The Good Guys
Frontier justice in the old West grew out of the slow realization that dealing with horse thieves or bad characters by vigilante groups was not “the American way.”
However, improvised justice was the way of the West for a good long period and it gave way to law and order only gradually. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, for instance, the head of a vigilante group charmed the governor of Wyoming Territory into appointing him county sheriff by taking a sheet of paper and writing out the appointment. This was in 1869, when Wyoming had four counties the chief law enforcer was responsible for 16,800 square miles of territory.
When frontier towns grew large enough to acquire a town charter, the first order of business was appointing peace officers. In one town, they appointed a marshal to enforce the laws, then realized they hadn’t put any laws on the books!
Keeping order on the frontier demanded courage and firearms skill. A lawman lived in a world where firearms were available to all, and his success often depended on who was the most skilled at slinging bullet - the good guy or the bad guy.. Consequently, gunslingers and gamblers often became peace officers.
Wild Bill Hickok, for example, a belligerent nonconformist and professional gambler, outshot a fellow cardsharp in Springfield, Missouri and thus earned a reputation which he embroidered at will and a position as a lawman. Some of Hickok’s deeds were real; as an Army scout in 1868 he rescued 34 men from an Indian siege by riding through the attackers to get help. He subsequently kept the peace in Kansas, often killing men in the line of duty. But when he overstepped in Abilene in 1871, killing both a drunk and a police officer, the city council fired him.
Other town marshals often misbehaved: one, a saloonkeeper, was discovered to be drugging and robbing his customers.
County sheriffs were a cut above town marshals in the hierarchy, and while sheriffs themselves were often found to be horse thieves and worse, when the town council sized up a new lawman, built a jail, and hired a man to keep law and order, often it was a fair exchange. The marshal had a small force he could call on for help in emergencies and this in itself kept the “chief” under control.
The third and highest level of lawman was the corps of federal officers operating in a state or territory; these were U.S. marshals, charged with enforcing federal laws and pursuing criminals such as mail robbers and Army deserters, and they also lent a hand to the local sheriff or marshal. U.S. marshals were appointed by the President, with consent of the Senate, and they had the power to select their own deputies. Such positions were highly coveted.
When a citizen of the West had a complaint, he would sometimes have to contact a law official hundreds of miles away: either the town marshal or the county sheriff. Between them, these two positions served to uphold frontier law.
The local sheriff had the edge in power and prestige, and many personally tracked down the lawless. Sheriffs were elected and thus had to campaign for favor. Sheriffs maintained the jail, served court orders, and sold tax-delinquent property. In Wyoming, sheriffs inspected owners’ brands on all horses driven out of the state; Utah’s sheriffs also maintained the county dog pounds. In Colorado sheriffs fought forest fires; in Texas they fought prairie dogs; and in New Mexico they searched for straying livestock.
Town marshals served as health inspectors, fire inspectors, and sanitation commissioners. Sometimes they collected taxes and license fees for saloons, houses of prostitution, and dog owners. They also served subpoenas, presided over the jail, kept official records of arrests, gave evidence at trials, and maintained order in the court. All this sounds fairly prosaic until you realize these men were also charged with making arrests.
To me it is most significant that, in the unruly, untamed settlements of the West, the need for law and order was perceived as a high priority and that, while there were notorious abuses on the part of law enforcers, for the most part such men were honest, conscientious, law-abiding citizens who believed in justice and the rule of law.