Law Enforcers of the West

us-marshal-badge-180.jpgWhen have you picked up a western romance book to read that didn’t have some kind of law enforcement hero? I’ve noticed that an overwhelming number of stories feature marshals, sheriffs, Texas or Arizona Rangers, bounty hunters, and Pinkerton agents. And little wonder, because those occupations tend to breed larger than life heroes. Not that I’m saying the ordinary man can’t be a memorable hero. Heroes spring to life wherever there are people—the man who struggles to provide for his family, the rancher who’s trying to hold onto a piece of land by his fingernails—any man or woman who faces long odds and certain loss, yet overcomes. A hero is someone who gives his all for a belief in justice and right, knowing full well he might lose, and plunges ahead anyway.  He has unwavering conviction that he can make a difference. And he’s someone people respect above all else. 

In the settlement of the West, sometimes law-enforcers were few and far between. Circumstances bred lawless men who ran roughshod over the weak. Oftentimes, the ordinary citizen took it upon himself to protect and defend. Ordinary people with grit and determination filled the gaps and helped carve out a land free of outlaws and greedy land barons. I’ve put together a list of the most written about heroes. I wish I’d known some of these facts when I wrote my first three books which featured a bounty hunter hero, a Texas Ranger, and an ex-Confederate spy. Almost all my books have a sheriff or marshal in them and at times I used the two professions interchangeably. <groan> I didn’t exactly know the distinction between them. Until now. 

U.S. Marshals — the first federal organization to come into being.  George Washington and the Continental Congress created the service in 1789. Marshals are federally appointed, not elected, and they served a certain territory and still do james-arness.jpgtoday. Their authority extends to everything within that territory. Where states had not yet formed, the U.S. Marshal provided the only law. Their primary function was to support and defend the federal courts. They had wide authority in enforcing every aspect of the law, handling disputes, and carrying out death sentences. They also disbursed and accounted for monies used in running the courts. While I’m not exactly sure, I assume U.S. Marshals paid the bounty money for outlaws. The marshals were not put on an annual salary until 1896. Before that, they worked on a fee system, collecting set amounts for performing particular tasks. Strangely, from 1790 to 1870 they were ordered to take the census every ten years, a fact I didn’t know. U.S. Marshals reported directly to the Secretary of State until 1861 when Congress created the Department of Justice. U.S. Marshals hired as many dupties as needed to perform their duties. Another odd piece of information: U.S. Marshals had no official headquarters until around 1972. Kinda interesting. 

sheriffbadge2.jpgSheriffs –- Elected by the citizens of a town and paid by the city officials to perform their duties. Their jurisdiction was limited to the county in which they served. Their primary duty was to keep the peace, uphold the law, and maintain the jail. They acted in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals, but had limited authority. Sheriffs hired deputies and formed posses when needed. The sheriff also served as the tax collector for the county. 

Texas and Arizona Rangers –- I can’t think of any tougher law enforcement groups more honored and more deserving than the Texas and Arizona Rangers. Rangers to this day offer untold service to their respective states. Some of their duties include: ranger.jpgprotect life and property, handle special criminal investigations, quell disturbances, serve as officers of the court at a judge’s request, and suppress criminal activity in any area where local officials are unable or unwilling to maintain law and order. A Ranger’s authority extends throughout the entire state, not curtailed by city or county boundaries. Directly under the governor, they act as an army at times while at others they’re like a police force. The Texas Rangers organized in 1823 when Stephen F. Austin got together a group of men to protect the frontier. Each ranger had to furnish his own horse and firearm. He received $1.25 a day. They were called upon to handle the toughest assignments, usually in conflicts where they were severely outnumbered – “one ranger for one riot” kind of thing. The Arizona Rangers were formed in 1882 under the territorial governor. They were the exact counterpart of the Texas Rangers. The Arizona State Congress abolished them in 1909 but they were reformed years later. 

