U.S. Marshals - Two Centuries of Bravery
(1789 - Present)
Invoking an image of weathered
cowboys riding hard on the
range, chasing outlaws in a running
gunfight, are the
U.S. Marshals of the
Old West. And while those images were "real,” especially with many of
the brave men working in
Indian Territory under the jurisdiction of
"Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, or in the fledgling western territories
Wyoming and others; many may not know
that the U.S. Marshal Service is more than 200 years old.
The U.S. Marshal Service was created by the first Congress in
the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same legislation that established the
federal judicial system. When George Washington set up his first
administration and the first Congress began passing laws, both quickly
discovered an inconvenient gap – there was no agency established to
represent the federal government's interests at the local level. Part of
the problem was solved by creating specialized agencies, such as customs
and revenue collectors, to levy the tariffs and taxes, but there were
numerous other jobs that needed to be done.
these tasks fell to the U.S. Marshal Service. Given
extensive authority to support federal courts, congress, or
the president, these marshals and their deputies have served
subpoenas, warrants, made arrests, and handled prisoners for
more than two centuries.
These deputy marshals were sent from
the federal court at Fort Smith,
capture Ned Christie. Front row, l-r: Charles Copeland, Gideon S. "Cap" White. Back row, l-r: Bill Smith, Bill Ellis,
Paden Tolbert, 1892. This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
And though these are the most well-known of their tasks, they had
numerous others as well, including the disbursement of money.
The Marshals paid the fees and expenses of the court clerks,
U.S. Attorneys, jurors, and witnesses. They rented the
courtrooms and jail space and hired the bailiffs, criers, and
janitors. They made sure the prisoners were present, the
jurors were available, and the witnesses were on time.
But this was
only a part of what the Marshals did.
have also taken the responsibility for a number of other tasks
over the years, such as taking the national census through
1870, distributing Presidential proclamations, registering
enemy aliens in times of war, capturing fugitive slaves, and
protecting the American borders.
Integrity, and Service," and through the years, their heroics
in the face of lawlessness have often become famous,
especially in the days of the Old West, which has so
often been portrayed in popular films, and invoking the many
images we have of these courageous men today.
In the second half of the 19th
century, the U.S. Marshals became synonymous with the "Wild
West" as they made their mark on history in the many lawless
frontier towns. In many of these places, the marshals were the
only kind of law that was available, and knowing this,
numerous outlaws made their livelihoods in these fledgling
towns that had not yet become structured enough to provide for
their own authorities. Here, in "wicked" places like
Arizona; and the plains of
Indian Territory, U.S. Deputy Marshals became famous as they
pursued such notorious outlaws as
Billy the Kid in
New Mexico; Dalton Gang,
Belle Starr, and the
Rufus Buck Gang in Indian Territory
Jesse James in the
Midwest; and Butch Cassidy's
Wild Bunch in
Wyoming; and hundreds of
Though popular western films
generally showed these fearless men as forming a posse,
pinning on their silver star-shaped badges, and pursuing the
outlaws in a running
gunfight, that the marshals always won,
this was in truth, not the norm. In fact, in Indian Territory
(which later became Oklahoma), 103 deputies were killed between 1872 and 1896, roughly
a quarter of the number slain throughout the marshals'
history. The territory, controlled by
Judge Isaac Parker
described by a
newspaper as the "rendezvous of the vile and wicked from
everywhere." Some of the true courageous men who made names
for themselves here were
Bass Reeves, Bill Tilghman,
Chris Madsen and dozens of others.
In other areas of the west,
more men who made names for themselves included Seth Bullock
Bat Masterson in
Kansas; Joseph Meek in
William Wheeler in
Montana; and again, dozens of
others. Two of the most recognizable men who served as U.S.
Deputy Marshals were
Wild Bill Hickok.
However, they gained their notoriety primarily through their
own exaggerations and film depictions, rather than the
courageous acts shown by many more deputy marshals.
Once the Wild
West was tamed, the U.S. Marshal service began to suffer in
the 20th century as their star faded and the FBI
flourished. Though they protected the home front during World
War I and were heavily involved in enforcing Prohibition laws,
they had essentially lost their "specialty," and by the 1950s
found themselves acting as bailiffs for the federal courts and
requesting background checks. In the 1960s, their importance
again rose as they enforced court-ordered racial desegregation
and the Federal Witness Security Program which was
established in the 1970s.
Marshal Service still has responsibility to enforce federal
laws and orders issued by the court, as well as prevention of
civil disturbances, continued protection of federal witnesses,
terrorist events, hostage situations, and numerous other
duties directed by the
Department of Justice, such as airline security after the
terrible attack in New York on September 11, 2001. Current
Deputy Marshals are required to carry firearms and to become
proficient in the latest electronic communications equipment
and security devices. Their work continues to hold the
constant threat of violence involving personal risk to the
many men and women
who pledge to protect the justice system.
Over the years, some 400 marshals have been killed in the line
of duty. Their famous
five-sided star is the oldest emblem of federal law
enforcement in our country.
To celebrate their courage and bravery and
provide information on the service’s rich history, fundraising
efforts are currently underway for the U.S.
Marshals Service National Museum, which will be
For more information on the
Museum efforts see
US Marshals Museum official website.
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