ask the marshall true west magazine

How did wagon trains keep law and order on the trail?

Alan Shope
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania

The wagon master was the man in charge.  He knew the trails and had experience getting through the trials and travails of the trail safely.

In addition, most wagon train groups elected a council that held court for breaches of discipline. Usually, the wagon master acted as judge, but it might fall to someone else of character or position (like a preacher).

The cases they considered varied. But the council often settled disputes as well as judged people accused of crimes on the trail. The usual punishment for serious breach of discipline—rape or murder—was banishment, firing squad or hanging. It was estimated that in the peak year of wagon travel, more than 50 murders were committed.

One of the most unusual stories of banishment was that of James and Margaret Reed. The couple and their children were members of the ill-fated Donner Party on their way to California in 1846. Trouble started when Reed took umbrage at a teamster named John Snyder for whipping an ox. The two exchanged words, then Snyder whacked Reed with his bullwhip. Reed pulled a hunting knife and killed him. A trial was held and Reed faced hanging but was banished instead and forced to leave his wife and children. Ironically, Reed made it safely to California and several weeks later, led one of the parties to rescue the stranded survivors.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.

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