Law and Order in Buffalo Bill's Country


Law and Order in Buffalo Bill's Country

Legal Culture and Community on the Great Plains, 1867-1910

Mark R. Ellis

Law in the American West Series

300 pages
21 photographs, index


July 2009


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eBook (PDF)
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November 2007


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About the Book

Celebrated accounts of lawless towns that relied on the extra-legal justice of armed citizens and hired gunmen are part of the enduring cultural legacy of the American West. This image of the frontier has been fueled for more than a century by historians—both amateur and academic—and by various popular images. In the twenty-first century, Great Plains communities continue to perpetuate this image with tourist attractions and events that pay homage to their “lawless” past. But these romanticized depictions of the violent frontier do not accurately portray the legal culture of most early Great Plains communities.
Law and Order in Buffalo Bill’s Country is a case study of law and legal culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, during the nineteenth century. Mark R. Ellis argues that nascent nineteenth-century Great Plains communities shared an understanding of the law that allowed for the immediate implementation of legal institutions such as courts, jails, and law enforcement. A common legal culture, imported from New England and the Midwest, influenced frontier communities to uphold traditions of law and order even in the “wild and wooly” frontier community of North Platte, Nebraska. This study is one of the first to examine legal institutions on the Great Plains. By setting aside the issue of a violent frontier West and focusing instead on community building and legal institutions, this study presents a very different image of the frontier-era Great Plains.

Author Bio

Mark R. Ellis is an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.


“It is extremely well researched and presented in layman’s terms that all of us nonlawyers can understand.”—Francis Moul, Lincoln Journal Star

"Well worth perusing by anyone interested in how those in the frontier west dealt with issues of crime and justice."—Peter J. Hill, Journal of American History

"Ellis offers a fresh interpretation of the legal culture of the Wild West. Written to dispel the myth of the lawless western culture, this book on Nebraska and the larger Great Plains demonstrates that most communities on the plains contained clearly defined legal systems, and that only on a few occasions did lawlessness appear. . . . This work will provide historians with a better understanding of the West as a tamer place than previously thought."—M. A. Byron, CHOICE

“[The author] has used an impressive variety of sources, including state and county archives, newspapers and relevant secondary works. With them he built a convincing case challenging the accepted view of frontier lawlessness.”—Michael J. Broadhead, Kansas History

“Ellis makes no allusions to today’s debates on criminal justice, but readers can make their own comparisons and will probably want to do so in the light of this thorough and serious monograph.”—Nebraska History

“This is an important book because it emphasizes the rule of law as a core value of Western settlement. It is a point often lost in stories of gunfighters and lawlessness and a reminder that the violent West was a passing phase, not the whole story.”—Wild West History Association Journal

"Ellis's is a well-researched and well-written microstudy of a west central Nebraska community created primarily by the Union Pacific railroad in the late 1860s. . . . This work is yet another important resource in helping historians dismantle perhaps the primary myth that has chronically occluded our accurate understanding of the region's history."—Keith Edgerton, Great Plains Quarterly

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 



Prologue: State of Nebraska v. John Burley   

1. Buffalo Bill's Country: Lincoln County, Nebraska, and Its Crime 

2. Conservators of the Peace: Sheriffs, Deputies, and Railroad Detectives 

3. Receptacles of Crime: Jails, Reformatories, and the State Penitentiary  

4. Regulating a Great Plains Railroad Town: Police Courts, Municipal Ordinances, and the North Platte Police Force  

5. Temples of Justice: Criminal Courts and Their Officers  

6. Hanging Out the Shingle: Lawyers and Legal Communities on the Great Plains

Conclusion: Law and Order in Buffalo Bill's Country  





Finalist for the 2008 Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies
Runner-Up for the 2008 Scribes Book Award, sponsored by the American Society of Legal Writers