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Frontier Policing, Law Enforcement in Early American West

Updated on November 10, 2015

Gary Cooper in High Noon

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Justice on the frontier

American mythology, to a large extent, evolves around the frontier. The very term “ frontier” may be part of the myth. . In the United States the frontier is open ended and usually means West.Other cultures have sometimes different understanding of frontiers. So folk heroes, such as Daniel Boone, were part of the early frontier myth. If neighbors moved within sight he supposedly felt that civilization, meaning the East, was moving in on him and he had to move on.

The most persistent myth centers on the period between the civil war and the late 1800's when technology started to take over. During this period the “cowboy” became a national symbol, although the cowboys, by and large were not really always cowboys. A part of the mythology is policing on the frontier. I believe that our fascination with the gunslinger and the lawman is due to the fact that like most mythology it represents a deeper meaning. The Western is really a morality play. Such plays, which were popular in the 15th and 16th Century used allegorical characters to portray the soul’s struggle to achieve salvation. It is now used for anything portraying good and evil with a moral lesson. I also believe that the Western has become such a part of our national imagination is that it represents the deeper search for understanding of the basis of law and authority. Who has the authority to write and enforce the laws and where does it come from?




Most people do not realize that organized law enforcement is a rather modern device and it developed late in more isolated places such as the frontier. In England the industrial revolution brought large numbers of people to cities. There were only Constables and citizen patrols to deal with crime. Private companies organized their own police forces to protect their own interests.

Robert Peel established, with the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, the first police force. The policemen became known as “bobbies. ”Ten years later their police began regular patrols. In the United States we inherited English common law.

Among things from England,, especially on the frontier where there was little in the way of established formal justice system, were Vigilantes. Citizens called “regulators” banded together in “committees of vigilance.” to catch and punish lawbreakers.

The basis of many Western novels and movies are based on the theme of when such vigilantes deteriorated into lawlessness and mob rule. Owen Wister portrayed a somewhat tolerant view in his classic western “The Virginian” where the heroine was shocked by the cowboy hanging a rustler. The hero argues that where there is no established law that it is necessary to do the job of the law. On the other hand “The Ox-Bow Incident,” by Walter Tilburg Clark shows the other side of it where it turns out that the wrong men were hung.

So how was authority properly established. I was always a little curious about how Matt Dillon on the TV series “Gun Smoke” got his authority. I only recently found that the federal government has districts who appointed federal marshals. The office of marshal was attached to each district court. He was authorized to carry out “lawful precepts” of the federal bench. The president appointed the marshall with the consent of congress. I’m not sure, however, if Matt Dillon’s Kansas was a state at the time, since I believe a federal law officer would only have authority in a territory.

As towns became organized and elected officials, they were able to hire town marshals. Sheriffs work for the county. They assisted the federal marshal who had the enforcement power in the territories. I don’t believe any of them were paid very much, which led to various kinds of corruption. Often towns might recruit whoever they feel can do the job, which often meant someone with a reputation with a gun. Such men might well be moonlighting in such jobs as owning brothels. One might suspect what Matt Dillons relationship to Miss Kitty and her saloon were .

The movies tend to present the townspeople as wimps and cowards, such as in high noon, where Gary Cooper had to face the bad guys alone because none of the townspeople would support him. I kind of wonder about that. In general I don’t think such people would have had the guts to go out west in the first place. The situation in Northfield, Minnesota where the town’s people turned the table on the Younger/James gang during a bank robbery attempt belies the wimp image.

© 2009 Don A. Hoglund

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    • profile image

      big E 

      2 years ago

      Nowadays I think the police would benefit from being black.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Keri, glad you found it interesting.This is one of my older hubs and rereading the comments I am reminded that not everyone agrees with me.Thanks for commenting.

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 

      6 years ago from West of England

      Fascinating, and I enjoyed reading your theories of the mythology as well as the facts of frontier life.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting My Minds Eye. Yes, the dime novels have had a hand in it. I wrote hubs on Ned buntline and, buffalo Bill. I have also used that theme in some of my fictional stories.

    • My Minds Eye53 profile image

      My Minds Eye53 

      6 years ago from Tennessee

      This was very interesting. Don't you think that a lot of western mythology came from the "Dime Novels" that were written and sent back east? I am sure Buffalo Bills Wild West Show helped that along also.

      I grew up in Missouri and I am probably related to Jesse James and the history I read said that people would rather shoot a man in the back than be in a fair fight.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Sophia, I copied the following from the on line Oxford dictionary. Not a whole lot different from websters.

      noun

      a line or border separating two countries.

      the district near a border separating two countries.

      the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness, especially referring to the western US before Pacific settlement:

      his novel of the American frontier

      .....

