July/August 2008 issue

Empire in the Grasslands: The Eighth Circuit Before 1891


by Joan Voelker, Archives Librarian

In honor of the recently published Eighth Circuit history, Establishing Justice in Middle America: A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit by Jeffrey Brandon Morris (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), the library prepared a display based on the book’s introduction and first chapter.

The six-panel traveling display, Empire in the Grasslands: The Eighth Circuit Before 1891, provides a snapshot of the federal judiciary and our circuit and its judges. During this period, the federal judiciary was under development, and there was no court of appeals. The circuit court was both a trial and appellate court that could be held by the circuit justice, circuit judge, or district judge, and any two could sit as a panel. To carry out their duties, the circuit justice and judge had to “ride the circuit,” traveling far distances by horse or carriage, in a circuit that was growing in both size and caseload.

The Eighth Circuit began as three states in 1837, and by 1891, encompassed ten states and a sizable portion of the then United States. It was spoken of as an “empire in itself,” running the course of the Mississippi River from Minnesota in the north to Arkansas in the south and crossing the farmlands of Missouri in the east to the mountains of Wyoming in the west.

The circuit’s geography shaped both its development and its caseload. Litigation arose relating to land acquisition, channels of interstate commerce, municipal bonds, farming inventions, Native American rights, and other issues. In resolving these disputes, the circuit courts of the Eighth Circuit ultimately expedited westward expansion and settled the vast “Empire in the Grasslands.”

Empire in the Grasslands: The Eighth Circuit Before 1891 was exhibited at the 2008 Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference in August and was on display in the St. Louis library during September.