Difference Between a Marshal & a Sheriff in the Old West

A close-up of a sheriff's badge on a leather satchel.
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In Hollywood Westerns, the lawman strides authoritatively into the saloon, and the gamblers at the table, the seductress at the bar and the bad guy sulking in the corner variously address him as "Marshal" or Sheriff." Both are terms that mean "lawman," but they weren't any more synonymous in the Old West than they are today. Stars, guns and white hats notwithstanding, marshals and sheriffs had different functions and different realms of authority.

1 Sheriff: A Public Official

The office of sheriff dates to medieval England; the word is a shortened version of shire-reeve, the person responsible for maintaining order in the shire, the forerunner to modern-day counties. It is traditionally an elected office, although sheriffs in the early American colonies were appointed by large landowners to protect their lands. As settlers moved westward, the office of sheriff moved with them. When a town was incorporated, the people of the town elected a body of officials to conduct public affairs and one of the officials they elected was the sheriff. This practice continues today across the United States. Most sheriffs nowadays are elected at the county level, though some cities such as Baltimore and Denver have elected sheriffs.

2 Marshal: a U.S. Government Employee

A marshal is an employee of the United States government. The U.S. Marshal's Service has been in operation since 1789; it is part of the Justice Department. The duty of the marshal is to enforce the rule of the federal courts. In 2014, there were 94 U.S. marshals -- one for each district in the U.S. judicial system. In addition to marshals, the Justice Department employs over 3,800 deputy marshals and criminal investigators. Among the duties of federal marshals is protection of the judiciary, apprehension and transportation of federal fugitives and seizure and management of money and assets obtained through illegal activities.

3 Jurisdiction in the Old West

In the Old West -- as today -- 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, his authority vanished. Borders weren't as clearly drawn in the Old West as they are today, so the question of jurisdiction was sometimes murky. Because they worked for the federal government, marshals had jurisdiction everywhere, but only to do the jobs for which they were contracted to do. One of those jobs was to apprehend fugitives from justice, and a marshal's authority could supersede that of the sheriff insofar as apprehending these wanted fugitives was concerned.

4 Appointing Deputies

Both sheriffs and marshals could appoint deputies, but when it came to deputizing men to form a posse and track down fugitives, federal authority was needed. One of the most famous posses in the Old West was that formed by Wyatt Earp after assassins gunned down his brother Virgil, who was the police chief of Tombstone, Arizona. Earp had to appeal to Crawley P. Dake, U.S. Marshal for the Arizona Territory, for authority to appoint deputy marshals to join the posse. The "vendetta posse" included gamblers, sharpshooters, former cavalrymen and at least one former fugitive. The posse pursued the fugitives as far as the border of New Mexico Territory, completed its vendetta and disbanded.

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.