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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Judge John R. Thomas
(20588.28.T.2.12, Thomas-Foreman Home Collection, OHS).

THOMAS, JOHN ROBERT (1846–1914).

Lawyer and judge John Robert Thomas moved from Illinois to Muskogee, Indian Territory (I.T.), circa 1897. Born on October 11, 1846, in Mount Vernon, Illinois, his parents were William Allen and Caroline Neely Thomas. John Thomas attended common schools and the Hunter Collegiate Institute in Princeton, Indiana. On December 28, 1870, he married Charlotte "Lottie" Culver of Metropolis, Illinois. Before her death ten years later, they had five children. Of the five only John Robert, Jr., and Carolyn survived. Thomas, Sr., remarried Jessie Beattie on November 20, 1884.

During the Civil War Thomas joined the Union army as a private in the infantry of the 120th Illinois Regiment. He rose to the rank of captain. During the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, he received a wound from which he never fully recovered. Following the war he studied law and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1869. He was city attorney in Metropolis, Illinois, from 1869 to 1870. Thomas served as Illinois's state attorney from 1871 to 1874. In 1879 constituents elected Republican Thomas as representative from Illinois to the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1889. While in Congress he was assigned to the Naval Committee and chaired the subcommittee on naval construction. He was instrumental in obtaining appropriations in 1882 to build several ironclad ships to replace wooden vessels. He also chaired the Committee on Levees and Improvements of the Mississippi River.

On June 30, 1897, Pres. William McKinley appointed Thomas as United States judge in I.T. He served the Northern District of I.T. until June 30, 1901. During his tenure he handed down the first death sentence ever rendered in Indian Territory. Also significant were the Seminole cases he tried in May 1899 in the federal court at Muskogee. A number of whites were found guilty and imprisoned for the torture and murder of Seminoles. The cases gained national attention, and Thomas lost popularity with white settlers. In 1901 he established a private law practice in Muskogee. His future son-in-law, Grant Foreman, joined the firm in 1903. In 1905 Thomas was selected as alternate delegate to the Sequoyah Convention. Originally, Thomas favored separate statehood for Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, thus forming two states. He later changed his mind and concluded that the two territories should form one state; he believed that eastern and northern Republicans would not favor having four Democratic senators from two new states. In 1908 Thomas was selected to serve on the Oklahoma State Code Commission, tasked with refining the various state laws that had been quickly pieced together at 1907 statehood.

On January 19, 1914, while accomplishing legal business at the McAlester State Penitentiary, Thomas was killed during a prison escape. Buried in Greenhill Cemetery, Muskogee, Oklahoma, he was later reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Thomas was a member of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), the Knights Templar, and a Masonic lodge.

Linda D. Wilson

Learn More

Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774–Present (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/biosearch/ourbio3.htm (accessed February 26, 2014).

Orben J. Casey, And Justice for All: The Legal Profession in Oklahoma, 1821–1989, ed. Odie B. Faulk (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Society, 1989).

J. Stanley Clark, "Career of John R. Thomas," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 52 (Summer 1974).

Durant Weekly News (Durant, Oklahoma), 23 January 1914.

John R. Thomas Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

"John R. Thomas," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Thomas, John Robert,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=TH020.

Published February 11, 2015

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