Shirleen Davies

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Shirleen Davies

The Sketchy History of Frontier Sheriffs and Lawmen

When the Civil War ended many young men found their old way of life was gone. Their homes were left in ruins, land confiscated by carpetbaggers when the new high taxes couldn’t be paid. All or most of their family members were dead or missing. Many headed west, hoping for a new start.

In the west, these men worked prospecting for rich ore, skinning buffalo, or herding cattle. Those able to draw their pistols faster than most became either gunslingers or lawmen…sometimes both. Before becoming outlaws, the main members of the Dalton Gang—brothers, Grat, Bob, and Emmett were lawmen.

The Dalton Brothers

Besides gun skills, outlaws and law officers had one other key trait in common—they were both willing to risk their lives.

1881 was a momentous year for western lawmen.  With a single shot, Sheriff Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid, an outlaw wanted for more than 21 murders. And Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers gunned down the Clantons in a showdown at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

The next year, 1882, Jesse James, was shot in the back by Robert Ford, ending the career of an outlaw gang that terrorized the Wild West for over ten years. More than a decade later, in 1893, in an address the historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition he declared that “the frontier was closed”.

U.S. Marshals were appointed by the Attorney General. Sheriffs were elected by the residents of the county.  A Marshal could be chosen by the City Council. Deputies, constables, rangers, and peace officers were often hired by superior officers. 

Tombstone Marshal Badge

Famous Frontier Lawmen

Lawmen were so important in the west that many of them became famous.

The Earp Brothers:

The Earp Brothers
  • James C. Earp– The oldest Earp brother, worked as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas and was with his brothers in Tombstone, Arizona, though he was not involved in the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
  • Morgan Earp– Worked as a Ford County, Kansas Deputy Sheriff, a Butte, Montana Marshal, and a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arizona. He participated in the shootout at the O.K. Corral. He was killed by the rustling outlaw gang known as the Cowboys in Tombstone, Arizona in 1882.
  • Virgil Earp– Worked as a Dodge City, Kansas Deputy Marshal, an Arizona Deputy Sheriff in Tombstone, an Arizona Marshal/Chief of Police, a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arizona Territory, a Deputy Marshal in Colton, California; and as an Esmeralda County, Nevada Deputy Sheriff. He participated in the shootout at the O.K. Corral. He died of Pneumonia in 1905 in Goldfield, NV.
  • Warren Earp– Worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arizona and a Special Ranger of the Arizona Cattleman’s Association. He was not at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

He was killed in a gunfight in Willcox, Arizona in 1900.

  • Wyatt Earp– Worked as a Lamar, Missouri Constable, an Elsworth, Kansas Marshal, a Wichita, Kansas Deputy Policeman, a Dodge City; Kansas Assistant Marshal, a Pima County, Arizona Deputy Sheriff, a Tombstone, Arizona Deputy Policeman-Assistant Marshal, a Dodge City Peace Commissioner, and U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arizona Territory. He died of natural causes in California in 1929.

Bat Matterson and his brothers:

Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp
  • William Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson– Worked as a Ford County Kansas Deputy Sheriff, a Trinidad, Colorado Marshal, a Dodge City Peace Commissioner, a U.S. Deputy Marshal In New York, and later as a reporter for a newspaper. He died of natural causes in 1921.
  • Ed Matterson, the oldest of the brothers –Worked as a Dodge City, Kansas Marshal and was killed in the line of duty by cowboys on April 9, 1878.
  • James “Jim” P. Masterson – Worked as a lawman in Dodge City and Ingalls, Kansas, and a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Indian Territory. He fought the Doolin Gang and was a member of the posse that drove Arkansas Tom Jones to surrender.


Other Notable Lawmen

  • Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler Hickok) – Worked as a Marshal in Abilene and Hays City, Kansas. He was killed in a gunfight with Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakotain 1876.  
    Wild Bill Hickok
  • Patrick “Pat” Garrett – Worked as a Lincoln County, New Mexico Sheriff, an El Dorado County and Dona Ana County, New Mexico sheriff, and a Texas Ranger. He killed the outlaws Tom O’Folliard, Charles Bowdre, and Billy the Kid. Garrett was ambushed and killed in 1908.
  • Buck Garrett, nephew of Pat Garrett – Worked as one of Frank Wolcott’s “Regulators” fighting in the Johnson County War in 1892, as a S. Deputy Marshalin the Chickasaw Nation, and a sheriff of Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he headed the posse that killed Bill Dalton.
  • William (Bill) Tilghman – Worked as a Deputy Marshal, Dodge City, Kansas, a U.S. Deputy Marshal, Oklahoma Territory, a Sheriff, Lincoln County, Oklahoma, and a Chief of Police, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 
William “Bill” Tilghman

What Were They Paid?

The only pay many lawmen got was a percentage of fines the people they arrested paid, or the bounties for wanted men they caught or killed. Some got a salary but it was a small one, and their job included tasks like cleaning the streets and other city duties. U.S. Marshals had to take the national census and distribute presidential proclamations. Their jobs were usually boring with brief moments of excitement, danger, and sometimes, lethal gunfights and skirmishes.

Where Did They Live?

May sheriffs used their office as living quarters which were housed in the same building as the jail. Sometimes sheriffs lived in a room at the courthouse or in a house or building next to the jail. The lawmen that owned saloons or worked in saloons, as several did, ostensibly lived in their saloons.

How Many Lawmen Were Needed For Various Sizes of Towns?

Wyatt Earp hired a half-dozen men for the Dodge City force when he was appointed deputy marshal in 1876 is an example of how many lawmen were needed in a town of less than 1,000. One of them was his friend Batt Matterson.

Angel Peak, book 12, Redemption Mountain historical western romance seriesis available in eBook for pre-order.



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4 thoughts on “The Sketchy History of Frontier Sheriffs and Lawmen”

  1. Avatar
    Margaret McGovern

    It’s amazing the finer details about war and life in the 1800’s that we have little knowledge of. Are you sending out “Angel Peak” soon to ARC readers? Thank you for sharing your craft and wonderful stories. Margaret
    Happy Holidays!!

  2. Avatar
    Sherrie Glendening

    I lived in Hays, Ks. for many years, and worked at the remains of Old Fort Hays. History is really fascinating if you take the time to discover it. Many famous people visited or lived in Hays, including Gen. Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, and the troopers known as Buffalo Soldiers. History surrounds us, and the forgotten stories of common people are just as interesting as the more well-known characters. Old Fort Hays is a state historic site really worth a visit. The guides know lots of funny, weird, scary, and thought-provoking facts. Besides the stories of Wild Bill and the Buffalo Soldiers, there are spooky stories of the Blue Light Lady, who haunts the hills above the museum, as well as reported hauntings in some of the old officers quarters, while they were serving as student rentals in town. I got my degree in American History many years ago, but I still avidly read all I can about this most engaging subject. I really enjoy your stories and blog.

    1. Sherrie, Thanks for the comment. Very interestkiing. I’ll need to do some more research on Blue Light Lady. Gotta love a good ghost story!

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