Bounty Hunters – People aren’t quite sure where bounty hunters sit when it comes to being a good guy or a bad one. Some writers make them more the villains than the hero, but bounty hunters began as law enforcers. A lot of them served in the capacity of deputy U.S. marshals. Others worked directly with sheriffs in apprehending criminals. Bounty hunters freed up the marshal’s or the sheriff’s time so they could focus on their normal duties and they performed a valued service. Of course, I’m sure there were rogue bounty hunters and that’s probably what led to their tarnished reputations. Today bounty hunters track down bail jumpers. 

Pinkerton Agents –- A detective agency founded in 1850 by Allen Pinkerton. They operated nationwide, working for railroad and stage companies. Their logo was the image of an eye and their motto was “We Never Sleep.” Hence, the term private eye.  They performed some of the same work now assigned to the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service. In 1861 while investigating a railroad case, the agency uncovered and foiled a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln on his way to the inauguration. They sometimes used heavy-handed tactics and it sullied their reputation. However, it continued as a family-owned operation until 1967. 

Matt Dillon at 6’7” is probably the best known TV marshal. And Steve McQueen made an excellent, fair-minded bounty hunter in Wanted Dead or Alive. But do you have other favorites? Or maybe you learned something you never knew before about law-keepers in the Old West.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

28 thoughts on “Law Enforcers of the West”

  1. Good Morning– I loved Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive anoter favorite of mine was the Rifleman. He wasn’t a law official but hey he carried himself REAL well.

  2. Hi Sherry! I’m glad you stopped by to visit. Yeah, Chuck Conners was one of those men who filled in the gap when a lawman wasn’t to be had. Chuck had that rugged, gritty charisma that spoke to the women viewers. Men like him created their own brand of justice. His son Johnny Crawford turned out to be quit a hunk himself later on. He was quite a looker. Wow!

    Have a great day and keep those larger than life cowboy heroes in mind. 🙂

  3. So was Marshall Dillon a marshall? I didn’t really watch the show…my mom thought it was too violent. 🙂
    I always thought he was just the sheriff of that town.
    I love that picture of the bucking horse and the man leaping out of the dust with the rifle. Great picture.
    When you said Rangers it took about two seconds for me to go to Walker, Texas Ranger. I am one of those TV/Movie viewers who takes exception to a void of common sense. I’m always muttering, “Call for back-up, idiot.”
    But not with Walker. I knew he could handle anything alone.
    I also thought of Marshall Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. There’s tough for you.
    And have you read Come the Spring by Julie Garwood? She didn’t write much in the way of westerns but she had four books set in the west and I loved them. And in Come The Spring Cole Clayborne was a ranger by the end…but he didn’t want to be a ranger, he just got roped (not literally) into it.

  4. I remember reading somewhere that some towns hired “marshalls” just like they did sheriffs so the term could get confusing. One show that showed both US Marshalls and Pinkerton Agents was Peacemakers that was on USA back in 2003. I was very disappointed when it was cancelled.

  5. What an incredibly informative blog, Linda. I’m impressed with all the research you’ve done to put this together. I feel like I’ve learned alot about the West and it’s law enforcement just from reading your blog. Don’t have to watch TV and so I can’t comment on some of it — but I love what you’ve put together. Well done, Linda.

  6. I just watched True Grit the other day…I had always heard of Rooster Cogburn, but that was the first time I’d watched any of the movies and I loved it.

    Thanks for the information. I didn’t know there were differences! :o)

  7. Linda. . . Great post. I certainly learned something, especially the census. I can definitely see some stories here. As for tv heroes, I loved Paladin in “Have Gun, Will Travel).

  8. Mary, yep Matt Dillon was a marshall, not a sheriff. That’s why he always had to travel to other towns and handle problem-makers. Dodge City was his base of operation though. And I surely did like Walker, Texas Ranger. He was a tough hombre, always got his man and always kept a sense of right and wrong, making sure he always righted the wrongs. 🙂

    Oh, and I completely forgot about John Wayne’s role as Rooster Cogburn when I was wracking my brain trying to think of TV or movie marshals. Loved that movie. Thanks for bringing that to mind, sister Filly.