      As far as a mythical cowboy. Certainly the western movies you watched were not about real cowboys. You can call it what you wish but I call it a myth, that is. the gunslinger and the shootouts. That was not the real west, but a mythological west.

      Turners thesis while not new anymore did a lot to create the idea of the west.ie, that the American character was formed by the westward movement.

      I do not think it is anything to be bothered about.The Western image has a lot to do with how Americans identify themselves which probably somewhat mystifies others.

      It is a theory, so it can always be disputed. There is no particular reason why you should buy in on it since it is American culture.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 

      6 years ago

      Daho. Well, I guess I never realized there was such a thing as a mythical cowboy. Websters is an American dictionary and it gives an American interpretation to words. You maintained that frontier is used interchangeably with border in Europe. Absolutely NOT. I am half European and half South African and have lived extensively in both. It is not used to mean border. It means the border of a country where there is no civilisation after it. And 1890 is hardly current.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 

      6 years ago

      Daho. Websters is an American dictionary - not a British one. I'm 60 years old. I'm a professional writer. I speak very, very good English. I have never heard anyone name a border a frontier. Try the Oxford dictionary. That's British.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Sophia and thanks for commenting. According to Websters "Collegiate dictionary frontier is: 1.A border between two countries and 2, a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory.

      The historian Frederick Jackson Turner about 1890 presented a thesis of the American character being influenced by the "frontier" by which he meant the second definition of frontier.It was a popular theory for some time after that among academics.

      The "mythological" cowboy does not have a lot to do with actual cowboys who work cattle.The cowboy of the myth are usually gunfighters, lawmen,gamblers etc.

      I am not sure what the "cowboy" means to people outside the US.Australia,I think, has a tradition somewhat like ours, but otherwise I don't know.

      I suppose that even the distinction between farm and ranch are part of american tradition. In my part of the country we have farms, but in the Western part of the country some of those farms would be called ranches.

      I don't know if Westerns are dead or just in hibernation.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 

      6 years ago

      Daho, Interesting piece. One thing you need to check.

      a) word 'frontier' means border. A frontier means exactly in America what it means elsewhere. It means the edge of civilization and is a term used when there still used to be a frontier. Now the word is used in other areas e.g. the frontiers of science, meaning the place where no man has gone before... :-0

      For the rest, I watched 'Comboy and Indian' movies in the 50s and 60s, and I think the last ones really came out in the 70s. With the waning of Wayne, and with Clint Eastwood moving into other genres, I think the cowboy movie gradually disappeared.

      Personally, I never really got into cowboy books because they way they spoke to each other was in such bad English that it stopped my reading speed while I was trying to figure out exactly what they were saying. Also, sometimes there was this 'hanging in the air' finish which peeved me no end.

      For the rest, I suppose, I take law and order for granted, and I outgrew the entire concept of the cowboy. I went off it completely when someone explained to me that a cowboy was a laborer on a farm working with cows... :)

      To my romantic mind, that didn't seem so interesting anymore.

      Still, it's interesting to read how the cowboys and frontiers are interpreted in the US.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading and I'm glad you liked it.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 

      7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Excellent article. As you said, doubtful any of them were wimps. Thank you for the interesting read.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I don't think most people carried guns in the Old West.Often in cattle towns there were also restrictions on gun.Most places I have read though there were only a few gunfights like in the movies. I Think it is a "good vs evil" ritual in our national mythology.

      I appreciate you comment.

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 

      7 years ago from India

      Intersting reading and i was thinking that gun shoot outs in movies they show was real thing in western USA in days gone by

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. In some ways the frontier was a place where there were no clear cut rules of conduct.It was law and order on a very basic scale.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image

      Anaya M. Baker 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Appreciated your info on Western law enforcement and vigilante justice. Wasn't aware of the complexities of criminal justice, especially in that the phenomenon is relatively new, culturally speaking. I agree, the western has become the mythology of American culture. Voted up and useful, thanks!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I like L'Amour. Many films have been made of his stories. Yes in real life they were the good guys one day and bad guys the next.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Interesting hub about early days of frontier policing. I inherited a set of Louis L'Amour books from my brother and have not yet read them. They sound good from the comments above. Remember the white hat /good guy and black hat / bad guy analogy used in some movies and TV shows?

