Ask the Marshall
- Written by Marshall Trimble
- Published August 31, 2010
What role did the bondsman play on behalf of Old West sheriffs?
Show Low, Arizona
A bondsman is a person who provides bond or surety for another. In the relationship between a sheriff and a bondsman, the latter assumed financial responsibility for the former. It’s much the same as a bail bondsman who puts up 10 percent of an accused person’s bail and guarantees that person will show up for trial. If the accused jumps bail, the bondsman has to forfeit his bond money. He would then hire a bounty hunter to round up the accused and bring the accused to trial. I’ve read bounty hunters were about 90-percent successful in bringing in their man.
Sheriffs usually filed two bonds, one for shrievalty (meaning the office, term and jurisdiction) and the other as tax collector. Posting a bond was standard procedure for all public officials who collected or disbursed public funds. In this case, the bond served as a guarantee that the sheriff would faithfully discharge his duties.
A newly-elected sheriff could sometimes have difficulty finding a surety on his bonds. Before an election, many sheriffs solicited commitments from friends or supporters to put up the money, which usually amounted to 10 percent.
As an example of the dollar amount expected in the Old West era, in 1871, the Arizona Territorial Assembly required a $10,000 bond supported by three sureties whose total wealth exceeded that amount. That figure could be much higher depending on the value of the assessed taxable property in the county.
If a sheriff were to lose his surety for some reason, he would have to find another or risk being removed from office.