I settled on Gunnison, Colorado as the setting for my upcoming release, Ellie’s Escape. I’ve been fascinated with the state since visiting on business many years ago. The rugged mountains, deep canyons, and expansive vistas captivated me, and when I discovered that my boss is from Crested Butte (the next town over), I knew I had my location. He shared lots of photos and information that only a “local” would be privy to.
The premise for Ellie’s story is that she is an eye witness to a bank robbery and can identify the thieves. Frightened for her life, she decides to leave the area and agrees to become a mail-order bride. I knew very little about law enforcement in the Old West, so dug into my research with gusto.
Most folks think a constant stream of gun duels, shootouts, hangings, and chasing stage and train robbers made up the typical career of a lawman in the Old West, but in reality most of their work involved mundane and routine tasks such as collecting taxes, ensuring licenses were current, preventing the illegal sale of liquor, checking that businesses were locked up tight after hours, cleaning the streets, and keeping order in the saloons, gambling sites, or other entertainment venues.
Sheriffs and marshals were the two main types of lawmen. U.S. Marshals have been appointed by the U.S. Marshal Service since its inception in 1789. They are not elected, and as federal employees their jurisdiction extends beyond county lines, often working with an assigned territory. Prior to 1896 when they were put on salary, marshals worked on a fee system, collecting set amounts for performing certain tasks. Between 1790 and 1870, marshals were responsible for taking the census every ten years. Up until 1861 when Congress created the Department of Justice, they reported to the Secretary of State.
Town marshals were elected or appointed depending on town laws and worked strictly within town limits. Towns and counties were also served by sheriffs (again depending on their laws). Privileges and responsibilities varied widely by territory and state. Most hired their own deputies and only rounded up a posse when necessary. In states that have not expressly repealed it by statute, forming a posse is still legal. Additionally, in some places the sheriff had the authority to carry out death sentences, most frequently by hanging.
The majority of lawmen were good and honest people, performing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Others were dependable only when wearing their badge, but lived outside the law during their off-hours. Still others were evil, using their powers and authority to break the law.
A fun tidbit I unearthed is that famous marshal Wyatt Earp spent the winter of 1882-1883 in Gunnison. His cohorts Warren Earl, Doc Holliday, Texas George, and Big Tip were with him, all well-armed with a team of mules and entire camp outfit. Earp is said to have run the faro bank at one of the local saloons. Described as a fine-looking man, Earp had a drooping mustache that curled at the ends.
Gunnison “busted” shortly after that year, losing nearly half its population. The ore deposits had been exaggerated, with most mines producing low amounts and quickly running dry. Those who remained soon turned to cattle, ranching, and timber.
What areas of the Old West, if any, have you visited or lived in? I WILL GIVE AWAY AN EBOOK EDITION OF ELLIE’S ESCAPE TO ONE RANDOMLY SELECTED COMMENTER.
She’s running for her life. He needs a trophy wife. They didn’t count on falling in love.
Ellie Wagner is fine being a spinster school teacher. Then she witnesses a bank hold up and can identify the bandits. Fellow robbery victim Milly Crenshaw happens to run the Westward Home & Hearts Matrimonial Agency so she arranges for Ellie to head West as a mail-order bride. But her groom only wants a business arrangement. Can she survive a loveless marriage?
Banker Julian Sheffield is more comfortable with numbers than with people, but he’s done well for himself. Then the bank president tells him that in order to advance further he must marry in six weeks’ time. The candid, unsophisticated woman sent by the agency is nothing like he expected, but time is running out. When her past comes calling, does he have what it takes to ensure their future?
Linda Shenton Matchett is an author, speaker, and history geek. She writes about ordinary people who did extraordinary things in days gone by. Her books are regularly praised for their accuracy and realism. A volunteer docent and archivist for the Wright Museum of WWII, Linda is also a trustee for her local public library.
She was born a stone’s throw from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland and has lived in historic places all her life. Now located in central New Hampshire, Linda’s favorite activities include exploring historic sites and immersing herself in the imaginary worlds created by other authors.