Weird History

What Life Was Really Like As A Wild West Sheriff  

Melissa Sartore
8 items

Wild West sheriffs kept law and order on the frontier alongside fellow lawmen and the citizenry. Often dramatized, glamorized, and exaggerated in films and other media, the life of a Wild West sheriff was indeed dangerous - but it could also be just plain boring.

Facts about Old West sheriffs reveal they spent much of their time campaigning for office, collecting taxes, and generally performing duties on behalf of their county that had very little to do with enforcing criminal law. As elected county officials, Wild West sheriffs represented an increasingly regulated way of life on the Western frontier.

What life was like for a Wild West sheriff - an office that men like "Wild Bill" Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson held - was just as mundane as it was exciting. 

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
They Weren’t Just Gunslingers, They Were Also Politicians

Sheriffs in the Wild West were good with their firearms, but skill alone wasn't enough to earn a badge. As elected officials, sheriffs were voted in by county residents, either at regular intervals or during special elections.

In late summer 1869, James Butler Hickok, better known as "Wild Bill," was elected sheriff of Ellis County, KS, by a population desperate to quell ongoing mayhem. Hickock's tactics for keeping peace proved too aggressive for the Kansans. After slaying at least two men, Bill Mulvey and Samuel Strawhun, Hickock was voted out of office during the regular election in November.

Hickok was defeated by Democratic candidate Peter "Rattlesnake Pete" Lanihan, his deputy. Though he didn't win another term, Hickock's brief time as sheriff was credited by a Kansas newspaper "for his endeavor to rid [Hays City] of... dangerous characters."

When Bat Masterson campaigned for sheriff in Dodge City in 1877, he advertised in the local newspaper that he was "earnestly soliciting the suffrages of the people" for the office - while also asserting he was "no politician."

Masterson's campaigning paid off and he took office as sheriff of Dodge City in January 1878. He became known to his constituents as "cool, decisive, and a bad man with a pistol."

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They Had To Convince Civilians To Risk Their Lives

Being a sheriff in an Old West town could mean long periods of little to no activity or even carrying out menial tasks like cleaning the streets. It could also mean gathering up a posse of men, and perhaps deputizing them, when real danger emerged.

Rounding up a posse (called posse comitatus, or "made up of civilians") was one of the most powerful tools a sheriff had at his disposal. (It still remains in the law books today!) In 1878, the federal government forbade the military from assisting with civilian posses, making the role of civilians that much more essential to maintaining order.

Deputized posses like the Lincoln County Regulators - known for its inclusion of Billy the Kid - took part in numerous shootouts with a rival posse led by Sheriff William Brady during the 1878 Lincoln County War. The conflict, which originated in the New Mexico Territory before it became a state, ultimately felled 19 men.

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They Dealt With Competing Lawmen With Vague Jurisdictions

Sheriffs served entire counties, but they weren't the only law in the land. In addition to town marshals and other local lawmen, sheriffs interacted with - or came up against - federal marshals.

Town marshals could be elected or appointed officials. Wyatt Earp served as deputy town marshal or a simple peace officer throughout Kansas while his brother, Virgil, served as town marshal in Tombstone.

The US Marshal Service, created in 1789, was tasked with handling matters that fell under federal jurisdiction, such as serving warrants, arresting wrongdoers, and transporting prisoners. During the mid- and late-19th century, US Marshals and deputy marshals traversed the Wild West, visiting towns with little to no law enforcement in place.

When US marshals came across a county sheriff or town marshal, they might work with the local lawman - or just as easily be at odds with them. For example, Deputy Marshal Robert Widenmann arrived in New Mexico and apprehended several local deputies of Sheriff and fellow deputy marshal William J. Brady - only to be apprehended by Brady in return.

There were still more jurisdictions at play. The military had enforcement officers of their own on the frontier and, in places like Texas, the Rangers patrolled the border with Mexico.

They Had To Break Up Or Enlist Vigilante Groups

A posse comitatus could very easily turn into a vigilante group - taking matters into their own hands while nominally under the protection of the law. Actual vigilante groups could form in response to property violations, especially horse thievery, but were just as likely to target individuals who didn't fit into the community. Vigilante groups were known to lynch, banish, or harass minorities and "loose females."

To be a sheriff in the American West meant finding a balance. Vigilante groups could wreak havoc but they also rooted out wrongdoers. In Montana, Sheriff Henry Plummer headed a group called the "Innocents," men who swindled, looted, and slew their way across Bannack. When the citizenry found out, they put together their own posse of vigilantes to apprehend and lynch more than 20 members of the Innocents, including the sheriff.