When have you ever 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, 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 today. 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 deputies as needed to perform their duties. Another odd piece of information I learned was that U.S. Marshals had no official headquarters until around 1972. Kinda interesting.
Sheriffs –- 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: protect 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.
You also had the Secret Service that was formed on July 5, 1865 to combat counterfeiting. Later, it became their job to protect the president, vice president and other government leaders.
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.