United States district and circuit courts were created by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. District courts generally had original jurisdiction in admiralty and bankruptcy cases, in suits for penalties and seizures under federal laws, and jurisdiction in non-capital criminal proceedings and in law suits exceeding $100 in value in which the United States was the plaintiff. Circuit court heard appeals from the district courts and had original jurisdictition over action involving aliens or citizens of different states and law and equity suits where the matter in dispute exceeded $500 (later $2,000).
The territory of Arkansas was organized by an act of Congress of March 2, 1819. This act also provided for one superior court which functioned both as a court of original jurisdiction and as an appellate court. All disputes involving federal laws were to be tried in the superior court.
When Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836, it was organized as one judicial district with a district court exercising both district and circuit court jurisdiction. The state capitol, Little Rock, was designated as the court seat. Then Arkansas was assigned to the Ninth Circuit in 1837, a separate circuit court was established.
In 1851 Arkansas was divided into two judicial districts, Eastern and Western. The original court seat for the Western District was Van Buren while Little Rock remained in the Eastern District. In 1871 court sessions for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas were transferred to Fort Smith. Additional divisions have been added to both districts.
The newly created Eastern District of Arkansas remained with the Ninth Circuit while the district court for the Western District exercised circuit court powers. In 1866 Arkansas was transferred to the Eighth Circuit where it has remained. Until 1889 cases which were tried in the Western District could not be appealed to any other court. Presidential pardons provided the only reprieve in criminal cases. A congressional act in 1889 which established a separate circuit court for the Western District also provided for the right of appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The federal courts of the District of Arkansas were unusual in that the courts had jurisdiction over territory outside their state. In 1844 the District Court of Arkansas was given jurisdiction over the Indian Territory which consisted of all territory west of the Mississippi River not within the states of Missouri, Louisiana, or Arkansas. The court's jurisdiction did not extend to crimes committed among Indians. Most of the cases from the Indian Territory involved criminal offenses; however, the district court did preside over some civil matters, including title to Indian lands, rights of eminent domain within the Indian Territory, and removal of intruders from the Indian nations.
In 1883 jurisdiction over the western half of the Territory was transferred to the Northern District of Texas and the Judicial District of Kansas. Jurisdiction over the eastern half of the Indian Territory remained with the Western District of Arkansas.
In 1889 jurisdiction over the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations was transferred to the Eastern District of Texas. The authority of the Arkansas, Texas, and Kansas courts passed to the United States District Courts for the Indian Territory in 1895.
Arrangement Arranged numerically (1-526) and thereafter alphabetically (A-N). Within each jacket, writs and papers are arranged alphabetically by first letter of defendant's surname.
Finding Aids Item level descriptions of the approximately 50,000 case files in this series are available online. The descriptions provide the first and last name of the defendant, the type of crime, the year, the jacket number, and other information. In NAIL, search for the name of the defendant and, if necessary, limit your search by the term "Defendant Jacket File," Record Group "21," and/or the Description Type "Item." Please note that currently National Archives volunteers are verifying the accuracy of these entries.