ask the marshall trimble true west

How prevalent were bounty hunters?

Tom Betts
Anaheim, California

In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of law enforcement. Bounty hunters had more leeway when pursuing a fugitive; they didn’t have to follow the rule of due process that lawmen did. They could pursue outlaws across state or territorial lines, and they could break into and enter his house. Jack Duncan, a former Texas Ranger who helped capture John Wesley Hardin, was one of the best known back then.

But peace officers or detectives were the ones who commonly collected bounties, to supplement their meager incomes. For instance, in New Mexico Territory, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett collected the reward for his 1881 killing of
Billy the Kid.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, e-mail him at

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