Thomas Boles (1837–1905)

Thomas Boles was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented the Third District of Arkansas in the Fortieth, Forty-First, and Forty-Second Congresses from 1868 to 1871 and then again from 1872 to 1873.

Thomas Boles was born on July 16, 1837, near Clarksville (Johnson County) to John Boles and Mary May Boles. One of eleven children, he was educated in the local common schools and was a teacher for a few years before becoming sheriff of Yell County in 1858. The following year, he was appointed deputy clerk of the Yell County circuit court, a position that motivated him to study law. Admitted to the Arkansas bar in 1860, he started a practice in Danville (Yell County), but that effort was interrupted by the Civil War. Boles served in the Union army in Company E, Third Regiment of the Arkansas Volunteer Calvary, ultimately attaining the rank of captain.

After the war, Boles served as a judge on the fourth judicial circuit from 1865 until 1868. During his time on the circuit court, Boles made a name for himself with controversial rulings in a number of murder cases, dismissing the indictments against a number of Confederate soldiers, ruling that the murders were committed during war and thus not subject to the dictates of the civilian statutes.

He resigned from the court to serve in Congress, to which he was first elected in 1868. Boles sought reelection in 1870 and appeared initially to have won. However, the state was fractured by the competing intra-party loyalties that characterized postwar Reconstruction politics, with factions aligned with the national regular Republican leadership competing against the Liberal Republican movement. Despite the initial vote tallies to the contrary, Boles was defeated. In an apparent power play by Governor Powell Clayton, Liberal Republican John Edwards was declared the winner of the closely contested election, and, presenting the certificate of election he had been granted by the governor, Edwards assumed the seat at the start of the Forty-Second Congress. However, Boles refused to accept the initial result and, claiming fraud, pursued a challenge. His allegations were ultimately supported by the House Committee on Elections, and he reclaimed his seat, being sworn in on February 9, 1872. Ironically, despite fighting for over a year to claim the seat, Boles opted not to seek reelection the following November.

Boles’s tenure in Congress established him as something of an independent voice, although he generally supported the Republican Reconstruction regime. In one notable vote, he supported the establishment of Yellowstone National Park; his son, Thomas, would later work for the National Park Service for over a quarter of a century. Boles was also one of a handful of House Republicans who did not support the 1872 Anti–Ku Klux Klan Act. The vote took place not long after he had reclaimed his seat, and, although he was, in fact, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) when the June vote was taken, local papers reported that he would have voted against the legislation had he been in residence. His absence was particularly noteworthy because he had been outspoken in his opposition to the actions of the Klan and the race-based vigilante justice that was common at the time.

After retiring from Congress, Boles returned to Arkansas, and he resumed the practice of law, this time in Dardanelle (Yell County). He had married Julia Pound of Danville on August 15, 1866, and they had three children before her death in 1872. Back in Arkansas, he married Catharine Keith, a native of Scotland who had come to the United States as a child, on February 4, 1874. They also had three children.

In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Boles receiver of the U.S. Land Office, and a few years later, after a failed 1880 bid to return to Congress, President Chester A. Arthur named Boles U.S. marshal for the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Arkansas. Around the same time, he relocated to Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and assumed the presidency of the Fort Smith, Paris and Dardanelle Railway. In 1884, Boles returned to the political arena, securing the Republican nomination for governor, but he was defeated by Simon Hughes in the general election.

Boles again resumed his law practice and was appointed clerk of the U.S. Circuit Court, a post he held from 1897 until his death. Interestingly, that appointment had come despite the fact that, late in his career, Boles had deserted the Republican Party to support the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, all the while making clear his strong support for the free coinage of silver.

Boles died on March 13, 1905. He is interred in Brearley Cemetery in Dardanelle.

For additional information:
“Hon. Thomas Boles.” Morning Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas), March 15, 1870, p. 2.

“Hon. Thomas Boles.” Arkansas Gazette, October 1, 1897, p. 2.

“Judge Thomas Boles Dead.” Jonesboro Weekly Sun (Jonesboro, Arkansas), March 29, 1905, p. 6.

“Thomas Boles.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. (accessed September 27, 2021).

“US Marshal Boles’ Record Book.” Fort Smith National Historic Site. (accessed September 27, 2021).

“Where Was Thomas Boles?” Arkansas Gazette, June 13, 1872, p. 2.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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