Thursday, April 4, 2019


Often historical western books depict one of their characters as a sheriff or marshal of a town including the book I’m writing now. But before I decided which one my character would be, I wanted to know the difference between them. Following is a brief overview of the duties and jurisdictions of a sheriff and marshal in the Old West.
Traditionally, the sheriff was an elected county official. Towns elected or appointed marshals. A U.S. Marshal was a federal appointment and covered outlaws who broke federal laws. A federal marshal or deputy marshal could also pull double duty as a sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, or town marshal.
The sheriff was elected to uphold the law in a particular town or county, but as soon as he crossed the town or county borders, he had no authority. Trouble was, unlike today, the borders weren’t as clearly drawn in the Old West, so the jurisdiction was sometimes uncertain.
U.S. Marshals had jurisdiction everywhere since they worked for the federal government. Their job was to apprehend fugitives from justice. A marshal’s authority could supersede that of the sheriff insofar as apprehending wanted fugitives were concerned.
Many lawmen received no pay other than a percentage of money that those they arrested might be fined, or the collection of bounties on the heads of wanted men. Consequently, some had second jobs to supplement their income as stagecoach guards; others ran saloons!
Of those who did make a salary, it was often very low, and their duties often included tasks that many felt were beneath them, such as keeping the streets clean and other municipal duties. Much of their work consisted of weeks of boring tasks, interspersed by periods of high danger and sometimes deadly altercations.
For these reasons and more, few of even the most famous lawmen spent that many years wearing a badge, including Wild Bill Hickok, who only served a few years in various 
roles and Wyatt Earp, who worked in a few Kansas cowtowns, before gunning down the Clantons in a showdown at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
Below is a bronze sculpture of one of the most iconic fictional marshals ever portrayed on TV – Marshal Dillon.

If you're going to make a life-size statue of James Arness, you're going to need a lot of bronze. The Western star stood at a towering 6' 7". No wonder his character Matt Dillon was such an imposing figure on Gunsmoke.
For twenty seasons, Marshal Dillon kept the peace on the dusty streets of Dodge City. Now, the real-life Dodge City, a town of about 27,000 residents in southwestern Kansas, has its own Matt Dillon. On July 30, 2017, a bronze likeness of the character was installed next to the Dodge City Visitors Center on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.
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  1. Really enjoyed this useful information. Thank you for your post.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Gini. You can never have TMI when it comes to research for our books, right! LOL

  2. We were glued to the TV for Gunsmoke but I don't remember James Arness being so tall! Thanks for clarifying sheriff vs marshall so well.

  3. Arletta, I decided my character will be a town marshal, although he'll be older and look nothing like James Arness!


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