How the Wild West was Tamed by Law Enforcement

The Wild West was both American history and mythology. The name suggests it was a time of lawlessness and near anarchy where good and bad guys battled it out on the new frontier. In reality, it was an era in which new settlements formed, business ventures took place, and a number of lawmen (government agents or private companies) kept the peace.

Some of these lawmen became the stuff of legends – with the help of dime-store novels, sensationalist news stories, and eventually western-themed movies of the 20th century. In fact, many of them have become household names to this day: men like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Wild Bill Hickok. Sometimes, the perception is that these men were responsible for single-handedly taming the west.

The reality, however, was that they only played a small part in the real story of the Wild West. There were plenty of lawmen and forms of law enforcement throughout on the frontier. If anything, their presence didn’t just help to tame the Wild West, they may have made this region safer than the major cities on the well-established east coast.

The Wild West was really not that wild, as it was assumed. With a few exceptions, most of the towns in the region and era had low incidents of crime. Strict laws, coupled with strong presence of law enforcements and community vigilance made the streets of these rough-and-ready towns relatively safe.  

Also, the type of law enforcement varied. Sheriff and deputies may have been prevalent in numerous counties. However, they were not alone. There were U.S. marshals, rangers (most notably, the Texas Rangers), police in large cities, and private security firms such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Companies – in particular mining and lumber companies – hired their own security forces to patrol company towns and camps and to monitor the actions of the workers.  

Where Did the Crimes Take Place?

Contrary to popular belief, the cities in the west were not the scene of many violent crimes. Outlaws knew to stay away from towns. Not only was law enforcement strong in these town, they were backed up by judges who handed out very stiff and swift penalties. The crimes that often existed in towns were public drunkenness or rowdiness. Shootouts were rare (As one story goes, many justice of the peace used their guns to whack rowdies on the head rather than shoot them).

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.

Most crimes took place in less populated rural road where wagon trains or stagecoaches traveled. Still, this was not a safe bet; wagon trains often hired armed men to protect them. 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.

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 out of town and hunted down after a botched bank robbery.

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 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-hire.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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 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.