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Frontier Policing, Law Enforcement in Early American West
Gary Cooper in High Noon
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?
- Lawmen or outlaws?
I grew up with western movies, comic books and sometimes radio. My heroes were the likes of the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Lash La Rue. They lived by the Code of the West which if applied in real...
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