Thomas P. Eskridge (1797–1835)

Thomas P. Eskridge was a judge on the Superior Court of Arkansas Territory, which eventually became the Arkansas Supreme Court. Though he left the spotlight to others, he played a substantive role in the development of the Arkansas court system.

While there is little documentation on his early life, it appears that Thomas Eskridge was born around 1797 to William Eskridge and Elizabeth Scott Eskridge in Staunton, Virginia. He came from a large family with possibly as many as ten children. It is believed that he received his legal training serving as a clerk for a Virginia lawyer. He moved to Arkansas in 1820 or 1821, just as the Arkansas Territory was developing and its judiciary was taking shape. Eskridge was appointed to the First Judicial Circuit Court, on which he served from 1823 to 1827.

In January 1823, before he joined the First Judicial Circuit Court, he made a brief foray into the electoral arena, announcing his plan to run for territorial representative to Congress. Declaring himself a Republican (that is, of the Democratic-Republican Party), he laid out an extensive list of measures he would undertake on behalf of his constituents. He promised to arrange quickly the Choctaw Treaty, as well as to effect the clear establishment of the Missouri-Arkansas boundary line. He also promised to gain permission to have the area known as Lovely’s Purchase settled by whites, while also seeking to address the many unsettled Spanish land grants within the territory. Eskridge also assured voters that he would work to have a surveyor general’s office established in the territory and would seek to have Congress, working in concert with Louisiana and Arkansas, open the Red River to travel. He offered to help get a garrison established at the head of the Kiamichi River, and he also pledged to secure the opening of a military road extending from the Chickasaw Bluff (in the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee) into the farther reaches of the territory. In addressing voters, he made sure to note that, like them, he was a property owner whose possessions were entirely in the Arkansas Territory.

Eskridge’s candidacy was short-lived, and he soon withdrew from the race, apparently acceding to a request from his political patron, acting governor Robert Crittenden, who had indicated his support of Henry W. Conway for the post. However, his 1823 appointment to the First Judicial Circuit Court was likely a consolation prize. He was appointed in 1827 to a seat on the Superior Court of Arkansas Territory.

Eskridge was not considered one of the region’s judicial leaders, but he was recognized as a thoughtful legal craftsman who was familiar with the law and the major legal authorities of the time. His opinions reflected a well-trained legal mind as well as a sophisticated knowledge of some of the finer points of law, even if they did not show any real creativity. At the same time, his use of language reflects his appreciation of a well-chosen phrase. Indeed, legal historians have seen Eskridge’s performance as a reflection of the fast-improving quality of the territorial judiciary, a body that had been manned only by laymen until 1814. At the same time, the court over which he presided had few notable cases. Most common were disputes over land deeds as well as bills of exceptions coming to the appeals court from the trial court below. Seeking to avoid the attention that often came with public life, Eskridge chose to live in the rural Crittenden County.

Eskridge, who was married to Mary B. Eskridge, died at his residence on the night of November 30, 1835 (some places list the actual date of his death as December 1). The cause of death was noted as cholera morbus, a historical term used to refer to gastroenteritis rather than true cholera. He is buried in the Natchez City Cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi.

For additional information:
Arnold, Morris S. “An Early Opinion of an Arkansas Trial Court.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 5, no. 3 (1982): 397–404. Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1493&context=lawreview (accessed July 12, 2018).

“To the Citizens of the Territory of Arkansas…” Library of Congress. Online at https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.00103200/ (accessed July 12, 2018).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 02/10/2020

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