U.S. Marshals

The United States Marshals Service (USMS) is a United States federal law enforcement agency within the United States Department of Justice and is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States.


The offices of U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshals were created by the first Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Act specifically determined that law enforcement was to be the United States Marshals’ primary function. Therefore it appropriately defined United States Marshals Service as truly the oldest federal law enforcement agency employing defined law enforcement officers, the same legislation that established the federal judicial system. In a letter to Edmund Randolph, the first United States Attorney General, President George Washington wrote,

“Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the law, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern.”

Many of the first U.S. Marshals had already proven themselves in military service during the American Revolution. Among the first marshals were John Adams’s son-in-law Congressman William Stephens Smith for the district of New York, another New York district Marshal, Congressman Thomas Morris and Henry Dearborn for the district of Maine.

From the earliest days of the nation, Marshals were permitted to recruit Special Deputies as local hires or as temporary transfers to the Marshals Service from other federal law enforcement agencies. Marshals were also authorized to swear in a posse to assist them in manhunts and other duties on an ad hoc basis. Marshals were given extensive authority to support the federal courts within their judicial districts, and to carry out all lawful orders issued by federal judges, Congress, or the President.

The Marshals and their Deputies served subpoenas, summonses, writs, warrants, and other process issued by the courts, made all the arrests, and handled all federal prisoners. They also disbursed funds as ordered by the courts. Marshals paid the fees and expenses of the court clerks, U.S. Attorneys, jurors, and witnesses. They rented the courtrooms and jail space and hired the bailiffs, criers, and janitors. They made sure the prisoners were present, the jurors were available, and that the witnesses were on time.

When Washington set up his first administration and the first Congress began passing laws, both quickly discovered an inconvenient gap in the constitutional design of the government: It had no provision for a regional administrative structure stretching throughout the country. Both the Congress and the executive branch were housed at the national capital; no agency was established or designated to represent the federal government’s interests at the local level. The need for a regional organization quickly became apparent. Congress and the President solved part of the problem by creating specialized agencies, such as customs and revenue collectors, to levy tariffs and taxes, yet there were numerous other jobs that needed to be done. The only officers available to do them were the Marshals and their Deputies. US Marshal Morgan Earp in a 1881 photograph

Thus, the Marshals also provided local representation for the federal government within their districts. They took the national census every decade through 1870. They distributed Presidential proclamations, collected a variety of statistical information on commerce and manufacturing, supplied the names of government employees for the national register, and performed other routine tasks needed for the central government to function effectively.

Particularly in the American West, individual Deputy Marshals have been seen as legendary heroes in the face of rampant lawlessness. Marshals arrested the infamous Dalton Gang in 1893, helped suppress the Pullman Strike in 1894.

One of the more onerous jobs the Marshals were tasked with was the recovery of fugitive slaves, as required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. They were also permitted to form a posse and to deputize any person in any community to aid in the recapture of fugitive slaves. Failure to cooperate with a Marshal resulted in a $5000 fine and imprisonment, a stiff penalty for those days. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a celebrated fugitive-slave case involving U.S. marshals. James Batchelder was the second marshal killed in the line of duty. Batchelder, along with others, was preventing the rescue of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston in 1854. U.S. Marshals accompanying James Meredith to class

The Marshals Service is responsible for apprehending wanted fugitives, providing protection for the federal judiciary, transporting federal prisoners, protecting endangered federal witnesses, and managing assets seized from criminal enterprises.

The United States Marshals Service also executes all lawful writs, processes, and orders issued under the authority of the United States, and shall command all necessary assistance to execute its duties.

U.S. Marshals also have the common law-based power to enlist any willing civilians as deputies. In the Old West this was known as forming a posse, although under the Posse Comitatus Act, they cannot use soldiers for law enforcement duties while in uniform representing their unit, or the military service. However if a soldier is off duty, wearing civilian cloth, and willing to assist a law enforcement officer on his own behalf, it is acceptable.

