Badges and The Frontier Lawman

Everyone associates frontier lawmen with what was usually a silver star on their chest. In actuality, it was not common for the original frontier lawman to wear a badge. The towns were small and the people that lived in them knew each other well. It was unnecessary to have a badge for identification for the marshal or constable. Towns grew with the coming of the railroad, mining and the cattle industry. With the increase in strangers arriving there became a need to identify the local “Peace Officer”.

Many of the lawmen had little or no access to a jeweler or metal craftsman with the necessary skills to manufacture an actual “badge”. The local peace officer would have to make his badge from what materials were on hand. Most towns had blacksmiths locally or nearby that could sometimes assist with this task but many badges were made by the individual lawman from tin cans or coins. The term “Tin Star” originated from badges that were cut out from actual tin cans. When coins were used, they would often cut out a star from the center. This practice was followed by the Texas Rangers who used the 1800’s Ocho Reales (pieces of eight) coin which made a comeback in 1962 when the Rangers made their badges from 1947-1948 Cinco Peso silver coins which were slightly larger than the US Silver Dollar.

The star design derived from the settler’s English heritage. The Heraldry of the their original home where stars were used on the armor of Knights carried over to the frontier lawman. The town marshal had become the protector knight to the citizens of his town and the tradition continues even now. Modern lawmen continue to follow their “Knight” predecessors in their mission to protect the people they serve wearing the traditional star of the “Lawman”.

The President And The Badge Collector…

Did you know that Elvis Presley was a police badge collector? Did you know that he had a US President help him with his collection? I didn’t either but it’s true.

The story reportedly took place on December 21, 1970 but the initial planning began a few days earlier. Elvis’ father and wife, Priscilla complained that Elvis had spent far too much money on Christmas. He (Elvis) reportedly purchased 32 handguns and a number of Mercedes-Benz’s which cost him a little more than $100,000.00. (Quite a sum in 1970). Elvis left the discussion and took off ending up at the White House. Priscilla Presley wrote (in Elvis and Me) that Elvis was wanting a Federal Narcotics Badge believing that if he had one, he could legally travel wearing guns and carrying any drugs that he wished.

Elvis had been a badge collector and gun collector for some time but the Federal badge was apparently very special to him. At sometime around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with his bodyguard . Elvis brought a gift with him – a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a glass display case that came from Elvis’ private collection. The Secret Service took Elvis to meet with President Nixon in the Oval Office.

Elvis Presley ended up receiving a Federal badge for his collection from President Nixon. The ‘King of Rock and Roll’ and the President of the United States had their picture taken at the meeting and you can apparently get your very own copy of that picture at the “Archives Gift Shop”. If you don’t happen to be near the Gift Shop, I checked and T-Shirts and photos are available on eBay.
Elvis was able to receive commissions and become an honorary police officer at departments all over the United States. If you make it to Graceland, you can see Elvis’ badge (with his name on it) making him an honorary agent for the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Early Law Enforcement Badge Facts

It is recorded that the City of Pittsburgh, PA designed and adopted what may be the first police badge worn in the US. Even though this may be accurate, we know that the city of Philadelphia, PA was the first actual police department. In 1663, they established a safety patrol in a Swedish area of the City.

By 1700, Philadelphia had a growing population and increased their efforts to protect citizens with what was called the “Town Watch”. This served as a rudimentary form of policing carried out by
volunteers until 1751 when the town “General Assembly” organized a paid police force. They used “wardens” and “constables” to patrol the City in order to maintain law and order. It was not until 1854 that Philadelphia formed an organized Police Department.

We have quite a history of law enforcement here in the United States. We may call those responsible for enforcing our laws police officers, troopers, sheriffs, constables, rangers, peace officers, or
marshals. Regardless of title, these men and women have a rich history.

Note: Many people suggest that Boston had the first actual police department. BPD was established in 1838 and is the 3 rd oldest municipal police department to be formed in the United States , after Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia.