What is a US Marshal?

If you have seen reruns of the old TV series Gunsmoke, you may think you know what a U.S. Marshal is. Matt Dillon walked the streets of Dodge City out-drawing the bad guys and keeping law and order in the Old West. That image does have some truth to it, but did you know that the office of US Marshal began much earlier, in the late 18th century?

History of the US Marshal Program

The United States Marshals are the oldest law enforcement group in the country. According to the U.S. Marshal Service website, George Washington signed the Judiciary Law into effect in 1789, creating the US Marshal position. At first it was an appointed job and Washington appointed thirteen, one in every judicial district. They served a four-year term. Their responsibility was to execute federal warrants and other assignments made by the district, circuit or Supreme Court, all of which they had to attend. The government gave them the authority to command any assistance they needed to fulfill their duty, and to hire deputies. On the American frontier, the U.S. Marshal was often the only law in unincorporated areas with no law enforcement agency of their own. From 1850 until 1861 the Fugitive Slave Act required marshals to arrest and return escaped slaves to their masters. During the Civil War, they confiscated property that was being used to support the southern cause, and they helped find Confederate spies. After the war, they helped keep “the peace” in the old west. Virgil Earp was a U.S. Marshal who hired his famous brothers Wyatt and Morgan and gunslinger Doc Holliday as deputies in 1881 when they faced the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton in the infamous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. U.S. Marshals were active during Prohibition arresting bootleggers and confiscating their equipment. In 1956 the government created the Executive Office of U.S. Marshals and directed that the main duties of a U.S. marshal centered in the federal courts.

Today’s U.S. Marshal

U.S. Marshals protect federal courts, including their personnel and buildings, and serve federal warrants. They apprehend fugitives, and protect federal witnesses. In fact, they administer the Federal Witness Protection Program. Sometimes they are called upon to transport federal prisoners. Marshals also manage and sell property that is seized by the federal government. There are 94 marshals in each federal court district. U.S. Marshals are no longer appointed to their positions either.

How to Become a Marshal

People wanting to become marshals must have bachelor’s degrees or three years of related job experience. They must be U.S. Citizens between 21 and 36 years old in good physical condition, have a valid driver’s license and be able to pass a background check. Applicants who are hired must complete a 17 ½ week academy that includes classroom work and physical training. Some of the required courses of the academy are Courtroom Evidence, Court Security, Officer Survival and Prisoner Search and Restraint. They also learn CPR/First Aid and Self Defense.

Related Resource: Correctional Counselor

The marshal has a long and exciting history in America. The job has changed over time and become more specialized. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists US Marshal salaries with other law enforcement but other sources quote a much higher salary of $36.89 per hour. The U.S. Marshal today may not look like the fictional Matt Dillon strolling the streets of Dodge City, but he serves in a respected and time-honored profession.