Sunday, August 12, 2012

U.S. Marshal History by Paty Jager

U.S. Marshals have had a presence in the United States since 1789. While most people think of U.S. Marshals as the gun toting images seen in movies and depicted in books, the first marshals were created by the first Congress of the United States to carry out all lawful orders issued but judges, Congress, or the president.  They were limited to a four year renewable term or could be replaced by the president whenever he chose.

Marshals hired their own deputies from their judicial districts so keep close ties and credibility with the community.

This is the summary or the original mandate for a U.S. Marshal as published in The Lawmen by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1989:

“The primary function of the marshals was to support the federal courts. They served the subpoenas, summonses, writes, warrants, and other process issued by the courts; made all the arrests; and handled all the prisoners. They also disbursed the money, paying the fees and expenses of the court clerks, U.S. attorneys, jurors, and witnesses. They rented the courtrooms and jail space and hired the bailiffs, criers, and janitors. “

Not only did they carry out the above jobs, they also took the national census every decade from 1790 – 1870. Another job was distributing presidential proclamations, collected statistics on commerce and industry, registered enemy aliens during wartime, exchanged spies and prisoners of war with foreign countries.  They were the government’s civilian police power.

When the 20- year ban on African Slave trade ran out in 1808 and it was made a capital crime in 1819 the U.S. Marshals found themselves with even more work. The marshals in the North captured fugitive slaves and returned them, often against violent opposition and the marshals in the South tried to stop the slave trade amidst anger and resentment.

At the beginning of the Civil war most U.S. marshals in the Southern judicial districts resigned and marshals in the Western states and territories struggled t  keep the secessionist movements from tearing more states from the union. After the war, the marshals mad mass arrests of Klansmen.

As the population moved west so did the U.S. Marshal. In this vast sparsely populated area and unorganized territories, they weren’t the only peace officers, but because they were representatives of the federal government they held the highest rank.   The local authorities took care of most of the local altercations but if the federal mail was robbed during train and stagecoach hold ups they were brought in to help capture the outlaws.

During the 1870’s 200 deputy marshals patrolled 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory. This is a list of the problems they were to deal with:

“U.S. Marshals for the Western District of Arkansas may make arrests for: murder, manslaughter, assault with intent to kill or toe maim, attempts to murder, arson, robbery, rape, bribery, burglary, larceny, incest, adultery…these arrests may be made with or without warrant first issued and in the hands of the Deputy or the Chief Marshal…For violations of the revenue law and for introducing ardent spirits into the Indian Country, the Deputy cannot make an arrest without warrant unless the offender is caught in the act.”

Marshals did not shoot to kill or travel with large posses. They went out “on the scout” in groups of four or five with a wagon they used as a jail on wheels. They looked for stolen horses, suspicious travelers, stills and contraband whiskey and wanted men.

They received $.06 a mile traveled and $2 per arrest. They were lucky if they made $500 a year. Trying to bring their prisoners back to Fort Smith for trial was sometimes thwarted by the prisoners friends and relatives.

This was information I found in The History of the U.S. Marshal by Robin Langley Sommer when I was researching for my book Improper Pinkerton.

An impetuous Pinkerton agent is out to prove to a righteous US Marshal that she's the best "man" to complete the assignment and the only "woman" who can capture his heart.

Mae Simon is on her first assignment as a Pinkerton operative and determined nothing will stand in her way of accomplishing her task. When the simple assignment turns into a murder and kidnapping, she has to stop hiding behind her disguises and trust a man she’s betrayed.

U. S. Marshal Beck Harlan can’t afford to befriend anyone. Not with a vengeance seeking outlaw killing off his intimate acquaintances. Yet, he falls hard for the French prostitute he talks into being an informant, not realizing she is a Pinkerton operative after the same man.


  1. Hi Paty,
    Lots of fascinating info on the U.S. Marshal. Part of the fun of research in learning that much of what we thought was true is only a myth.

  2. Paty, it sounds like the first marshals were little more than bailiffs. I am pleased you included the 1870's because I'll be writing a book next year with a hero who's a marshal.

  3. I had no idea US Marshals had so many duties. I guess it wasn't all glamour and shootouts for them. Great info for another writer of westerns. Thanks.

  4. Paty--I think you got this right. I liked reading all the rules they abided by, making a U.S. Marshal a special kind of law officer.
    In the Chicago area, during the labor riots, around 1900, U.S. Marshals performed with great skill in keeping the peace.
    The western U.S. Marshals often went beyond their call of duty--which, in my mind, made them even more special.

  5. Sorry I'm late replying! We were in the boonies and I didn't feel like waiting around for internet or typing on the tiny keyboard on my phone.

    Kathy, I agree! Learning how things really worked or happened is fun!

    Caroline, I wanted to be clear on what a sheriff, marshal, and U.S marshal's duties were when I did my research. It is interesting what the U.S. Marshals signed on to do and sometimes what they ended up doing.

    Paisley, I agree, I was shocked by their duties.

    Celia, I agree, the western half of the U.S. called for different tactics.

  6. Hi Paty,
    Interesting blog. Did you know the Civil War era marshalls often had badges hammered out of coins since metal was so precious? I found that tidbit out when I researched badges.

    Your book sounds wonderful!

  7. Hi Morgan! No, I hadn't read that anywhere! But I did read that U.S. Marshals would fashion the badges for their deputies. Back in those days you couldn't wait around for one to arrive after it was sent for. They needed to have men ready to ride when they appointed them.

  8. Your book sounds great, Paty. US Marshalls were sent into Oklahoma territory to keep people from taking land before the actual land run on April 22, 1889. A scandal ensued when some of the marshalls took the best lots for themselves in Guthrie. Picked that up from my research, too.

  9. Colleen, aren't all these tidbits we pick up fun!!

  10. Loved this wonderful bit of history. Thanks Paty.


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