Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 13:1 (Winter 1993). Copyright © 1993 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


With the formation of the United States military establishment in the late eighteenth century, the new army undertook many services in the developing republic, including several associated with the frontier movement. While the army considered the suppression of hostile Indians its primary mission in the West, its soldiers routinely supported civilian law enforcement authorities. After the Civil War, white criminals accompanied other American frontiersmen onto the northern Plains, where white desperadoes soon posed a serious problem. In the late 1870s they descended upon the Black Hills mining camps and looted stagecoaches in alarming numbers; brazenly robbed Union Pacific trains and threatened to disrupt their schedules; plundered Sioux, Arapahoe, and other Indian horse herds as well as those of white settlers; and even preyed upon military property. This lawless onslaught threatened to overwhelm the nascent law enforcement agencies of Wyoming, Dakota, and neighboring districts. Had the United States Army not reinforced the county sheriffs and United States marshals, this frontier crime wave of the 1870s might have been worse.