Western Life

The History of Lawmen in the Wild West

When the westward migration began in the mid-19th century, there were many reasons for people choosing to make the journey. Most of them wanted a new start, including soldiers who had fought in the war and had no marketable skills and those that saw business opportunities, as well as numerous criminals looking for a way to escape the law.  At the time the west had no laws, courts or even organised leadership. As the area expanded, saloons and brothels were the most prevalent businesses and attracted a high level of violence and criminal activity. In addition, general dishonesty and corruption meant there was an immediate need to find a way to maintain order.

The first people to defend the frontier were organised in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin, in Texas. He invited a group of ‘adventurous men’ to act as ‘rangers for the common defence’ of his land. Those that accepted the position became known as ‘ranging men.’ Although these groups continued to be hired privately, at the time, the majority of the new citizens remained unprotected. This resulted in towns beginning to appoint lawmen to watch over their citizens. Many of these were also of questionable character, having been previously involved in crime. Their understanding of the criminal mind, as well as their skills as gunfighters, made them the best candidates available for the job, however. Many of them continued to commit offences, often using their badges as justification, and were later arrested, charged and hanged. Others put their criminal past behind them, and found ways of upholding the law, often at great personal risk.

The two main law enforcement roles, at the time, were sheriffs and US Marshals. Although the terms were often used interchangeably, the positions came with different responsibilities.


A position which was adopted from the British system, a sheriff was originally responsible for maintaining order in a shire during the Middle Ages. In the Old West, the sheriffs had similar jobs, being first employed by large landowners to protect themselves and their property. As the towns grew, the citizens would elect a sheriff to be responsible for upholding the law within his town, or county. In addition, they would collect taxes and serve papers for the county court. The position required no qualifications, and many sheriffs were also in charge of keeping the streets clean, ridding the area of pests and inspecting cattle.

US Marshal

The US Marshal Service was established in 1789, as a part of the federal government. Those employed by the service had jurisdiction throughout the country, as long as it pertained to their current assignment. The duties of US Marshals included protecting their judiciary, apprehending and transporting federal fugitives, as well as seizing money obtained through illegal activities. When making arrests, their authority would supersede the sheriff’s. They were also assigned tasks that were not related to criminal activity, including distributing federal proclamations and taking the national census.

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