Copyright © 2011 Anne Carrole
The Old West is full of stories about lawlessness and violence and only a very courageous (or foolish) man would be up to the task of taking on the rougher elements of the time. In looking for a town marshal, many towns felt they needed to fight violent men with those who were their equal in the “dangerous” department since a gun accessorized most men’s waistbands.
|Wyatt Earp &|
“Over the years Earp has become something of a frontier icon; a virtual prisoner of popular culture, a heroic image showcased in books and movies that ignored the darker sides of his secretive personality and disruptive public career, including a federal indictment for horse theft in the Indian Territory, followed by two arrests in Peoria Illinois, along with his brother Morgan, for keeping a house of ill fame.”
It was because of his reputation with a gun that he was asked to become a lawman. As Bat Masterson said of his friend in his book Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier, “Wyatt Earp is one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear.” That quality made him an ideal lawman in a land where a man’s nerve would be severely tested.
But there are many others who were equally as dangerous as the criminal element they faced but who weren’t, perhaps, as famous as Wyatt Earp.
Augustus “Gus” Gildea, a trail driver, cowboy, Indian scout and lawman, knew something about bringing order to the West (as opposed to the law). He gives an extensive description of his life in The Trail Drivers of Texas and writes:
“I served as special ranger in Companies D and F, Texas Frontier Battalion, and U.S. Deputy Marshal and also deputy sheriff and other official positions on the Frontier. This service was from 1881 to 1889. I have met most of the so-called outlaws and bad men who ranged in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from 1865-1890 and never knew but one but what had some good traits about him.”
No doubt, since Gildea also worked as a guard for John Chisum and rode with Selman’s Scouts during the Lincoln County Wars.
After describing a trial held at John Chisum’s ranch where “Judge Lynch” presided and two men were hung for murder, he writes: “The law of the range was “forget it” for discussions were likely to lead to trouble. In those days, cowboy law was enforced and every cowboy knew it, and I never knew of the subject again brought up around the camp fire.”
What Gildea doesn’t mention is that during this time he was wanted for investigation by Governor Lew Wallace for four murders. I’m betting two of them probably concerned the results of the aforementioned range trial. Gildea never appears to have been questioned, however, and his sentiments about range justice and cowboy law were shared by many of the lawmen in the West.
“...Courtright preferred to enforce a personal rather than statutory form of the law. In his dealings with visiting cowboys, who were more unruly than dangerous, Courtright preferred tolerance and persuasion over coercion as the best way to keep a lid on things. In his own unique view of what a town marshal should do, he saw his job as being “to prevent the flow of blood, not liquor.”
Courtright ended up dying in a shootout with the infamous Luke Short, but not before bringing order to the chaos that was Hell’s Half Acre.
His reputation as a gunfighter was materially enhanced and, with his “shoot first, ask questions later” brand of law enforcement, he eventually became a federal deputy in that region. Unfortunately, he created enemies and died in a gunfight he forced with one of the Manning brothers of El Paso due to a bystander jumping between the two men. Still, Stoudenmire is the man credited with bringing order to the violent town of El Paso.
There were several more who had flexible definitions of the law with regards to keeping order including Ben Thompson, Big Steve Long, and Bat Masterson. The wide open towns of the West called for order first before they could start enforcing laws and these men supplied that, forming their own code about right and wrong, implemented at the end of the fastest gun.
Only after order was imposed could rule of law be exercised. As violence dropped, towns began to enforce gun control laws, tougher than our laws today, to discourage people taking matters into their own hands. Drinking and gambling regulations as to who, what, and when were also established. Lawmen could expect the full backing of the townspeople, farmers and ranchers who wanted the certainty that peace brings. People like Wyatt Earp and Augustus Gildea “retired,” aware that the time of dangerous men, wide-open towns, and wielding your own brand of justice was ending, for civilization was coming fast with every railroad track laid and homestead claimed.
As heroes go, the lawmen of the early west represent the bad boy who turns good and stands up for what is right, at least according to his own code, with unflinching courage and determination.
Who are some of your favorite lawmen—either real or fictional? Mine are guys like Rooster Cogburn, Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke, Wild Bill Hickok, and of course, Wyatt Earp. I also loved Rowdy Rhodes from Linda Lael Miller’s A Wanted Man who, to me, epitomizes the bad boy turned good.
Please leave a comment and share with us your picks. One commenter this week will win a free pdf of Re-ride at the Rodeo!