Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Friday, November 6, 2015

Old West -- Deputized Citizens Were An Asset



It wasn't to long ago that I sort of stepped into a conversation regarding posses and how much law enforcement depended on the citizenry. The person who said it didn't take place decided to up his bet and said, "Other than in Hollywood movies, name one incident when that took place?"

So I started thinking of the times which really stuck in my head that weren't a matter of vigilantes just taking over and doing what needed to be done. As many of you know, where there was a breakdown in the law, whether it was through corruption or simply the law being out numbered, often citizens formed vigilante groups to step forward and right a local crime situation that may be getting out of hand.

We forget that aside from the vigilante groups, which popped up all over the West, it is a fact that the history of the West has all sorts of examples of everyday citizens being deputized to assist with the administration of justice.

Using the Posse Comitatus law, Old West lawman saw citizens aa an asset. Fact is, whether forming a posse or simply deputizing a couple of citizens on the spot, a lawman would use the Common Law of Posse Comitatus to call on all males over the age of fifteen for assistance in preventing any type of civil disorder and maintaining order.

A posse is defined as a group of civilians called upon by a sheriff or other law enforcement official to assist temporarily in preserving the peace or pursuing and arresting a fugitive. A group of citizens summoned by a sheriff to help in maintaining law and order.

After the person who I was talking with challenged me to name once when deputizing a couple of citizens on the spot actually took place, I have to admit that I shot for the obvious. I told him that before going down to the lot adjacent to the OK Corral to confront those in violation of Tombstone's city ordinance against wearing guns in town, City Marshal Virgil Earp deputized two citizens on the spot.

Yes, one citizen was his brother Wyatt Earp who was in reality employed as a bartender. And yes, the other was a citizen by the name of Doc Holliday who made his living as a gambler. 

Later of course, Judge Spicer would say that his choices may have been a little unwise but Virgil Earp did deputize two citizens that he knew that he could depend on.  

As for other lawmen back in the day, they were known to do the exact same thing as what Virgil Earp did in that they would deputize citizens that they knew they could depend on to back them up. And hopefully, the men they picked would stick and not turn tail if shooting started. 

Below, I have listed a few times when citizens stepped forward in what was known back then as the "Far West" of California. And yes, in some cases the citizens carried out the law even after the lawman which they were there supporting was already shot dead.

 September 2nd, 1854 

California bandido Tiburcio Vasquez killed Monterey Constable William Hardmount by shooting him during a fight at a fandango.

A fandango is a lively couples-dance which originated in Portugal and Spain, traditionally accompanied by guitars and castanets or hand-clapping. Fandango can both be sung and danced. Fandango is still one of the main folk dances in Portugal today.

Constable Hardmount was shot and killed when he attempted to break up a fight between several men -- some from the East Coast, Mexico and Ireland. It is said that bandit Tiburcio Vasquez and others were fighting over rum and women when Vasquez shot and killed Constable Hardmount when he attempted to stop the fight.

Vasquez's accomplice was wounded by return fire. Vasquez escaped, but the citizenry stepped up and captured his accomplice who they hanged in the town square the following day.


November 10th, 1855 

California's Monterey County saw three of its Sheriff Deputies killed in one afternoon when Deputy De La Torre, Deputy Jim Beckwith and Deputy Charles Layton were all shot and killed while attempting to arrest a suspect wanted for murdering two other people.

The killer fled, but soon he was captured by citizens. They angry citizens took him to a nearby tree and then lynched him. It is said they held his trail on the way to that hanging tree.

November 26th, 1858

In the California Gold Country, the town of Columbia saw one of its Police Officers and a Constable murdered within 3 days of one another. Yes, that's what happened to Columbia Policeman Joel McDonald and Constable John Leary when they were shot and killed during an operation to arrest three professional thieves.

The officers had noticed the three suspicious men loitering around the town and came up with a plan to determine their motives. Policeman McDonald approached the men out of uniform and began talking with them. 

After he earned the men's trust, it was suggested that Policeman McDonald and the three thieves would rob a house together and then go back to Policeman McDonald's saloon to divide the loot. McDonald informed Constable Leary of the plan, and the two agreed that Leary would hide at the saloon during the robbery so that the suspects could be taken by surprise.

The robbery went as planned, but the robbers grew suspicious as they approached the saloon because they noticed a light was on. They asked Policeman McDonald what the light meant. Because they were unsatisfied with his answer, they drew a gun and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. 

They then fled the scene. But three days later, on November 29th, 1858, Constable Leary located the suspects and was attempting to arrest one of them when the suspect pulled out a gun and fatally shot him.

Citizens got involved and captured the killers. While one of the suspects was shot and killed during a citizen's arrest attempt, the other two suspects were captured within days of the incident and lynched by the angry citizenry.

July 26th, 1860 

California's Amador County Constable Miles Huntsman was shot and killed as he attempted to serve a warrant on a Native American Indian who had been accused of stealing a horse. 

The suspect opened fire on Constable Huntsman as he served the warrant, his shots killing the Constable almost instantly.

