Monday, May 2, 2011

Mystery Monday: Why was Frederick Harmon Brittain in Jail in 1900?

I have a few mysteries in my family, and this one has me really vexed. My paternal great great grandfather, Frederick Harmon Brittain, is listed twice in the 1900 United States census:
  • On June 1, 1900, in Township 1, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, at the US Jail in Muscogee, Oklahoma (yes, in jail)
  • Between June 16 and June 21, 1900, in Township 16, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, at home with his wife and children  

Here's Frederick listed in the US Census on June 1, 1900. He is enumerated as a "boarder" with many other men (and one woman "boarder"!) in the facility. Ages ranged from a 14-year-old boy to the 60-year-old Indian woman.

    Listed on June 1, 1900, in Twp 1, Creek Nation, U.S. Jail Muscogee, Indian Territory

    Here he is listed on or after June 16, 1900 (the enumerator neglected to include the date on several pages, but the page before notes June 16, and several pages after start at June 21).
    Listed on or after June 16, 1900, in Twp 16, Creek Nation, with his wife, Mary J. and kids
    (You can click on the images to see a larger view)

    There are two main questions (and some follow-ups!) that pop into my head regarding Frederick:
    1. How, why and when did Frederick (aka Frank or Fred) ended up in jail? Was it for a violent crime? Or, perhaps, was he a debtor? He was a farmer, so it couldn't have been for a "white collar" crime.
    2. Why was he listed twice in the census? Was he released from prison after June 1, and therefore counted at home a couple of weeks later because he was now settled back in with his family? Or, did Mary Jane or one of the kids mistakenly tell the enumerator he was home because they thought he wouldn't be counted in jail? OR, could someone have told the enumerator that he was at home because they were ashamed that their husband/father was in jail?
    Frederick Harmon Brittain (front, center) with his and Mary Jane's children
    In addition to using my crack Google search skills, I've also contacted folks at several historical societies in Oklahoma (including the Oklahoma Outlaws Lawmen Association), as well as the Muskogee County Court House and the Muskogee County Jail and Sheriff's Department. I've also searched through the Oklahoma newspaper archives I've been able to find online via, Genealogybank and other websites. I've also spent plenty of time searching on

    You might have noticed that Frederick is listed, in both instances, as residing in "Indian Territory." This is because Oklahoma still was not a state in the Union until 1907. The Curtis Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1898, abolished the Native American tribal court system and set up a federal judicial system in Indian Territory with three separate districts. A U.S. jail was built in Muskogee and served the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations, including anyone who lived within this district. I don't know exactly when Frederick and his family moved to Creek Nation in Indian Territory, but I'm guessing it was sometime during the Oklahoma Land Grabs that happened between 1889 and 1895. 

    I'm told that a major issue with finding out how Frederick landed in the pokey is because his incarceration was in 1900 (although, I have no idea when it started), but Oklahoma wasn't a state until 1907. Finding documented information in Oklahoma before it became a state can be problematic. I've been told by people from various agencies that many official records from before statehood either didn't exist or were destroyed.

    I'm not giving up on solving this mystery, but I am having to rethink it. I'm hoping that someone at the Oklahoma Genealogical Society might be able to offer some help. Perhaps, I might take a vacation day soon and visit the Family Search Library here in San Francisco to see if they can help point me in some good directions. Who knows, at some point I may need to make a visit to Oklahoma!

    Here's some more vital information about Frederick Brittain and his family. Anyone else have some good ideas for helping me solve this puzzle? 

    Frederick Harmon Brittain
    b. Jan 20, 1859, in Keokuk County, Iowa
    d. Feb 6, 1921, in Van Buren County, Arkansas

    Milton Price Brittain (1822-1898) and Nancy Garriott (1828-1912)

    m. Mary Jane Rooks (1st wife) on Sep 14, 1879, in Lowery City, Missouri
    b. Mar 3, 1862, in Grundy County, Missouri
    d. Mar 28, 1904, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma

    m. Sarah Frances Young (2nd wife) in 1906 in Stroud, Creek Nation, Indian Territory
    b. Jun 8, 1866, in Benton County, Arkansas
    d. 1960 in Yakima, Washington 

    Children with Mary Jane Rooks:
    Children with Sarah Frances Young:


    1. I hope you solve your mystery!!! I wish I had some ideas on where to look, but it sounds like you've been pretty thorough. I wonder what he could have done. Maybe he got into a brawl with someone over a property line? It's fun to guess what he might have done. :) It would be more fun to know for sure though!!

    2. My relative (Samuel V Pryor)was also on that jail census in 1900 in Creek Nation, IT AND on the regular census for choctaw nation...I am also hunting for records for his incarceration. Our family story is that he was a sheriff and killed a man for raping an Indian woman and that landed him in jail.

    3. Hi Wendy. According to the family, Frederick Harmon Brittain was locked up for stealing a horse and being unable to provide proof of purchase. He spent time in jail until the original horse owner was found and substantiated his claim.

    4. Thank you SO MUCH for that info, Anonymous! I was always hoping it would be a mistaken-identity thing or some sort of mix-up. Do you know if there's anything to document this? I might have to do some more research to see if there's anything in a newspaper from around that time.