  9. Great, informative post, Linda. Just to put in my two cents worth, judging from what I’ve read, the post of US Marshal was mainly administrative. It was the US Deputy Marshals who actually went out and caught the bad guys. Many of the legendary lawmen of the West were U.S. Deputy Marshals.
    Marshal was also the term used for the law enforcement officer of a town. The sheriff was the officer for a county, although you certainly hear these terms used in other ways. Does anybody else have a different take on this?

  10. Hi Lynn/Elsandra! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that the terms marshal and sheriff got tangled up in my brain. There was a distinction though, I’m just late in learning it. 🙂

    Yes, I remember Peacemakers. That was a good show. They always cancel the good ones. Don’t know why that is. Wish I was in charge of the programming. Now, can you imagine all the westerns that’d be on? lol

  11. Thanks, Kay. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and maybe learned a thing or two in the bargain. I enjoy research so it wasn’t a chore. Plus, I was curious about some of it. The West was a vast area and there were few real lawmen to police it. I guess that’s why we had so many normal citizens to fill in. Glad they did. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like? Pretty bad.

    Hope you have a great day!

  12. Hi Taryn, I knew you’d stop by and comment. Thanks, lady. You reminded me of the other John Wayne movie, True Grit. I’d forgotten he played a marshal in that one too. It’s easier to think of shows with bounty hunters and Texas Rangers. You know, I can’t think of one book offhand that has a marshal or sheriff hero. I know they’re out there though. Probably more contemporary than historicals I think.

    I always enjoy your comments. Hope you keep finding our blogs interesting.

  13. Hi Pat, yeah Paladin was another great TV western. I think he was a gun-for-hire, a category I completely overlooked. But usually those men were of the bad sort. Paladin was cut from a different mold. What a hero.

  14. Hi Elizabeth! I’m glad you weighed in. I think where marshals really came in big time were in territories that weren’t yet states. Marshals worked for the federal government and could override a sheriff if he had to. Yes, you’re right in that a sheriff’s duties covered an entire county. And, I’m sure the U.S. Deputy Marshals did most of the work in capturing criminals. 🙂 And I’m also fairly sure they didn’t get paid near what they were worth. Shoot, I can’t think of any TV westerns that had a deputy marshal hero! Festus is the only one I can think of and he was a secondary character.

    Hmmmm, you give me lots of fodder for my brain. The wheels are turning. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  15. Cheryl and Mary, yeah I like that picture of the Texas Ranger, leaping into the fray amid a cloud of dust. I’m sure guns were blazing. The poor horse looks kinda excited, doesn’t he? But, I would be too if bullets were flying around me. lol

  16. Estella, thanks for dropping by and posting a comment. Glad there was something of interest for you. Visit again for more intriguing things our minds want to know. 🙂

  17. Hi Linda – Oh, we JUST bought the first season of Wanted Dead or Alive on DVD. My husband is a lover of westerns too, hooray! Steve McQueen is an understated, almost reluctant hero in the series – and because of that he was viewed as very “cool”. We are enjoying the series and learning facts about its inception and bio about McQueen on the DVD. But since I wrote and researched about bounty hunters, its fun to disspell the myths and debunk “Hollywoods” version of bounty hunters. NO, they weren’t hated by all sheriffs and marshalls and often time they were annoynomous. EVERYONE knew Josh Randall – he almost had villain appeal on the series.

  18. Linda, what a terrific post! Such great research and some wonderful ideas. Although I love Texas Rangers, and generally have one in my stories (almost always a crusty old timer), I decided to have my hero be a Pinkerton Agent in my upcoming story in “Give Me a Cowboy.” Not to be confused with the one coming out this month titled “Give Me a Texan.” LOL

    I found them so intriguing, and it gave my hero some wonderful characterizations to work with. The Pinkerton’s were the first detective agency that created a card-file system which has been the role model for other law enforcement entities ever since, including the FBI. They established the first database of criminal activity, and their innovation, the mug shot, was used widely among police and other detective organization. In the 1870’s they had the largest “mug shot” collection in the world. The “Pink,” as the famous lawmen were referred , were the first profilers on criminals. They were greatly involved in the education of preventive measures to banks and the like. They also had some unique colloquialism. “White Liner” is alcohol. “Oil or soup” was nitroglycerine to open bank vaults, “Rattler” is a freight train; “Dump” is the jail, and of course the famous “Rod” as a revolver and “bull” as an officer of the law.