A citizen who was accompanying Constable Huntsman returned fire, and killed the suspect and another man who was with him who drew his pistol. Though deputized, that meant nothing to the crowd of Indians. Soon they gathered around that citizen, and then slowly beat him to death.

September 23rd, 1871

California's Mono County, Sheriff's Posse Member Robert Morrison and Posse Member Mono Jim were both shot and killed during a shootout with several men who had escaped from the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City, Nevada.

The convicts fled south and murdered three citizens they encountered. They were tracked into California by a posse from Esmeralda County, Nevada. Once in California, a new posse was formed by a Mono County deputy who took over the pursuit.

The Mono County Posse located the convicts camped out near Monte Diablo Creek in Taylor Canyon and waited for daybreak to confront them. A shootout ensued in which Posse Members Mono Jim and Robert Morrison were both shot and killed.

All of the escapees were apprehended in the following days. While a couple of the escapees were returned to jail, two of them were tried in a makeshift court in a remote cabin and executed the following day.

Soon afterwards, Monte Diable Creek was renamed Convict Creek in commemoration of the shootout. And yes, two nearby peaks were renamed Mount Morrison and Mono Jim Peak in honor of the fallen citizens.

March 20th, 1889 

After being with Los Angeles County Constable's Office for only one year, 39 year old Constable Anton Harnischfeger succumbed to a gunshot wound sustained in Garvanza three days earlier while he and a posse attempted to arrest a man wanted for assaulting a child.

The man who would turn killer was a hermit who lived in a hut along the Arroyo Seco. He was collecting driftwood that washed onto his property as the result of heavy rain when a woman and her daughter who lived above him also starting collecting the wood.


The man became irate and confronted the woman and child telling them to stop. When the woman went into her house, the man attacked the girl by punching her and clubbing her.

A warrant was issued for the man's arrest and Constable Harnischfeger went to the man's home to serve it along with several citizens. When the door opened, the man immediately shot Constable Harnischfeger in the forehead with a .38 caliber revolver.

The would-be killer tried to flee the scene through a backdoor. He was chased, cornered, and killed in an exchange of gunfire with the pursuing citizens. 


As you can see, in most of the situations, citizens did not stop the enforcement of law just because the person that deputized them was killed. Fact is, citizens who swore an oath to uphold the law -- even if it was on a temporary basis -- truly understood exactly what that meant. 

While these are just a few instances where citizens rose to the occasion, citizens stepping forward when needed was essential to maintain some sort of civilized world back then. When people talk about the Old West, they usually only talk about the now famous gunfights like that of the OK Corral -- they hardly ever mention how everyday citizens supported law enforcement. 

When people ask me about carrying a concealed weapon, there are those against guns rights who we inevitably ask, "Do you want our society to become like the Old West?" 

My answer is always, "Yes! Absolutely!"

I usually go on to inform them that the Old West was not as violent as people think, or as Hollywood makes it out to be.  For many reasons such as social norms, Christian beliefs, a dependence on one another, and the fact that citizens were armed, it was actually a fairly polite society.

As for having a populace that's armed, an armed citizenry was an asset for law enforcement throughout the West. Today it's really no different, a citizenry that is armed is an asset to local lawmen simply by provided security for themselves without having to burden an overall local police or sheriff's departments.

In rural area, such as where I live, our Sheriff's Department is all in favor of citizens being armed simply because our county is huge and the response time for an officer is estimated at anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour in the best of conditions. This fact means that folks up here have to understand the need to provide our own security -- yes, just like the Old West.

Whether its getting involved by letting the law know about genuinely suspicious activity, or stepping forward as a witness to what transpired during a crime, or being involved in a neighborhood watch, or backing an officer in trouble, citizens play an integral role in keeping our communities safer today just as they did in the Old West. 

I truly believe that having a society become like the Old West would not be a bad thing at all.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.
Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. A good example of citizen lawmen is the Anti-Horse Thief Association. It was formed in the Civil War era in north east Missouri, by Major David McKee, in an attempt to curb the theft of horses and equipment by ruffians and militia members. Lawmen were stretched thin and the AHTA was a fairly well organized vigilance organization. It grew gradually to about 8,000 members, until about 1900 when a group from southeast Kansas gained influence during the reign of Fielding Scott who served several terms as National vice president and president. Under Scott, they conceived the Idea of an association newspaper that was published by W.W. Graves of St. Paul, Kansas. Under the leadership of Scott, Graves and others the association grew to about 40-50,000 members across about 7 or 8 states. Graves wrote many of their operating procedures and training manuals in the form of pocket handbooks. The "Anti" charged a nominal membership fee and protected the property of their members with a vengeance—but a legally executed vengeance. It was said that a Anti posse, chasing a person unfortunate enough to mess with a member, would chase the thief to the gates of hell - and go on in if they had to. AHTA posses were called to service on a few occasions by the likes of Brinks and some historians said they were more effective than Brinks. The reason was they had a very personal interest in apprehending a thief who stole from their own. The growth and decline of the association is a fascinating story.

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