member involved in search for Ned Christie and Cherokee Bill in the early 1890s.

Donna didn’t know her grandfather, William Harvey Smith. He died in 1938 at the age of 69. He would’ve been in his early 20s when hunting down the famed fugitives for the Western District of Arkansas near the end of Judge Isaac C. Parker’s “Hanging Judge” era.

Donna’s father never spoke of the family history, so there is not much to go by. She didn’t even know her grandfather’s name at first. But she always had a fascination with cowboy and Native American history. She did some genealogy research that led her to Virginia, in Fort Smith.

Virginia, who has also done family research and noticed a photo in the Fort Smith National Historic Site that looked liked her grandfather, showed a photo of a Deputy Marshall Bill Smith to Donna. They are fairly certain that Donna’s “William Harvey Smith” was also Virginia’s “Deputy Bill Smith.” Records for both show they married twice and went on to work for the railroad.

However, it doesn’t help that the names “Bill” and “Smith” are two of the most common names in America. Loren McLane, Fort Smith National Historic Site park ranger and historian, found three records for a “William Smith” who had worked as Deputy U.S. Marshals in the 1890s. There is no indication that any of them had “Harvey” as a middle name. Records were not necessarily as stringent as they are now.

A picture speaks volumes though. Donna compared a picture of her grandfather that she had received from an older cousin, Willene, with that of “Deputy Bill Smith.” Willene had been raised by William Harvey Smith and his wife (also named Donna) after Willene’s mother had passed. Willene has since passed away. But, as Donna Weekley tells it, Willene was shown the picture of “Bill Smith” with other members of the posse, and said, “That’s my Daddy!”

So, these two characters, “Bill Smith”“ and William Harvey Smith,” are quite likely one in the same. Weekley agrees.

“To me, perhaps because I want to see it, there is a resemblance of the two William Smiths in the photo in the courthouse and my photo,” she wrote.

There are other physical similarities in the two in question, including a mustache and what appears to be a mole.

Rarely recognized

Dave Kennedy, curator for the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, points out that information about Native American scouts — or trackers as they were commonly known in Fort Smith at the time — was rarely published.

“There’s not a lot of information about Indian scouts published anywhere, except for what seems to be apocryphal stories of the West,” Kennedy said. “We hear stories about, oh, this guy always had an Indian scout, and you never see their names anywhere. In the entries in the newspapers, they never mentioned a tribal member by name… unless they were involved in a shootout, were wounded, or were killed.”

Court records with an Indian tracker testifying in court are also very rare. Native Americans who were alluded to as “Indian trackers,” “scouts,” or “guides,” are just very hard to find information on, even for professionals like Kennedy.

Information about deputy marshals didn’t get much attention either, even for Bass Reeves.

“That’s another unfortunate side effect,” Kennedy said. “If you are a guy who went out and took the oath and rode as a deputy for a year or three, if you just quietly did your job, you might show up in the newspaper a few times as Deputy So-and-So returns with five prisoners, and I think that might be the extent of your impact on history. If you were killed in the line of duty or arrested some major criminal, on the other hand, that’s what it would take for us to have a lot of information.”

Art T. Burton, a professor of history at South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois, brought the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to light after years of research for books like “Black, Buckskin, and Blue: African American Scouts and Soldiers on the Western Frontier” and “Black, Red, and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1870–1907.”

Burton pointed out that one reason there is so little written about Indian scouts, or trackers, could be that the Native Americans in the Five Civilized Tribes had law enforcement of their own. They were called Lighthorsemen. These men would apprehend criminals and turn them over to Indian courts for trial and punishment. Burton notes in his article “Oklahoma’s Frontier Indian Police” that the federal government in 1874 consolidated Indian agents for the Five Civilized Tribes into a group called the United States Indian Police.

Deputy U.S. Marshals from Fort Smith would often deputize Lighthorsemen for a posse in pursuit of non-Indian citizens. The trackers would be noted as being a Deputy U.S. Marshal if they were killed in the line of duty.

Trackers vs. Scouts

Burton said the term “Indian scout” applied more to those who were hired by the U.S. Army, like the Crow and Arikara tribe members who helped George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated 7th Cavalry find the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Big Horn River.

Oklahoma and Old West history writer Diron Ahlquist suggested that the distinction between scout, tracker, and guide is often hard to distinguish. But he agrees with Burton that “scouts” generally worked with the Army. Ahlquist’s distinction between guide and trackers is that trackers generally had more “local knowledge,” while guides might have had “general knowledge” that marshals wouldn’t have. But it was not specifically “local knowledge.”

According to Ahlquist, Native Americans might have become known as trackers, because of the legalities between the U.S. government and Indian tribes. Depending on the circumstances and between what people, the matter of jurisdiction was not fully set, he explained.

“Trackers” would generally be those who had a vested interest in the pursuit, whether it be the theft of their own horses, murder, or rape.

“It was the victim’s husband, if it was a sexual assault,” he said. “It was the victim’s cousin if it was a murder or the owner of a horse that got stolen. So they’d go to Judge Parker, and you'd have an Indian that had a horse stolen from him by a white man. They’d say to him, ‘okay, you had a horse stolen? Have you tracked him?’”

Ahlquist said, much like the mythology of Billy the Kid and Jesse James, the concept of the Indian tracker is probably unlike any sort of Hollywood version.

Was William Harvey Smith the same U.S. Deputy Marshal Smith in pursuit of criminals like Ned Christie and Cherokee Bill? Was he involved as a tracker, scout, or guide? The answer may be never known for sure. But people like Donna Weekley and Virginia Shepherd can go to look at the photograph of Bill Smith, standing with one hand on the end of his rifle and his other on Charles Copeland’s shoulder and believe.

The posse that pursued Cherokee fugitive Ned Christie for allegedly killing Deputy U.S. Marshal Dan Maples in 1857 included men identified here as Bill Smith, back left, Bill Ellis, Paden Tolbert; Charles Copeland, front left, and Gideon S. "Cap" White. Smith is thought to have been an Indian tracker who served in Judge Isacc C. Parker's court.