    Pinkerton only hired honest men and their main rule … no drinking. He even hired a woman. His detectives were taught how to investigate; including wearing costumes and wigs. Their slogan “We Never Sleep” was painted on their door under the “open eye”, thus the nick name “Private Eye”.

    I loved the rich love-hate relationship of the Pinkerton Agents, but found most were highly respected, particularly by the bad guys. Although their offices were in big cities mainly, they were very intrenched in the new frontier conducting posses of agents in search of some of the West’s really bad men…Jessee James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hillary Farrington, the Dalton Gang, and “Black Jack” Ketcham. Allen Pinkerton (who had two sons involved in the agency) was also an author, inking 18 books.

    And, to redeem myself (being a Texan), when I travel down to San Antonio, I always stop at the Pioneer Rest Cemetery at Manard, Texas, and pay my respects to the pioneer Texas Rangers who are buried there. Their grave sites are distinctive, as they have an iron “Texas Ranger Badge” at their headstone. Great post, Linda. Phyliss

  19. Paladin was cut from a different mold. What a hero.

    I hope I’m not talking out of turn, but Linda’s newest hero (Give Me a Cowboy) is patterned off a “good mold” of Paladin, isn’t he? Phyliss

  20. Hi Charlene! Thanks for backing me up on the bounty hunter deal. There were some rogues for sure that gave the profession a black eye, but they weren’t all mean. The good ones did provide a valuable service to the overworked marshals and sheriffs who were too busy to go out hunting down a lot of the criminals. Enjoy Wanted Dead or Alive! It’s one of my favorite western series. Yes, Josh Randall kept a low profile as much as possible. He certainly didn’t seek attention.

  21. Phyliss, thanks for dropping by and giving us the low-down on the Pinkerton Agency. I didn’t devote much space to it because I’m not that knowledgable about them. I appreciate the tidbits you threw in. You have a lot of little-known facts about so many interesting subjects. I loved your story in our second anthology, Give Me a Cowboy! That was a great Pinkerton hero.

    Yep, my hero in Texas Tempest (my story in Give Me a Cowboy) was in fact a gun-for-hire who had a conscience just like the real Paladin. Thanks for reminding me. I’d forgotten. What would I do without you?

    Have a nice evening and stop by again sometime to comment. We love it.

  22. Thanks for welcoming me, Linda and all the other nice girls at Petticoats and Pistols. I love to research and before I know it I’ve spent way too much time on a subject that I devote one paragraph or a scene to! Oh, I didn’t forget McKenna Smith in “Cowboy” … he’s a cool, hot gunfighter. Hugs, Phyliss

  23. Wow, I really enjoyed this post, Linda. Very informative! I knew a little about the Texas Rangers, but the others’ I wasn’t too sure about.
    I’m going to print this off for future reference. Thanks for putting all this information together!

  24. Great post, Linda! I think my all-time favorite lawman show was “Wyatt Earp,” played by the oh-so-handsome Hugh O’Brien. Wow. Now that was a good looking man. :o) (but I must add that in later years when I learned Earp’s real history, I was never too fond of the real man)

    The painting in your post is titled “The Arizona Ranger” by Hermon Adams. He lives in Arizona and does some beautiful western art. A lot of his paintings are of Native Americans. My favorite is titled “The Prayer.” I had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Adams on the phone several years ago. He sent me a catalog of his prints.

  25. Devon, thanks for furnishing the name of the Arizona Ranger painting. I sure don’t want to take anything away from Hermon Adams because it’s a fantastic, very dramatic rendering of the toughness of the Arizona Ranger. And yeah, Hugh O’Brien played a wonderful marshal in Wyatt Earp. I used to have beautiful daydreams about Hugh O’Brien. He was so handsome! You’ve brought back some good memories.

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