      Voted up and useful.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. Somehow I see the frontier as sort of a lab experiment in how civilization is formed when it is little more than chaos in some times and places.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I agree with AnnieRoseVA, the idea that organized law grew out of the civilian vigilane groups is fascinating. Gunsmoke shows what can and probably did happen when a group of hot heads come together.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I've sort of felt that one reason the frontier mythis so persistant is that it is sort of a view of how law and political organization evolved. Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      AnnieRoseVA 

      7 years ago

      Great hub. I love Westerns - grew up on them. I've read every Louis L'Amour novel. When I was a kid I wanted to live where Bonanza was located, but did not pay too much attention. It turned out that subconsciously I ended up living in the two places they filmed - Thousand Oaks, CA and Incline Village, NV. It was great. Many westerns were filmed in Thousand Oaks in what is now Wildwood Park. I've hiked through all the places where I've seen gun battles!

      Louis L'Amour always talks about law in his books. One of his cowboys is always studying around the campfire at night reading Blackburn or other law books bartered for or bought.

      The idea of organized law growing out of civilian vigilante parties is interesting and many old Western movies deal with this topic in non-trivial ways. Many of them have deeper stories than one would think. I love it all!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for your comment.I don't know if I have ever seen a film from India.

    • skgrao profile image

      S K G Rao. 

      8 years ago from Bangalore City - INDIA.

      It now seems in most movies its the good guys who use a whip on bad politicians in films produced in India.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Rod

      It seems in most movies its the bad guys who use a whip. I think when I was young I may have seen demonstrations at rodeos. I don't recall the serial you mention but I didn't go to them much because I didn't want to be obligated to go to the same theater every week.

      Thanks for your further comments.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      8 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Thanks for straightening out the difference between Sheriffs and Marshals.

      There was a Western movie serial called The Black Whip. The great grandson of Zorro, dressed as his ancestor, rides into a trap and gets shot up. He dies and his sister takes up the mask. An entertaining movie serial and, yes, she was good with the whip. When I was at college in the country I learnt how to crack a whip.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      y brother reads westerns for the same reason your father does. He also pointed out the morality play aspect, although I didn't know he was that classical.

      Wyatt Earp was an example of the lawman who had his hand in various questionable enterprises.

      Sheriffs are county law enforcement and elected. There are town marshals and federal Marshals.

      Lash La Rue was a children 's western back in the 1950's who used a bull whip instead of a gun.Even then they had gimmicks.

      Thanks for the very informative information and comment.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      8 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I thought "The Thin blue line" was a comedy.

      My dad has always been fond of the "Western" because many of them show a clear division between the good guys and the bad guys. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" and all that. High Noon has a man who has to make a choice between running and fighting. He chooses to fight because he knows that if he runs the bad guys will simply hunt him down anyway. Yes, I agree with you when you talk of the average Western as a morality play.

      The law was not so simple in the real West. Apparently, a man might be sheriff of one town and doing a good job of keeping order an justice whereas across the state line he might be a wanted criminal.

      The FBI was the body of law set up to unit the united states. They started off as lawyers with new laws and relied on cooperation with local authorities. Then they got guns and were able to enforce laws on their own.

      Before the FBI there were the Pinkertons. They were members of a detective agency out of Chicago. They could cross boarders to bring in felons but, legally speaking, what they were entitled to do was limited. Sometimes they worked for the government and sometimes they worked for other people who could afford their services. During the Civil War they worked as spies for the North.

      Kansas was up for statehood before it became bloody Kansas. There was going to be a vote for statehood and one of the things to vote on whether it would be a state that allowed slavery or one that rejected it. People from places like Boston, anti-slavers, flooded in to Kansas to settle to make it an anti-slavery state. Likewise people from the South flooded in to Kansas to assure that it would be pro-slavery. Throughout the Civil War it wasn't a state. I know that much. Not sure when it became a state but it may have happened in the 1870s. It may have been around Matt Dillon's time.

      I always thought that sheriffs maintained towns with their deputies and that marshals free ranged between towns keeping the peace over a wider area. I could be wrong. Still I suppose a marshal has to hang his hat somewhere so I suppose they would have to have a large town to call their own.

      I remember the Lone Ranger and also Gene Autry. I don't know about lash La Rue.

      Good read.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I think one reason the "Western" is so much a part of our mythology is that the frontier was where so much of our culture was worked out without too much outside guidance.

    • profile image

      BILL KINGHORN 

      9 years ago

      ...good info and ideas. The BBC's "The Thin Blue Line" must depict the ultimate development in the policing of a town.

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