There's trouble brewing in the saloon.
Suddenly, two men burst out of its front doors, swaggering into the middle of the street.
They count about thirty paces distance between each other and stop- it's gonna be a duel.
Fingers twitch over holstered revolvers, as the high noon sun beats down mercilessly on
the two gunslingers.
Then there's a shout, and bystanders point to three horses riding up in a cloud of dust.
Leading the trio is a man with a tell-tale silver badge on his chest, a rifle slung across
his arms, and an ivory handled revolver at his hip- this here's the Sheriff, and there'll
be no gunslinging in his town today.
Sheriffs are about as iconic a part of the American wild west as cowboys, Indians, and
duels at high noon.
Back before we had an established police force, the Sheriff was the lonely, long arm of the
law, deputizing other civilians when the need arose in order to face down criminal threats
he couldn't handle by himself.
Yet in today's world of professional law enforcement, Sheriffs still play a major role within the
justice system- but what is a Sheriff and what do they do exactly?
Back in the day Sheriffs were typically appointed by local governments and acted as the sole
adjudicator of the law, at least outside of the courtroom.
They were responsible for investigating crimes, enforcing the law, and dealing with any would-be
In the less-civilized lands west of the Mississippi, Sheriffs were typically military veterans,
or skilled gunslingers with a reputation for being honorable and respectable men.
Sheriffs often worked alone or with a single partner in the far-flung towns and settlements
of the old west, and thus had to be self-reliant and tough enough to deal with any threat that
came their way.
Being a crack shot was just as important as knowing how to ride a horse, survive in the
wild, and having a good moral compass and impeccable integrity.
For times when the criminal threat was too great for the Sheriff alone, he was empowered
to deputize civilians, temporarily granting them the same law enforcement powers that
the Sheriff alone enjoyed.
This would even extend to granting immunity from the consequences of using deadly force
against criminals who resisted arrest, though was not a blank check for acting with reckless
Deputies too had to be trustworthy and upstanding individuals, and as the wild west was gradually
civilized, Sheriffs began to take on permanent deputies who worked as full-time law enforcement.
Over the years though the role of the Sheriff gradually shifted as the wild west and the
United States as a whole became more civilized.
As towns grew and the world shifted from punishing crime to actively preventing it through an
active police force, police departments took over the job of the town Sheriff, and armed
police officers working beats and making their presence known in the community replaced the
town Sheriff and his deputies, who mostly remained in their office until trouble arose.
The shift in policing philosophies saw the Sheriff take on more of an administrative
role, and soon the role of Sheriff took on two different dimensions.
The first would be line and file Sheriffs, who acted much in the same way as police officers
but with slightly different duties, and the second would be that of Sheriff for a local
municipality, or today, entire counties.
Line and file Sheriffs are very similar to regular police officers.
Much like a police officer, a Sheriff has the same rights to carry out arrests, and
can be tasked with law enforcement duties- especially in communities too small for a
regular police department.
Sheriffs can thus respond to emergency calls, give out traffic tickets, arrest suspects,
and conduct patrols.
Unlike police officers though, Sheriffs in communities too small for a police department
also handle many of the same functions of a police investigator, and can interview witnesses
to crimes and carry out full-scale investigations- though if the crime is serious enough an outside
consultant, such as a full-time investigator, is typically requested.
Sheriffs much like police officers though have the same duties after a crime is committed,
and they prepare written reports of criminal incidents or medical emergencies and then
go to court in order to testify on their written reports.
Unlike regular police though, Sheriffs can actually work for either local government,
or a federal government agency, and their daily duties can vary depending on which entity
they actually work for.
Some Sheriff's departments even carry out full-scale investigations ranging from drug
trafficking, human trafficking, and even into corruption in other police departments.
In places with a large local police presence, Sheriffs typically restrict themselves to
maintaining security at local courts and jails.
Sheriffs also typically take the lead in processing civil cases, and will very often be the office
charged with enforcing court orders such as evictions, lawsuits, or even divorces.
They can be tasked with removing individuals from a property after an eviction notice has
been served, or with seizing physical assets or property in order to enforce a bank levy
or a court judgment such as a lawsuit.
As law enforcement professionals though, a Sheriff's duties are ultimately whatever their
local community needs from them.
The office of Sheriff however is a different matter altogether, and this is an elected
official who is the top law enforcement official in a county.
They are responsible for managing the day to day activities of law enforcement and even
with overseeing the execution and investigations of criminal cases.
Some of history's most famous Sheriffs include Sheriff Pat Garrett, who was responsible for
killing famous outlaw, Billy the Kid.
Supposedly Garrett and Billy were close friends who often gambled together, but when Garret
was elected Sheriff that all changed and he vowed to bring in Billy to face justice.
After a shootout with Billy the Kid and his gang, and after killing two gang members,
Sheriff Garrett brought Billy in to face justice.
Billy was sentenced to hang, but managed to escape after killing two guards.
Garret vowed revenge for the death of the lawmen, and after tracking Billy down once
more, he waited under the cover of darkness for him to come home and then put a bullet
straight into the heart of Billy the Kid.
Unfortunately the cold-blooded killing hurt Sheriff Garret's reputation and he lost his
bid for reelection.
Sheriff Harry Wheeler, also from the last days of the wild west, had a fearsome reputation
as a lawman and gunslinger both.
He is remembered best for having taken part in the last great gunfights of the wild west
era, or perhaps for illegally deporting 1300 mine workers in Arizona.
He got his start in 1904 as a ranger, when he responded to a robbery in a local saloon-
there Wheeler ran into the escaping crook and the two faced each other down as Wheeler
demanded he turn himself in.
The thief reached for his weapon but Wheeler was faster.
His exploits would see him rise through the ranks of law enforcement, until finally being
elected as Cochise County Sheriff.
In 1917 he took part in what is considered one of the last shootouts of the Old West,
when he and his deputy were ambushed by smugglers they were tracking.
All night long the two groups exchanged gunfire, but in the dark of night none could find their
mark- save for Wheeler.
He would shoot one of the smugglers, though if he survived or not would never be discovered,
because the other men would lay down covering fire and eventually retreat as the night turned
Sheriff John Hicks Adams would go on to write his own name in the history books soon after
the end of the American Civil War.
Originally migrating to California during the gold rush, Adams was elected sheriff when
the previous sheriff died and someone was needed to finish his term.
Soon after taking the office, Adams learned of a group of ex-Confederate sore losers who
now paraded around as a criminal gang calling themselves Captain Ingram's Partisan Rangers.
Adams formed a posse and tracked the gang down to a small cabin, which he and his men
After several hours of gunfighting, the gang surrendered- but only after losing several
members to the Sheriff and his men.
This feat ensured Adam's reelection as Sheriff, and soon he was up against another group of
This gang though, calling themselves the Mason-Henry Gang, had a much more fearsome and bloodthirsty
reputation, and earned the name in the media “The Copperhead Murderers” for their habit
of killing people in the course of their robberies- specially if they were ex-Union supporters.
Adams pursued the gang relentlessly, but they always managed to stay one step ahead of the
Sheriff- eventually though he managed to chase them out of southern California altogether
and the gang would go on to meet their demise at the hands of law enforcement up north.
Sheriffs today may not be the gunslingers of old, but their job is as vital as it has
ever been- specially in communities that are too small and too remote for a regular police
While in larger communities they typically stick to securing courthouses and serving
warrants, that doesn't mean that you should feel free to pass one by with the pedal to
the metal on the freeway, because Sheriffs retain the right to carry out all the same
law enforcement duties as a regular police officer!
Think you got what it would have taken to be an old West sheriff?
Let us know in the comments!
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