Skip to content
The Past

The Wild West was lawless and chaotic — and the police helped keep it that way

Lawmen and outlaws were often the same people.
Credit: N.C. Wyeth
Key Takeaways
  • American settlers shunned the idea of a centralized law enforcement because, traditionally, delivering justice was seen as a private rather than public responsibility.
  • Unable to rely on local sheriffs or federal agencies, wealthy individuals in the Wild West started taking justice into their own hands, hiring private lawmen and offering large rewards.
  • Once bounty hunters made way for police organizations like the ones employed in U.S. cities, the Wild West became known simply as the West.

Countless books, movies, video games, and television shows have presented the Wild West as a dangerous and lawless place, and it’s easy to see why. While the American frontier was sparsely populated compared to the country’s more urbanized regions, violent crime seems to have been as rampant on the hills of the Great Plains as it was in the streets of Chicago or New York — at least proportionally.

Here is a good example. In 1872, the territory of Wyoming witnessed a total of 153 crimes, including 4 murders. At first glance, that does not sound like a lot. However, when you consider that Wyoming — one of the last regions of the U.S. to become settled — only had a population of around 9,000 people, those same numbers suddenly leave a very different impression.

The types of crimes committed in the Wild West were unique to the area, brought about by conflicts between fiercely independent rangers, constantly expanding railroad companies, and tragically displaced Native Americans. On an interpersonal level, there were gunfights and lynchings; on the communal one, armed conflict between settlers and Natives and between strikers and strikebreakers.

Stories about the Wild West would have us believe that foul-mouthed sheriffs and sharpshooting bounty hunters were just about the only thing keeping this ungovernable place from descending into utter chaos, but that wasn’t the case. Instead of bands of outlaws, it was the absence of an effective law enforcement system that helped the Wild West stay wild for most of the 19th century.

A flawed system

The origins of law enforcement in the Wild West betray its biggest weaknesses. As a whole, the American people had long resisted the establishment of bureaucratic police organizations, not only because they feared that such organizations could be used as public armies by the rich and powerful, but also because — in those times — keeping the peace was seen as a private as opposed to public responsibility.

While the urban U.S. adapted to the times, settlers of the Wild West held on to their traditions. To this end, sheriffs, deputies, and constables were locally chosen rather than installed from the top down. They also acted more like vigilantes than bureaucrats in the sense that they worked independently and without strict oversight from a higher governmental authority.

A black-and-white photo of a man on a horse
Criminal activity in the Wild West was particular to that environment. (Credit: John C. H. Grabill / Wikipedia)

Due to its decentralized and unregulated nature, lawmen in the Wild West were not nearly as effective as their urban counterparts. According to Stuart H. Traub, author of “Rewards, Bounty Hunting, and Criminal Justice in the West: 1865-1900,” “federal, state, and local law enforcement was disorganized, erratic, contradictory, and in many instances, politically motivated and arbitrary.”

Distinctions between lawmen and outlaws were, unsurprisingly, tenuous. Peace officers used their influence to confiscate lands and settle old scores. A good many judges were untrained and, according to some sources, known to have presided over cases while intoxicated. Apprehended bandits were routinely set free because they had purchased pardons from corrupt juries.

Vigilante and corporate justice

The shortcomings of law enforcement in the Wild West worried settlers and frustrated government officials. Traub cites an 1878 letter sent to the U.S. Attorney General requesting a modification to the Posse Comitatus Act, which limited the involvement of the military to implement domestic policies. Signed to prevent abuse of power after the Civil War, the act left the Wild West to its own, insufficient devices.

Unable to rely on local lawmen or the federal government, banks, railroads, and corporate ranchers began taking matters into their own hands — or, rather, hiring capable professionals who would take those matters into their hands for them. This led to the emergence of private law enforcement agencies like the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Rocky Mountain Detective Association.

Aside from employing trained agents, businesses also handed out cash rewards for vigilante justice. These rewards, which far outweighed anything that the federal government was able to offer, could be claimed in a variety of ways, such as providing information relevant to an ongoing case, pursuing criminals, seizing stolen materials, and yes, bringing in bandits dead or alive.

Wealthy individuals taking the law into their own hands and twisting its definition to serve their interests has since become a key feature of the Wild West. There are as many cowboy films about hunting outlaws as there are about taking down oil tycoons. Meanwhile, the Pinkertons have been featured as recurring antagonists in Rockstar Games’ popular Red Dead Redemption franchise.

How the Wild West was tamed

This privatization of law enforcement represented a mixed bag. On the one hand, higher bounties helped motivate lawmen and bounty hunters to catch criminals. On the other, they also created new opportunities for corruption and extortion. “Police officers,” writes Traub, “devoted much of their time and energy to those illegal activities that would earn for them the greatest monetary rewards.”

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Often, this meant that officers would prioritize recovering stolen property over apprehending the criminals themselves. From a personal and financial perspective, this makes perfect sense. If you put a criminal in jail, they won’t cause any more problems. However, if you let them go, you can continue to claim the rewards for everything they steal.

An old photograph of outlaws from the Wild West
Members of the Wild Bunch, a prominent gang of Western outlaws. (Credit: MET / Wikipedia)

As if this wasn’t bad enough, rewards also promoted lethal force at the cost of due process — one of the supposed foundations of the American republic. “Since many rewards were payable on arrest, conviction or receipt of the fugitive’s body,” Traub adds, “the reward system may have adversely affected the concept of justice by legitimating wanton killings of suspects and known criminals.”

In the end, what truly ended the Wild West wasn’t the disappearance of its famous outlaws, but the dismantling of the archaic, impractical, and inefficient system of law enforcement that had allowed those outlaws to flourish in the first place. Governed by the same apparatuses as other parts of the U.S., the Wild West urbanized and eventually became known simply as the West.

In this article


Up Next