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Law Enforcement in the Wild (Mild) West

Updated on August 10, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

Originally published by
Originally published by

The Wild West conjures up images of gunslingers, bandits, and harsh justice. It also suggests that it was a time of lawlessness and near anarchy in a place that barely held onto the concept of civilization.

It was also a period, in which legendary lawmen set out to successfully tame this wild place with their trusty Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles.

The story of the Wild West has become an idealistic tale of how a few brought law and order to a savage land. It's a quaint story, however, it's just that: a story.

In truth, the the Wild West as many know it, is mostly myth with a grain of truth mixed in it. It was perpetuated by dime-store novels, sensational news articles, and (later) the movies of the early and mid 20th century.

In truth, the Wild West was mild. With a few exceptions, most of the towns in the region and era had low incidents of violent crimes. Strict laws, coupled with strong presence of law enforcements and community vigilance made the streets of these rough-and-ready towns relatively safe. In some cases, they were safer than the well established streets of New York City during this era.

Although the presence of legendary lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Wild Bill Hickok may have helped "civilize" the Wild West, it was the presence of numerous law enforcement agencies, strict regulations, swift judicial justice, and the vigilance of the populous that actually helped to settle this region.


Where Did the Crimes Take Place?

Contrary to popular belief, most cities (with the exceptions of the big ones) and towns in the West were not the scene of many violent crimes. Outlaws knew to stay away from most of them. Not only was law enforcement strong, the system was backed up by judges who handed out very stiff and swift penalties (i.e. public hangings). The crimes that often existed in towns were public drunkenness or rowdiness.

Shootouts were rare. It was not uncommon for merchants, saloon operators, and the sheriffs to regulate and restrict gun use within their businesses or jurisdiction. In some cases, signs were posted at the entrance of a town restricting or banning gun use. A visitor to one of these town would have to turn in their weapons to the sheriff during their duration they stayed there (Most likely, this was centered on cowboys who came into town to drink, gamble, and get rowdy).

Also, those that enforced the laws had a tendency to use their guns for something else. As one story goes, many justices of the peace used their guns to whack rowdies on the head rather than shoot them. Others used them as hammers for construction (considering that many had to build their own homes or jails).

Certain vices did exist. Prostitution and gambling were rampant in several towns. Although illegal, they were not always enforced. In fact, city commissioners, mayors, and law enforcement members were often involved in them, considering how lucrative they were. Still, those involved in it made sure to prevent more severe crimes from happening by whatever means necessary.

Most crimes took place on isolated or sparsely populated rural roads and regions where wagon trains or stagecoaches traveled. Still, these increasingly became safe; wagon trains often hired armed men to protect them while stagecoach companies – especially those owned by banks – had armed guards with sawed-off shotgun on board.

There were train robberies. However, the powerful owners began supplying armed guards on them as well. In some cases they hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to help protect the trains from robbers.

In these western towns, the citizens were often well armed. Many were good marksmen, considering that they had to use their guns for hunting in this region.

Vigilante Justice

If law enforcement was not readily available, the citizens were. In these western towns, the citizens were often well armed. Many were good marksmen, considering that they had to use their guns for hunting in this region. Also, most of the farmers, merchants, and store owners were veterans from the various Indian Wars, the Civil War, and the Mexican-American War.

In numerous instances, the citizens formed a posse to chase down outlaws. This was what happened in Northfield, Minnesota when the James/Younger Gang (with Jesse and Frank James as members) were chased and hunted down after a botched bank robbery.

from an e-bay promotion
from an e-bay promotion

How Some Law Enforcement Agencies were formed

Law enforcement in the 19th century was not exactly professional. It didn’t involve police training or academies as is common these days. Police, sheriff or deputies were often given to the most able person or to someone who wanted it.

It was not uncommon for entrepreneurs, former gunslingers, criminals and political appointees of the local government to band together and form police squads. This was how legendary lawmen such as Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Bat Masterson, and Luke Short got their start. Many of them were simply guns-for-hires.

These groups or “commissions” turned out to be effective; however, there were others that operated on a fine-line of the law. It was not surprising to discover that some of them became outlaws, themselves.

Vigilante committees were also popular during this time. Often, citizens banded together to protect others and their own self interests. Some of them grew to be powerful entities and were often seen as the law enforcers in a town or community. They sprouted up nearly everywhere in the United States, including San Francisco, which had a very powerful presence.

Historian Roger McGrath points that many of these committees were maligned by a perception that they were lynch mobs. In reality, according to McGrath, they were well organized, had a chain of command, and were seen as being more effective than the police force in the town. Also, they were respected by the community they served.

While vigilance committees and locally appointed sheriffs kept the peace in towns, the state and territorial governments of the Wild West also flexed their executive muscles. Rangers were formed. They had statewide jurisdiction, meaning they had more powers than the other two entities. States such as California and Colorado utilized their services. One state, however, would eventually be associated with the rangers.

The United States Marshal Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States. In the American West they were acting as a branch of the federal government and were called upon by state governors and the President to assist local law enforcement agents in capturing and arresting outlaws.

The Texas Rangers were (and still are) the most famous. Formed in 1835 they served both the Republic of Texas (1836-1845) and the state of Texas. In their long, storied history, they had served many roles such as detective, riot police, and fugitive trackers. In the Wild West days, they were credited for tracking down notorious outlaws such as John Wesley Hardin.

There were also national law enforcement agencies helping to patrol the West. The United States Marshal Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States. In the American West they were acting as a branch of the federal government and were called upon by state governors and the President to assist local law enforcement agents in capturing and arresting outlaws. One such example was their involvement in the arrest of the Dalton Gang in 1893.

The Pinkerton Plays a Role

Finally, there was the private firm, Pinkerton Detective Agency. Founded by Allan Pinkerton in 1850, they opened offices in the West. They were hired by state and federal governments to hunt down outlaws such as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (better known as Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch) led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were also hired by companies – especially by railroad owners – to protect their assets. Their services would become the foundation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as being one of the few enduring original private investigation firms still in existence today.

The Wild West had its share of lawlessness; however, it wasn’t as rampant as once believed. For the most part, several law enforcement agencies and the pioneers in the area kept crime in check and help to tame a place once considered inhospitable.

Wanted poster for the Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch.
Wanted poster for the Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. | Source

© 2015 Dean Traylor


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    • Dean Traylor profile image

      Dean Traylor 2 months ago from Southern California

      Gun Regulations was an important part of "taming" the western towns during the 1800s.

    • ptosis profile image

      ptosis 23 months ago from Arizona

      October 2015: Performers from the Tombstone Vigilantes group were portraying a gunfight in the 19th century mining town made famous by Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the O.K. Corral.

      A performer's gun fired live rounds, hitting a fellow member of the acting group, the Tombstone Marshal's Office said. Ken Curtis fell to the ground and was flown to a Tucson hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove the bullet.

      A bystander also was hurt, suffering a small cut to her neck from a ricochet or shrapnel. She did not require any medical treatment.

      Mayor Dusty Escapule said someone inspects weapons used in the gunfight skits to ensure the performers use blanks. But he said the actor who fired the live rounds showed up late, and his gun was not examined. - no charges were made.