Before I started writing The Lawman, my September Blaze, I decided to take a look at the history of the U. S. Marshals. My hero, Jared, was a marshal and I wanted to be absolutely accurate when I wrote about his jurisdiction.
I knew about Matt Dillon, of course. And I knew that Wyatt Earp had been a marshal. But what, exactly, were their duties and how were they appointed?.
Every time I embark on a researching adventure, I’m ever so grateful to the internet. I remember pouring through hundreds of books to find answers to my questions. Now a touch of a few keys magically brings all my answers within seconds.
I did learn that I was absolutely right in giving him a large jurisdiction. Sheriffs were generally elected by the towns they served. Marshals, on the other hand, often had large territories. They were usually assigned to a judicial circuit where they were responsible for paying all the fees and expenses of the court clerks, U.S. attorneys, jurors and witnesses. They rented the courtrooms and jail space and hired the bailiffs, criers and janitors. They made sure the prisoners were present, the jurors were available and the witnesses were on time.
The office of the U. S. Marshal and Deputy Marshals was, in fact, the first national law enforcement agency in the country. The service was created by the first Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same legislation that established the federal judicial system. The marshals were given extensive authority to support the federal courts within their judicial districts and “to carry out all lawful orders issued by judges, Congress and the President.” Over the years, that directive included distributing Presidential proclamations, collecting a variety of statistical information on commerce and manufacturing, and conducting the census. They have been called upon to capture fugitive slaves, sealing the American border against armed expeditions from foreign countries and swapping spies with the former Soviet Union. They were also heavily involved in enforcing the prohibition laws and were even involved in retrieving North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights.
From the earliest days of the nation, a deputy Marshal was selected to be responsible for each of the original 13 judician circuits (there are now 94) and those marshals were permitted to recruit Special Deputies as local hires or as temporary transfers to the Marshals Service from other federal law enforcement agencies. Marshals were also authorized to swear in a posse to assist them in manhunts and other duties on an ad hock basis.
In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. Marshals became synonymous with the west and its many lawless frontier towns. In many of those places, the marshals were the only kind of law available, In “wicked places” like Deadwood, South Dakota, Tombstone, Arizona and the plains of Indian Territory, U. S. Deputy Marshals became famous as they pursued such notorious outlaws as Billy the Kid, Bill Doolin, the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy and Belle Star. Their motto then, and now, is “Justice, Integrity and Service.”
It was a dangerous job. In Indian country (which later became Oklahoma)) alone, 103 deputy marshals were killed between 1872 and 1896. That was roughly a quarter of the number of marshals slain throughout their history. It was the marshals who arrested the infamous Dalton Gang.
Among the early marshals who made a name for themselves were Bat Masterson in Kansas; Joseph Meek in Oregon, William Wheeler in Montana. Wyatt Earp and Will Bill Hickok also served as deputy marshals, but many believe their reputations rest on their own exaggerations and film depictions rather than the courageous acts shown by many more deputy marshals.
I particularly wanted to know who appointed the U.S. marshals. Well, I couldn’t quite do that. According to everything I read, the U.S. Marshal in Washington, himself a political appointment, chose deputy marshals in each judicial circuit and that man could appoint more deputies. And yet Wyatt Earp was appointed by the Arizona Territorial governor and, in some films, the infamous Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith was said to appoint deputy marshals. It might well be that the political appointee in Washington took local advice.
Once the west was tamed, the U. S. Marshal service began to suffer as their star faded and the FBI flourished. They were relegated mainly to acting as bailiffs for the federal courts and requesting background checks. However, ironically in view of their past as slave catchers, their importance again rose as they enforced court-ordered racial desegregation in the 1960’s. The Witness Protection Program established in the 1970’s also enhanced their reputation. They are now involved in terrorist events, hostage situations and numerous other duties, including the capture of wanted fugitives..
Over the years, some 400 marshals have been killed in the line of duty. To celebrate their courage, the U.S. Marshals Service national Museum is currently being established in Fort Smith, Arkansas with the anticipated opening in 2011.