Lawmen of the Old West

Old West Lawmen, produced by Legends of America, music by Scott Buckley

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The wild and lawless period in the West lasted for about 70 years, with the first shooting incident by a person who could be considered a professional gunman taking place in Texas in 1854.

The gunfighter era was an outgrowth of the Civil War. With many men without opportunities for jobs, their homes and lands in ruins, family members killed or missing, and few skills, with the exception of gun handling, they headed westward in search of new lives. And then, the question of what to do once they got there. Some hunted for gold; some, who had the means, started businesses, others became cowboys, and those with sharp gun handling skills became gunfighters.

Living in the American West was not easy at that time. There were no laws, no courts, and little or no government, and because of this, it easily lured numerous criminals, some of who were escaping punishment for other crimes, some who wanted to take advantage of its having no laws, and probably a few who wanted to start over.

Some settlements were quickly known for violence and for attracting the seedier elements of society, such as Las VegasNew Mexico; El Paso, Texas; the mining camps of across the West; and the cowtowns of Kansas. In these places, saloons, dance houses, and brothels, easily outnumbered legitimate other businesses, and in many cases, the towns were under the control of less than decent citizens.

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However, honest people were also moving to the west and over time, they determined to rid their towns and areas of the lawlessness. This often led them to employ men who were known to be expert in the use of firearms. In other cases, before the establishment of “official” organizational law, communities turned to Vigilantism.

There was a fine line in the Old West as to the skills and nerve required to be a gunfighter, a lawman, or an outlaw, and, those lines often became tangled with some men playing each role at different times in their lives. Just a few of these men included Tom HornBurton AlfordJ.J. Webb, and Henry Newton Brown.

Unlike the old movies, where the outlaw was always a grizzled, mean, and murdering road agent and the lawman was a calm, steely-eyed, honest man, the reality was that the two types were often very much the same. This was not always the case; however, some were known to have been good men, such as Bat MastersonHeck Thomas, and Bill Tilghman. But, even a young Bill Tilghman was once charged with stealing when he was a young man and so was Wyatt Earp. What the lawmen and the outlaws had in common, besides their gun handling skills, was their willingness to risk their lives to enforce the law or to commit a crime.

There were various types of lawmen in the Old West. He might have been a U.S. Marshal, appointed by the Attorney General; a Sheriff elected to office by the county residents, a Marshal appointed by the City Council, or a deputy, constable, ranger, or peace officer hired by a superior officer or authority. Many lawmen received no pay other than a percentage of any money that those they arrested might be fined, or the collection of bounties on the heads of wanted men. This often led them to have second jobs or sometimes, to use their badges in establishing protection rackets or other crimes. Of those who did make a salary, it was often very low, and their duties often included tasks that many felt were beneath them, such as keeping the streets clean, and other city duties; or in the case of U.S. Marshals — being responsible for taking the national census and distributing Presidential proclamations. Often their work would consist of weeks of boring tasks, punctuated by moments of high drama and sometimes deadly confrontation.

Another fun video from our friends at Arizona Ghostriders.

For these reasons and more, very few of even the most famous lawmen actually spent very many years wearing a badge, including Wild Bill Hickok, who only served a few short years in various roles, and Wyatt Earp, who worked in a few Kansas cowtowns, before being temporarily deputized by his brother Virgil in time for the O.K. Corral gunfight.

In the American West, 1881 was an eventful year for lawmen and outlaws. Billy the Kid, charged with more than 21 murders in a brief lifetime of crime, is finally brought to justice by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who trails The Kid for more than six months before killing him with a single shot at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. That same year Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers gunned down the Clantons in a showdown at the O.K. Corral in TombstoneArizona.

And, just a year later, in 1882, another notorious outlaw, Jesse James, who was a veteran of Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, was shot in the back by Robert Ford, a kinsman who hoped to collect the $5,000 reward. James’ death ended the career of an outlaw gang that terrorized the Wild West for more than a decade.

More than a decade later, in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that “the frontier was closed” in an address in Chicago, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He was right, and the era of the Old West was near its ending; However, crime would remain as it does today, and the need for lawmen (and women) continues.

Did You Know??

The main characters of the Dalton Gang – brothers, Grat, Bob and Emmett all wore badges before moving to the other side of the law.

