The Old West had a reputation for being a lawless place and time. With all the gun-toting, cattle rustling, train-robbing, and card-hustling of the wild West, it can seem like there were no laws and no one upholding the peace.
But that’s not true.
Plenty of honest, honorable, brave men were hired as sheriffs, marshals, and deputies tasked with cleaning up lawless western towns and tracking down ruthless outlaws.
The job of an old west lawman was a dangerous one. Even with the law on his side, he was subject to threats, intimidation, and attempts on his life. Yet, it could also be a boring job.
Town sheriffs had to collect taxes, campaign for election, watch over the inmates in the town jail, and sometimes even shovel horse manure out of the streets. It was not the glamorous career that Hollywood westerns make it out to be.
Related read: 10 Wild West Facts of Everyday Life on the Frontier
The Blurry Line Between Lawmen and Outlaws
In the Old West, the line between lawman and outlaw was fluid. Some men behind the badge started out as devoted public servants committed to keeping law and order, but made questionable choices that landed them on the wrong side of the law.
One reason for the flip was that there were several law enforcement agencies overlapping their authority. Sheriffs clashed with town marshals and deputies, and they all clashed with the U.S. federal marshals.
The jurisdictions were unclear, and hierarchy of authority was fuzzy at best. It was not uncommon for a federal marshal to arrest a sheriff on trumped up charges.
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Famous Sheriffs of the Wild West
Despite all this, some lawmen of the Old West etched their names in history either because of their heroic actions or their fall from lawman to outlaw.
Here are some of the more well-known Old West sheriffs and the stories that made them famous.
1. Pat Garrett
Although history remembers Pat Garrett as the sheriff who shot and killed the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, Garrett was, according to many historians, one of the greatest sheriffs of the Old West.
Quiet and reserved, Garrett wasn’t ready for the notoriety heaped on him after the death of Billy the Kid. A tall, lean man with a 6’4″ frame, Garrett, an Alabama native, moved to New Mexico and in 1880 was elected sheriff. He also held the titles of deputy sheriff and U.S. marshal during his career.
It was in Fort Sumner that he first encountered his nemesis, Billy the Kid.
Garrett was relentless in his pursuit of Billy the Kid, but he was a man of honor. After a long stand-off with Billy and his men, the outlaws agreed to surrender if Garrett would promise to keep them safe from the people of New Mexico, who were eager to lynch the outlaws.
As Garrett was transporting Billy and his gang back via train, they were set upon by an angry mob determined to get vengeance on the criminals. Garrett and his small band of men held off the mob, keeping his word to protect Billy the Kid. He even told Billy he would return the guns to Billy and his men if the vigilantes made their way into the railcar.
Soon after, Billy the Kid made a daring and successful jailbreak in which he killed two deputies. Garrett and a small posse of men tracked him down and, in an event that continues to be debated today, gunned down Billy the Kid, who was hiding out in the bedroom of his sweetheart’s house.
Taking down the infamous Billy the Kid earned Pat Garrett a notable place in Old West lore forever.
Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell
“If you are wanting to learn about what led up to the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Vendetta Ride, and the Earp brothers and Doc Holidays bloody history at Tombstone then this is the perfect book for you.”
– Amazon review
2. The Three Guardsmen
The Three Guardsmen was the collective name of three legendary Old West lawmen who were tasked with bringing law and order to Oklahoma. They were Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, and Chris Madsen. All three were U.S. marshals working under Marshal E.D. Nix.
Oklahoma was riddled with outlaws and corrupt lawmen. The Three Guardsmen were selected to clean up the state based on their abilities, experience, determination, and honesty. Starting in 1889, Tilghman, Thomas, and Madsen arrested more than 300 outlaws and killed a dozen more. They earned a reputation for being able to track escaping outlaws, even through inhospitable terrain and harsh weather conditions.
The Three Guardsmen gained fame for pursuing the Wild Bunch and the remaining members of the Dalton Gang that joined them. One by one, the Three Guardsmen arrested or killed the members of the Wild Bunch as they tracked them down, putting an end to their reign of terror.
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3. John Coffee “Captain Jack” Hays
A former land surveyor, soldier, and Texas Ranger, John Coffee Hays, nicknamed “Captain Jack,” earned a reputation as a tough and rugged lawman.
In fact, he rose through the ranks of the Texas Rangers because he was so successful at weakening the power of the Comanche people in the area. In 1842, he led forces against an invading Mexican force and commanded a regiment during the Mexican-American War.
Following his success in Texas, Hays traveled to Arizona and New Mexico to serve as the government appointed U.S. Indian agent. In 1849, he joined the thousands of people migrating to California in search of gold.
Just one year later, Hays was elected as San Francisco’s first sheriff.
San Francisco was a small, sparsely populated outpost prior to the Gold Rush. The town was not prepared for the sudden influx of newcomers. Captain Jack Hays used his unique brand of Texas crime-fighting to bring order to the region.
Later, he dabbled in politics, resumed his land surveying career, and earned a fortune in real estate, all while wrangling outlaws and enforcing the law.
4. Doc Holliday
A dentist by trade, John Henry Holliday was known as Doc Holliday for most of his adult life.
He befriended Wyatt Earp, the famous gambler and lawman, in Texas. According to some stories, Holliday saved Earp’s life, which started their friendship. Holliday joined Wyatt Earp when he moved further west to Arizona, eventually settling in the town of Tombstone.
In 1879, Tombstone had an outlaw problem.
Members of the Cochise County Cowboys, a local gang, caused endless trouble in the area. Holliday’s friend, Wyatt Earp, had joined forces with his brother, Virgil Earp, the city marshal of Tombstone to rid the town of the outlaws, but they needed more help.
Virgil Earp deputized Doc Holliday on October 26, 1881.
