The U.S. Marshal Yesterday and Today

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.

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19 thoughts on “The U.S. Marshal Yesterday and Today”

  1. Glad to know about the museum. I am big on visiting them and am always happy to find new ones!

    It is interesting how some professions have such a long lineage.

    Happy Fall Monday!

    Peace, Julie

  2. My 4th Romance had a US Marshal hero. We have a friend in Florida who is a Marshal and he helped me with the research – including how to put a US Marshal on a case on Canadian soil. He’s also an ex-marine. Their duties are varied. I have a pic of him on a rooftop in Baghdad, I also remember talking to him and being propositioned to go to Europe(lol). Then there are the fugitive cases in the US….

    Very cool. And great post!

  3. Thanks for all the information on marshalls. I have always found the profession interesting, but have been too lazy to really delve into it. Rangers are always so much more glamorous.

  4. Thanks for the great post,as a family of “Law”men,my uncle was Sheriff an now my son in law is a deputy,was great reading about this,thanks

  5. Patricia, what a great post. I’ve shied away from using a U.S. Marshall as a hero (lucky Texas is known for their Texas Rangers), simply because I don’t know enough about them to feel comfortable with jurisdictions, training, etc. This is terrific information. Thanks for sharing. Hugs, P

  6. Thanks for the very informative post, Phyliss. My March HH, THE WIDOWED BRIDE, set in 1920, has a U.S. Deputy Marshal as a hero. His job is to enforce Prohibition and track down bootleggers (he thinks the heroine is in league with them), something the U.S. Marshals actually did.
    One thing confused me for a long time. The head law officer of a town was also called a marshal, which is different from a U.S. Marshal. The sheriff was usually a county officer, although I’m guessing this could vary from place to place. Thanks for a great post!

  7. Elizabeth. . .I’m surprised you got away with a book set in 1920. but I love it. I set a book in 1901 in China and Harlequin said never, ever again. Probably it was more China than the date. I was particularly fascinated with the range of the U.S. Marshal’s responsibilities. Thanks to all of you for popping in.

  8. Very interesting post! They had started several years ago to raise money for a marshals’ museum here near the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, but the promoter ran off with the money, and the only thing there was done was a nice big slab with a badge etched into it. I write a lot of “marshal” stories and loved reading about them when I was doing my research.
    Cheryl

  9. Pat, I enjoyed learning about U.S. Marshals. Very interesting. I never really knew the differences between sheriffs and marshals. They really had a dangerous job. Lots of duties. I’m enjoying the new TV series called “Chase” that features a female U.S. Marshal.

  10. Patricia.
    Thanks for a most interesting post. I had no idea the Marshal Service has been around for such a long time. It is something I think many of us associate primarily with the West in the mid to late 1800’s. Matt Dillon in 1790’s garb just doesn’t fit. They have and still do perform important duties.
    As far Earp and Hickok are concerned, with what I have read lately, the sound more like a couple of thugs rather than honorable law enforcement officers.

  11. Enjoyed learning about US Marshals. And thanks for reminding me of Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke. Also I had the fun of visiting the home where Wyatt Earp was born in Pella, Iowa. It’s a small museum and had one of the largest maple trees outside I’d ever seen. I think it must date back to Wyatt’s death at least.

  12. Thanks to all for posting. I love to read your comments. I knew they had been around for a very long time, but I didn’t realize they went back to the founding of this country. It’s a proud heritage.

  13. Just curious – in your research did you ever come across what was the average age of a U.S. Marshal or deputy marshal? I would imagine it varied a good deal.

  14. Hi Patrica,
    I have a new book coming out next month in which the hero is a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Indian Territory. I spent lots of time researching Parker’s Deputies, and like you said, a real deputy marshal was very different from Matt Dillion. I also liked the fact that the deputies who roamed through Indian Territory were the unsung heroes of the old west. They were just as tenacious as the Texas Rangers and the Royal Canadian Mounties, but received minimal recognition in history.

  15. I wondered about the extent of the authority the late 1800s marshal had in the west. They seemed to rule with much freedom that the modern counterpart would not have.

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