William Henry Harrison Clayton, born in 1840 and named for the 9th U.S. President, helped transform western Arkansas and the adjoining Indian Territory from a crime-ridden haven for outlaws into lands of law and order and statehood. Regarded across the nation as a man of great principal and judicial skill, he served under seven U.S. Presidents during his law career that included working as a judge before and after his role as federal prosecutor for the Western District of Arkansas.
The Pennsylvania native, described by famed frontier court Judge Isaac Parker as a "close, shrewd and prudent examiner of witnesses" came to Fort Smith from Pine Bluff in 1874 at the appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant. During his 14 years as U.S. Attorney, he had charge of more than 10,000 cases prosecuted in the court whose jurisdiction was the largest in the nation, totaling the 74,000 square miles of western Arkansas and Indian Territory. His record for murder convictions - 80 - is unparalleled in American jurisprudence.
Highlights of his Fort Smith career, before being named judge of the Central District of Indian Territory in 1897, include successfully prosecuting the infamous "Bandit Queen" Belle Starr, and representing Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves in his acquittal of murder charges. During his family's 23-year residence in Fort Smith, Mr. Clayton worked as a private attorney during the two presidential terms of Grover Cleveland, a Democrat.
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