Lawman Summaries (name begins with) A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

Featured Articles: 

Burton Alvord – Lawman Turned Outlaw

Arizona Rangers

Elfego Baca & The “Frisco War”

Bud Ballew – Gunfighter & Lawman of Oklahoma

Roy Bean – The Law West of the Pecos

Johnny Harris Behan – First Sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona

Edward “Ned” Bushyhead – Cherokee Lawman

Hamilton Butler Bell – Transforming Wicked Dodge City

George Bravin – Tombstone’s British Marshal

William Milton Breckenridge – Lawman, Surveyor & Author

Jack L. Bridges – Kansas Lawman

William “Billy” Brooks – Lawman and Horse Thief

Henry Newton Brown – Outlaw Marshal of Kansas

Seth Bullock – Finest Type of Frontiersman

Rufus Cannon – Important African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal

William Carr – Heroic Deputy or Outlaw?

Scott Cooley – Texas Ranger Turned Killer

Fred Dodge – Undercover Detective

John Doherty (Death of a Sheriff – Murder and Conspiracy in the Old West)

Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman of the American West

My Friend Wyatt Earp by Bat Masterson

Wyatt Earp in “Arizona The Youngest State”

Virgil Earp – Upholding the Law of the West

Frank B. “Pistol Pete” Eaton – Fastest Draw in Indian Territory

Camillus Sidney Fly – Arizona Photographer and Lawman

John Peter Gabriel – Lawman & Gunfighter

Henry Garfias – 1st Marshal of Phoenix

Pat Garrett – An Unlucky Lawman

Sam Gay – The Sagebrush Sheriff

Wild Bill Hickok & The Dead Man’s Hand

Wild Bill Hickok by Emerson Hough

John B. Jones – Commanding the Texas Rangers

Fred Lambert – Lawman & Artist of Cimarron, New Mexico

John M. Larn – Vigilante, Outlaw, Lawman

Frank Latta – How Skill Caught a Criminal & Luck Saved the Lawman’s Life

William Sidney “Cap” Light – Texas Marshal and Soapy Smith Man

The Death of Sheriff Tom Logan

“Big Steve” Long, Outlaw Lawman

George Maledon – Prince of Hangmen

Bat Masterson – King of the Gun Players

Mysterious Dave Mather – Lawman or Outlaw?

Daniel Boone May – Protecting the Deadwood Stage

Sherman McMasters – Outlaw or Lawman?

The Men That Tamed the Kansas Cowtowns

U.S. Marshal Evett Nix – Bringing Down the Doolin-Dalton Gang

Tom Nixon – Buffalo Hunter & Lawman

Robert Ollinger – Killer With a Badge

Bass (Baz) Outlaw – Excerpt from the book Whiskey River Ranger

Judge Isaac Parker – Hanging Judge of Indian Territory

Peace Officers of Arizona

The Pinkertons – Operating For 150 Years

Sumner Pinkham – Dead at the Hands of a Gunfighter

Henry Plummer – Sheriff Meets a Noose

The Texas Rangers – Order Out of Chaos

Bass Reeves – Black Hero Marshal

Porter Rockwell – Destroying Angel of Mormondom

A.J. Royal – One Bad Pecos County Sheriff

Charles Angelo Siringo – Cowboy Detective

Texas John Slaughter – Taming Arizona

James L. “Whispering” Smith – Riding the Rails

Thomas “Bear River” Smith – Marshalling Abilene

Dallas Stoudenmire – Taming El Paso

Heck Thomas – Tough Law in Indian Territory

Ben Thompson and Other Noted Gunmen

Bill Tilghman – Thirty Years a Lawman

“Dangerous Dan” Tucker – Lawman of New Mexico

Big Dave Updyke – Crooked Sheriff of Ada County, Idaho

U.S. Marshals- Two Centuries of Bravery

Shootout at the Pembina Post Office

Stephen Venard – Goldrush Lawman

“Bigfoot” Wallace – A Texas Folk Hero

John Joshua “J.J.” Webb – Lawman Turned Outlaw

Fred White – Tombstone’s First Marshal

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August 2019.

Also See: 

List of Explorers

List of Lawmen

List of Old West Outlaws

List of Trail Blazers & Cowboys

Time Line of the American West


Kansas Historical Society
Many Things
New York Public Library
Old West Kansas
Old West Scribe
The Wild West