Thursday, September 8, 2011

Anne Carrole: Order Before Law in the Old West

Anne Carrole
by Anne Carrole
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 &
Bat Masterson
The most famous of these lawmen was, of course, Wyatt Earp. Earp played on both sides of the law running gambling houses (Faro was his game and not always played honestly) and brothels with his brother and earned his reputation with a gun before he became a lawman. William B. Shillingberg in Dodge City characterized Earp’s appointment to the city law enforcement ranks this way:
“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.

Jim Courtright
Jim Courtright became the first elected marshal of Fort Worth, Texas, then known as Hell’s Half Acre. He carried dual six-shooters and was considered an expert gunman. But he also “shook down” brothel and saloon owners for protection. Over the various terms he served in Fort Worth law enforcement he is said to have killed five people. Jim Courtright held a flexible definition of the law that spoke more to order than to enforcing the laws on the books. As Richard Selcer writes in Hell’s Half Acre:
“...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.

Dallas Stoudenmire
Dallas Stoudenmire was 6’4”, tall for even a Texan, a sharp dresser, and had a way with the ladies. He is also said to have killed several men before he served a stint in the Texas Rangers and was asked to serve as marshal for the then violent town of El Paso, Texas. He was lethally accurate with a pair of six-shooters and just a few days after assuming his post was involved in one of the most deadly gunfights ever fought known as “Four Dead in Five Seconds.”

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!

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press or at Anne's website. She also is co-editor of the review website, Love Western Romances.


  1. Anne,

    I loved this post. Bad boys turned good, but still enough bad are what makes the West great! :o)

    I've never heard of Dallas Stoudenmire, but what an interesting historical figure. Might have to investigate further.

    My favorite fictional marshals include Hen Randolph from Leigh Greenwood's LAUREL, and of course Rooster Cogburn. Seth Bullock, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson are a few favorite real life lawmen.


  2. What research you must have done! I need to check out some of the lawmen you mentioned. I never heard of Dallas Stoudenmire, either. He definitely led an interesting life. My current favorite fictional lawman is Matt Wiley in "Wyoming Lawman."

    Thanks for an enjoyable post.


  3. Anne, what a wonderful post. So much to learn. I think I probably like Wyatt Earp the best. I love the love story with his Josephine. Together 50 years. Sigh. So he must have had a bit of a soft spot somewhere LOL

    Hi Jaacquie!

  4. Kirsten, ck out Dallas--he's even given credit on El Paso's website as having tamed the town.

    Nancy, I'll have to check out Wyoming Lawman

    Hi Tanya!

    I love all the lawmen you guys have mentioned. And all of them dangerous!

  5. One of my favorite lawmen was Cole Richards in Jacquie's book MUCH ADO ABOUT MARSHALS. I loved that book and that man. I had never heard of Studenmire, and enjoyed learning about him. Great post.

  6. Thanks for such a good article, Anne! You taught us all a little something today. I just love stuff like this. :)

  7. Caroline, Cole loves you back. :) And you know I love ALL your books. RTW will be graced with your presence, soon. Yay!


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