|Posse that killed outlaw Ned Christie posing with his body; Nov. 1892; public domain|
But have you ever wondered where the word ‘posse’ came from and what it means? I looked it up online and learned the word’s first known use was in 1645 as a shortening of the medieval Latin legal term posse comitatus, meaning ‘power or authority of the county.’
|Battle of Naseby, English Civil War; 17th century UK painting, artist unknown; public domain|
In 17th century
, at the start of the English
Civil War, all sides employed written edicts to
persuade citizens to assemble. Two documents commonly used by those siding with Parliament were the "Militia Ordinance" and the older "Commissions of Array.” On the Royalist
side in England , Parliament supporters were indicted by a grand
jury as disturbers of the peace, and the posse comitatus was called out to expel them from the
In 1887 Britain, section 8 of the Sheriffs Act formalized the powers of sheriffs to enforce posse comitatus. Anyone who refused to answer the sheriff’s call for help in arresting a felon could be fined and imprisoned for a year. If unable to pay the fine, the person would be imprisoned for two years. Those English didn’t put up with slackers!
The British provisions for posse comitatus were repealed by the Criminal Law Act of 1967, but a sheriff can still take ‘the power of the county’ if he needs to arrest resisters.
|1922 posse captured murderers Manuel Martinaz & Placidio Silvas (back row center)|
after largest manhunt in history of the Southwest; public domain
while posses helped
enforce law and order during frontier days, they could pose a threat,
illustrated by the Lattimer
1897. Nineteen unarmed striking coal miners
at the Lattimer mine
near US Hazleton, Pennsylvania
were shot and killed by a sheriff's posse.
Many more were wounded. Such incidents ended the use of posses to
unrest. Luzerne County
What made me investigate the origins and use of posses? Well, it so happens I am part of a posse of authors who have a collection of western historical romance short stories titled The Posse coming out in March. We’re planning a Facebook cover release party with giveaways on February 15. For updates, please like and follow the page: https://www.facebook.com/thepossebook.1
Here is an excerpt from my story, The Schoolmarm’s Hero.
What’s happening: It’s autumn 1880 in
Matilda Schoenbrun has been kidnapped by a pair of
outlaws. Marshal Trace Balfour leads a posse to rescue her. Colorado
Three days passed without sighting the outlaws. Their trail led into the foothills of the
Mountains, climbing over stony ridges, winding through creeks, and
following low, rugged canyons. The rougher the route grew, the longer it took Trace
to find their tracks. The process slowed the posse, causing his men to grow
restless. They’d brought enough grub to last a week or more, but they hadn’t
really expected the hunt for the fugitives to last that long. Worse yet, the
excitement of the chase had worn off.
Ben Lambert fought for the Yanks in the Civil War. Strong as an ox, Saul Davis could flatten a man with his fist alone. Charlie Putnam wasn’t a big man, but he learned how to fight in his silver mining days. The other two men, Jim Curtis and Joe Wilkes were veterans of the frontier army. All five knew how to handle a gun and defend themselves, but not so their wives and children back in town. This was still a wild country. Trace knew the men wanted to get back home soon to protect their families and property.
The posse members’ discontent boiled over when he lost the outlaws’ trail. He’d followed their tracks down into a steep-sided, dry arroyo that split into a tangle of smaller outlets, barely wide enough in some places for a single man and horse to negotiate. After picking his way through three of these winding defiles without finding a sign of the fugitives’ trail, he backtracked to where the arroyo split. The grumble of muttered curses from the men grew loud.
“Marshal Balfour, this is pointless,” Ben Lambert said. “You’ll never find their trail in this maze. It’s time to face facts and turn back."
“Yeah, we might as well go home,” Charlie Putnam said. “It’s too late, anyhow. The schoolmarm is likely dead or wishing she was by now.”
Fury flared inside Trace. Charging his horse at Putnam, he caused the man’s mount to dance sideways. Charlie’s eyes widened in fear just before Trace landed a hard right on his jaw. The storekeeper cried out and nearly tumbled from his saddle.
“I won’t abide talk like that,” Trace growled.
He backed his horse to face the group, drawing a deep breath to calm down. “Whoever wants to turn around can leave now, but I’m going on. I’ll find Mattie or die trying.” He realized he’d revealed his feelings for her but didn’t care. The other men needed to know where he stood.
He surveyed the group, gazing into each man’s eyes. No one challenged his statement and none made a move to turn back. Putnam hung his head, rubbing his jaw. “I’m right sorry, Marshal. I oughtn’t to have said what I did. It was cold of me.”
Trace acknowledged his apology with a nod. Ordering them to wait where they sat, he set his hat and rode into another of the narrow offshoots of the arroyo. Lucky for Mattie, this one proved to be the right one. He spotted the outlaws’ tracks ascending a rock ledge from the depression. Backtracking once again, he was pleased to see every man sat where he’d left them.
“I picked up their trail,” he announced. “Let’s go.” Getting no argument, he led them out of the troublesome web of false trails onto a dry, rolling plateau, where the wind blew bunch grass nearly flat, threatening to whip off their hats.
The trail they followed angled northwest. He pondered if Mattie’s kidnappers had a destination in mind, or were they wandering where the wind took them.
Late that afternoon, dark clouds billowed in the west, with distant flares of lightning. As a stripling, Trace had punched cattle down along the Rio Grande, where he grew up. He carried vivid memories of another rider who got hit by lightning. It had killed both man and horse. He didn’t want to witness such a thing again.
“We need to find shelter fast,” he said, to which the others readily agreed. Rain pelted them by the time they found an abandoned sod house in the side of a low hill. A pole corral stood nearby which offered no protection for their horses, but at least, they would be there when the storm passed. The men hurried to unsaddle the animals before closing them in the coral. Trace and his men crowded into the dank, pitch-black soddy.
Saul Davis struck a match. It briefly illuminated a small patch of dirt walls and floor. A plank shelf hung crooked on the wall. A broken slat bunk without a mattress stood beneath the shelf. “Hell of a place to call home,” Saul commented in his deep, barrel-chested voice. He blew out his match as the flame neared his fingers and lit another.
“I lived in a hole in the ground like this one when a kid in Kansas,” Charlie Putnam said. “My Dad had set his mind to growing wheat and corn there. He promised to build us a fine big house one day.”
“Did he succeed?” Trace asked.
“Naw, the border troubles started and pretty soon he went off to fight for the Union. He never came back.” Changing the subject, Charlie said, “You know, there might be a lantern in here somewhere.” He lit his own match, poking around in the dark corners. Sure enough, he recovered a dented lantern. Although low on kerosene, it provided steady light until the storm blew away two hours later.
By then, night was upon them. Although Trace begrudged the time lost to the storm, he knew they must wait for daylight. Standing at the corral where the horses stood drowsing after being drenched, he leaned his arms on the top rail, staring into the starlit night, thinking of Mattie. Had her captors sought shelter or had they ridden into the teeth of the storm with her? The thought made him sick with rage and frustration.
Footsteps squished through the mud behind him. Turning, he made out Saul Davis’s bulky form approaching. The big man halted and leaned on the corral next to him.
“Nice night. The rain cooled things off a might,” he observed.
After a moment’s silence, Saul said, “Reckon you’re worryin’ about our pretty schoolmarm, eh?”
“Yeah.” Trace shifted his stance, uncomfortable with putting it into words.
“You think you can find a scrap of those buzzards’ trail after all the rain?”
“I don’t know.” Saul had put his finger on Trace’s worst worry. If the rain washed away the outlaws’ trail, he’d have no choice but to send his men home. As for himself, he would search every acre of Colorado and beyond if necessary, until he found Mattie.
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