Federales, Gringo Style

The Exponential Growth of Federal Police

For most of American history, federal law enforcement consisted only of U.S. marshals serving in the territories of the West.  Their legacy is decidedly mixed.  Many were appointed purely for their political connections, and graft and corruption were not unusual.  The first U.S. marshal for Colorado Territory was accused of embezzling federal funds.  The third marshal resigned from office after being charged with larceny and passing counterfeit money.  The fourth was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years at Leavenworth.  A U.S. marshal could also hire his own deputies.  A deputy was not a salaried employee but earned income through the collection of fees, reimbursement for expenses, and the occasional reward.  The system was ripe for abuse.

As local law enforcement developed, conflict and jurisdictional disputes with federal marshals inevitably resulted.  One of the most famous disputes involved two of the Old West’s most colorful characters, David Terry and David Neagle.  Known for his Confederate sympathies and fiery temper, the Kentucky-born Terry served as a Texas Ranger during the 1840’s and as an officer in the Mexican War.  Settling in California, he began practicing law and became the chief justice of the California state supreme court in 1857.  In 1859, he killed Sen. David Broderick in a duel.  During the Civil War, he served with the 8th...

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