Later that same day, the new lawman took part in the Old West’s most famous gun fight, the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. In just half a minute, Holliday and the Earp brothers killed two members of the outlaw gang. Holliday was wounded in the fight but recovered from his injuries.
Holliday followed the Earps on a vendetta ride to track down and kill the remaining members of the gang. Out of their jurisdiction and taking the law into their own hands, the lawmen found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Holliday was accused of murder and arrested.
At his trial, Doc Holliday claimed self-defense and was acquitted. Although his career as an Old West lawman was not a lengthy one, he is still remembered for bringing justice to Tombstone, Arizona.
5. Dave Allison
Called Texas’s most efficient lawman, William Davis “Dave” Allison was the youngest sheriff in the state when he was elected to serve the people of Midland in 1888.
He was barely 27 years old, and was thereafter elected to six more terms. Allison joined the Arizona Rangers in 1903 and was instrumental in gunning down a train robber named Three Finger Jack, and capturing outlaw fugitives like Bravo Juan Bowes and the Owens brothers.
He is also credited with catching and killing Pascual Orozco, a Mexican revolutionary and outlaw.
Dave Allison’s life work was in law enforcement. In addition to serving as sheriff of Midland, he was a member of the Texas Rangers and Arizona Rangers, the chief of police for Roswell, New Mexico, a West Texas constable, a detective, and a bodyguard.
Despite his devotion to upholding the law, Dave Allison had his flaws: addicted to gambling, Allison often found himself deep in debt. There were several rumors that he embezzled or misappropriated funds at some of the agencies he worked for.
Indeed, it appears that he left some of his posts hastily and under a veil of suspicion. Allison was gunned down by two cattle rustlers in 1923.
6. The Earp Brothers
James, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp were lawmen brothers who upheld the law in Wichita, Kansas, Dodge City, Kansas, and parts of Texas, and into Arizona.
Although Old West history seems to remember Wyatt Earp’s name in connection with the shootout at the O.K. Corral, where he fell into cahoots with Josephine Marcus, it was his brother, Virgil, who was the city marshal of Tombstone at the time, in addition to being the deputy U.S. marshal for the territory.
Virgil, Wyatt, and their brothers were all described as skilled lawmen, but they also had reputations for settling disagreements with violence. While employed on the police force of Wichita, for example, Wyatt Earp got into a physical altercation with a political rival and had to leave his post.
Even the Shootout at the O.K. Corral was viewed more as a personal confrontation between the Earp brothers and a group of locals than as a fight between lawmen and outlaws.
Following the shootout, the Earp brothers embarked on a vendetta to get revenge on the outlaws. One of the outlaws, Curly Bill, was shot and killed. The Earp brothers were arrested and charged with his murder.
The charges were eventually dropped when the judge declared that the men had been performing their duties as lawmen when the incident happened. The Earp brothers earned a place in history as dedicated lawmen of the Old West, yet they often appeared to cross the line and find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
7. Bat Masterson
Canadian-born Bat Masterson, whose given name was Bartholemew, moved to the American west as a young man.
He earned a name for himself as a buffalo hunter and gambler, but also served as the sheriff of Trinidad, Colorado, and then Dodge City, Kansas. In this capacity, he engaged in several gunfights.
He assisted his friend, Luke Short, the owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Short made an enemy of the Dodge City mayor and the mayor, Larry Deger, attempted to run Short out of town.
Short called on his friends, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and other accomplished gunfighters to help him resist the ousting. The conflict, which the newspapers called the “Dodge City War,” ended in Short’s favor.
On June 10, 1888, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, Wyatt Earp, and several of the other gunfighters, posed for a photograph outside the Long Branch Saloon that was cleverly titled, “The Dodge City Peace Commission.”
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8. Wild Bill Hickok
A folk legend of the Old West, James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill” Hickok, lived a colorful life. He grew up amid lawlessness, where vigilante justice was commonplace. This impacted his outlook on law enforcement throughout his life.
He fled to the western frontier in 1855 as an 18-year-old because he mistakenly thought he had killed a man during a fight. He took a variety of odd jobs, from stagecoach driver to army scout and professional poker player.
In the Old West, Hickok quickly earned a reputation for his shooting prowess. He was appointed the deputy U.S. marshal of Kansas and later, the marshal of Hays, Kansas. Within weeks of taking the position, Hickok killed two men, each of whom was trying to kill him first.
An inquiry into each event failed to prove that Hickok was acting in a way to restore peace and that he had acted in self-defense, yet the juries found each killing justified. Still, Hickok did not earn re-election to the position and moved further west to become marshal of Abilene, Kansas, replacing a marshal who was killed in the line of duty.
Hickok may have been a skilled lawman, but he was an even better storyteller.
He shared highly exaggerated stories of his own exploits, creating a larger-than-life persona on the frontier. He often bragged about his exploits, helping to establish his place in Old West lore.
His place in American West history was cemented when, on August 2, 1876, Hickok was shot and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, a town in Dakota territory.
Explore the Wild West
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- Curly Bill Brocius Shot and Killed by Wyatt Earp: Fake News or the Real Deal?
- 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
- 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin
- Was Ike Clanton Really the Loudmouth Coward of Tombstone?
- The Authentic Wild West: The Lawmen, James D. Horan
- Outlaws and Peace Officers: Memoirs of Crime and Punishment in the Old West, Stephen Brennan
- Outlaw Tales of the Old West: Fifty True Stories of Desperados, Crooks, Criminals, and Bandits, Erin H. Turner
- Legends of the Wild West: True Tales of Rebels and Heroes, Robert Edelstein
- The Saga of Billy the Kid: The Thrilling Life of America’s Original Outlaw, Walter Noble Burns
- True Tales and Amazing Legends of the Old West: From True West Magazine
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.