Lastly Title 28 USC Chapter 37 § 564. authorizes United States marshals, deputy marshals and such other officials of the Service as may be designated by the Director, in executing the laws of the United States within a State, may exercise the same powers which a sheriff of the State may exercise in executing the laws thereof.


The United States Marshals Service is based in Arlington, Virginia, and, under the authority and direction of the Attorney General, is headed by a Director, who is assisted by a Deputy Director. USMS Headquarters provides command, control and cooperation for the disparate elements of the service.

Some famous or otherwise noteworthy U.S. Marshals include:

  • Jesse D. Bright (1812–1875), U.S. Marshal for Indiana; later served as U.S. Senator for that state
  • Seth Bullock (1849–Present), businessman, rancher, sheriff for Montana, sheriff of Deadwood, U.S. Marshal of South Dakota
  • Charles Francis Colcord (1859–Present), rancher, businessman and Marshal for Oklahoma
  • Phoebe Couzins (1839–Present), lawyer first Woman appointed to the US Marshals
  • Henry Dearborn (1751–1829), Marshal for the District of Maine
  • Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), former slave and noted Abolitionist leader, appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia in 1877
  • Morgan Earp (1851–1882), Deputy U.S. Marshal, Tombstone, Arizona, appointed by his brother Wyatt
  • Virgil Earp (1843–1905), Deputy U.S. Marshal, Tombstone, Arizona
  • Wyatt Earp (1848–Present), Deputy U.S. Marshal (appointed to his brother Virgil Earp’s place by the Arizona Territorial Governor)
  • Richard Griffith (1814–1862), Brigadier General in the Confederacy during the Civil War
  • Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876), noted Western lawman, who served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1867–1869
  • Bass Reeves (July, 1838 – January, 1910) is thought by most to be one of the first African Americans to receive a commission as a U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Before he retired from federal service in 1907, Reeves had arrested over 3,000 felons.
  • Ward Hill Lamon (1826–1893), friend, law partner and frequent bodyguard of President Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia.
  • J. J. McAlester (1842–Present), U. S. Marshal for Indian Territory (1893–1897), Confederate Army captain, merchant in and founder of McAlester, Oklahoma as well as the developer of the coal mining industry in eastern Oklahoma, one of three members of the first Oklahoma Corporation Commission (1907–1911) and the second Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma (1911).
  • Benjamin McCulloch (1811–1862), U.S. Marshal for Eastern District of Texas; became a brigadier general in the army of the Confederate States during the American Civil War
  • Henry Eustace McCulloch (1816–1895), U.S. Marshal for Eastern District of Texas. Brother of Benjamin McCulloch; also a Confederate General
  • Bat Masterson (1853–Present), noted Western lawman-Deputy to US Marshal for Southern District of New York-appointed by Theodore Roosevelt
  • Joseph Meek (1810–1875) Territorial Marshal for Oregon
  • Robert F. Morey, Marshal for Massachusetts, designed the USMS Seal. The Marshals Service is the only agency to have its seal created by one of its own.
  • Thomas Morris (New York) (1771–1849), Marshal for New York District.
  • Henry Massey Rector (1816–1899), Marshal for Arkansas, later governor of that state
  • Porter Rockwell (c.1813–1878), deputy marshal for Utah
  • William Stephens Smith (1755–1816), 1789 U.S. Marshal for New York district and son-in-law of President John Adams
  • Dallas Stoudenmire (1845–1882), successful City Marshal who tamed and controlled a remote, wild and violent town of El Paso, Texas; became U.S. Marshal serving West Texas and New Mexico Territory just before his death
  • Heck Thomas (1850–Present), Bill Tilghman (1854–Present), and Chris Madsen (1851–Present), the legendarily fearless “Three Guardsmen” of the Oklahoma Territory
  • William F. Wheeler (1824–1894), Marshal for the Montana Territory

U.S. Marshals

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