• American West
  • 3 mins

By Crusader1307

As discussed in previous Articles, the Title of “Sheriff”, originated during The Middle Ages.  The “Enforcer” of The King or Queens Laws, it would evolve into the primary form of Law Enforcement during The American West of the 19th Century. While Police Agencies did exist in most Eastern Cities, none such did in the Territorial Regions of America in the 19th Century. Those Regions so declare as Territories, had to establish a similar Territorial Constitution with The United States and enforce the “Law of The Land”. As seen, The Federal Government did supply Federal Marshals, but these were few and far between. Some Territories used Militias, but these were infrequent and hard to maintain on the long term without Federal assistance. Some Territories were successful, such as Texas – which deputized it’s Texas Revolutionary Mounted Force, the famed Texas Rangers.


A City or Town were often faced with an assortment of Crime and Criminals. To curtail this, City Officials would hire Town Marshals or Sheriff’s to enforce local Laws. These Men were chosen for their ability, not to deal with criminality “civilly”, but to suppress it with force. Hence, Candidates with proven records as Gunmen and even known past Outlaws were often hired. In time, a Sheriff became an elected position. Holding a type name from 1 to 4 years, he was voted into Office by The Townspeople.


Paid a modest stipend, a Sheriff was often paid extra for each Offender captured. This created a “Bounty Hunter” mentality, as well as motivated a Sheriff to work harder. The Policy was largely discontinued by the 1890s. A Sheriff, although elected – was responsible for hiring  Assistants. These Men were often recruited by The Sheriff the same way he himself was hired (proven and courageous Gunfighters and Expert shots). These Men were identified as “Deputy Sheriffs”, and could represent him when he was not on Duty or out of Town on business. They were paid in part by the Sheriff and augmented by The City or Town. Often, these Men would run for Office later, or take over in the event of his demise.


Sheriffs wore no Uniforms. The basic and common Clothing for a Male who worked or lived on The Range, was acceptable. The only identification used were their City provided Badges. Each Region developed it’s own style and motif of Copper Badge. Although all were different, the Star design was a very common pattern adopted by most (and still is in most American jurisdictions). Weapons and Horses were provided (or paid for by a Town). A Sheriff was expected to get on Duty 24-hrs. a day. As such, many Sheriffs actually lived in their Office, which was also The Town Jail. In Cases of convictions by traveling Circuit Court Judges of Felons, which resulted in the Death Penalty , The Sheriff was responsible for construction of a Gallows fir hanging. Conversely, he was also responsible for arranging burials of same.


The Sheriff also had the legal power to invoke another Medieval legal precedent known as “Posse Comitatus”. This allowed him to recruit and temporarily Deputized any number of additional Men to enforce The Law. This procedure was used manly to recruit Groups to give pursuit to Outlaws or Escapees. The term “Posse” originated from this practice. Often (and as seen today) , a Town Peace Officer, only had jurisdictional authority with his Town – to perhaps several miles outside. The creation of County Sheriffs, solved this problem. These Peace Officers had broader jurisdictional authority throughout The County, often known now as “unincorporated” Areas.


Some of the more famous Western Personalities known to History, became such by their work as Sheriff (abandoned Deputy). Earp, Masterson, Bass, Garrett – the list is long. With the coming of larger Cities and Towns, as well as eventual Statehood , Regions began to adopt more traditional Police Departments. The Office of Sheriff was regulated to County Enforcement, and still is today.