In the 19th century, a lot of black men made their reputations in dangerous Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where they were hired by the federal government to work as lawmen, tribal policemen or Deputy U.S. Marshals.
Some worked as far west as the Oklahoma Territory, as far south as Texas, and as far north as Kansas.
With some of these African-American men being born slaves, others were Black Indians. Some were educated while others were not, yet they all helped to maintain law and order in the rugged Indian Territory.
More about this
Zeke Miller was one of these men. Between 1894 to 1907, the African American worked as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in the Central District of Indian Territory.
Being a tough man in a tough land, Miller was able to hunt down several outlaws without ever getting injured on duty. He is also remembered as one who never had to shoot a man to make an arrest during his 19 years of service.
Then there was his black stallion which historians say he had a rapport with to the extent that “on a number of different occasions the horse saved him from injury or, possibly, death, not just with its athleticism but by warning the lawman of impending danger.”
Starting life as a mine inspector from Ohio, Miller later moved to Indian Territory where he was recommended for the job of Deputy U.S. Marshal, two years before Judge Parker’s death. Miller was first stationed at Alderson, Choctaw Nation, but was later moved to the Central District headquarters at McAlester, according to Oklahoma Historical Society.
Never firing a shot during his service, it is documented that “he had a large posse that worked with him and he planned the arrests and directed the captures, but he let his posse do all the shootings.”
The exploits of the famous black deputy U.S. marshal were covered widely at the time.
As Outlaw Tales wrote: “One time, Zeke went after some men who were miles away down by a railroad track where no one could sneak up on them. Zeke went to the station master and borrowed a handcar. He went down, came up behind the outlaws, arrested them and brought them back on the handcar. But the younger one of the two outlaws, when he went to prison, Zeke wrote letters to him and talked to him about reforming his ways. And Zeke’s letters and the experience of being a prisoner made the kid reform.”
Such was the life of Miller; he loved kids and always found ways to help reform young outlaws.
But his life was not all about hunting down criminals. With six children and a family, he ran a grocery store when he was not working for Judge Parker.
In 1907, he stopped work as Deputy U.S. Marshal and began working in the timber industry. Two years later, he passed away from Bright’s disease but remains one of the many respected lawmen in Indian Territory.
At the moment, the exact numbers of all the black U.S. Deputy Marshals are not known because “some had brief temporary assignments, while others had careers that spanned several decades.”
Yet, many have received fame over the years, including the likes of Bass Reeves, Grant Johnson, Rufus Cannon, Bill Colbert, Bynum Colbert, and of course Zeke Miller.
The others were Crowder Nicks, Charles Pettit, Ed Robinson, Dick Roebuck, Isaac Rogers, Jim Ruth, Dick Shaver, Morgan Tucker, Lee Thompson, Eugene Walker, and Henry Whitehead.
Many of these names were confined to the Indian Territory containing the Five Civilised Tribes known as Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole nations.
An early settler, Nancy E. Pruitt, in an interview, guessed why the federal government decided to hire black men to uphold the law in the Indian Territory.
“Bass Reeves and Grant Johnson were colored officers,” she said. “They could talk Creek, and the Creeks liked Negroes better than they did whites, [which] I suppose is the reason they had colored officers.”