If you've ever wondered why stories of the Old West speak of lawmen who are sheriffs and others speak about marshals, and in both cases the nature of the job is unclear, you're not alone.
Although the local citizenry throughout the West understood the necessary distinctions, time has somehow blurred the lines of authority and the setup of the law in ways that might be confusing today. Modern society and modern law enforcement has its own twists and turns, yet most of us know pretty clearly who to call when we need "the police." (You must remember, too, that there was no "9-1-1" available in the Old West; heck, even telephones were few and pretty far between.)
Peace officers came with different labels in different places
As frontier justice moved across various frontiers in the West, it was often rough and there was little attention to precise names and offices such as "sheriff" or "marshal." Lines were pretty clear in most towns, territories, and states when it came to "sheriff," however. A sheriff was generally someone chosen or elected at a county level. The county sheriff, as such, wielded a fair amount of power. For one thing, his jurisdiction generally included more than just one town, and his duties often included tax collecting. Which mean that he had great responsibility -- and also great opportunity for abuse and personal enrichment if he were a crooked sheriff.
One example of a sheriff abusing his position for personal gain was Sheriff John Behan in Tombstone, Arizona, during the early 1880s. (Yes, he was THAT Sheriff Behan, a leading foe of the Earp brothers.) Behan was reputed to have pulled in $40,000 during his term as sheriff. In fact, after he left office Behan was indicted for collecting taxes after his term as county sheriff had expired. He was never prosecuted on the charge.
Most confusion about lawmen surrounds the marshals
Without exception, any confusion in the minds of modern enthusiasts of the Old West regarding the law focuses on the various marshals we read and hear of. But it's pretty simple, really. Marshals came in basically two varieties -- there were "town marshals" and there were real or "federal marshals."
A town marshal, generally just referred to as "marshal" in local writings of the period, can be thought of as a chief of police. Deputy town marshals -- usually just referred to as "deputies" or "deputy marshals" -- can be thought of as the Old West equivalent of "cops." Most often the town marshal was hired or appointed by town officials to keep the peace within a given town. He might or might not work in cooperation with the county sheriff, and he would be seen as less authoritative or less powerful than the sheriff.
A federal marshal was someone formally appointed at the federal level over a particular jurisdiction which could be territory-wide, district-wide, or statewide. The U.S. marshal was at the top of the hierarchy of law enforcement wherever he served because he was directly appointed by the President with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate.
Although this hierarchy of peace making power flowed downward in theory from marshal to sheriff to town marshal -- with deputies serving all along the structure, of course -- it was subject to disarray and confusion depending largely on personalities and politics. The whole structure of peace keepers also depended on the personalities of people holding that role. For instance, many an old west sheriff was more "pencil pusher" than law enforcer -- preferring to take charge of all the paperwork required by their county and let their deputies do the dirty work in the streets.
When there was a vacancy at the federal marshal level, there was almost always a delay in filling the position because there were dozens of not hundreds who would wield whatever political clout they had trying to win the appointment.
Town marshals, on the other hand, were often hard to find because the job was very low paying, the perks were few to none. Many who took town marshal positions were on-again-off-again when it came to which side of the law they really favored. Wild Bill Hickok spent a good deal of his term as town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, at the poker table. It was well known around town that anyone having business with the marshal had to come to his "office" at The Alamo, a mainstay for gambling and a large bar. But Hickok was downright respectable compared to a town marshal in Laramie, Wyoming. That marshal was also a local saloon keeper -- and was caught drugging and robbing patrons. He was hung!
Hickok's duty as town marshal in Abilene included clearing the streets of liter as well as rowdy cowboys. And to supplement his $150 a month salary he was paid 50 cents for every unlicensed dog he show within the city limits. Such was the real "glamour" of law enforcement in the Old West. Such marshalling held little of the glamour portrayed in film and fiction for old west lawmen!
(Interesting Side Note: You might be surprised to learn how surprisingly soon after Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent the first telephones began showing up in the West. The first "long distance" line was put up in California in 1877; the first Denver telephone exchanges with a total of more than 200 patrons were up and running in 1879; and the first telephone came to Tombstone in March, 1881 -- about seven months before that infamous shootout near the OK Corral.)