The bagpipe-playing Sheriff—“Scotty” Stirling

It’s hard to imagine that one person could have been elected County Sheriff, County Commissioner, and Laramie City Mayor. Not all at the same time, of course.

 And in addition, he was appointed as undersheriff, police chief and city marshal.

 Clearly, James Stirling (1845 – 1915) was a popular fellow in Laramie. He immigrated to America from his native Scotland around 1873. 

 His good looks, Scottish brogue and musical abilities no doubt made him a well-known figure in early Laramie. Eventually he caught the eye of May Couts (1860-1938), another immigrant to Laramie from Scotland, who was 15 years younger. They were married in 1881 and had five children, three of whom were at home in Laramie at the time of the 1910 census, Jessie, 24; James Jr., age 22; and Edith, age 16.

 James left home in Forfarshire, Scotland in 1860 when his mother died. According to Ann Gorzalka’s book “Wyoming’s Territorial Sheriffs” (1998), at age 15 he lived with a married sister in England and attended school while working as a laborer. Eventually he became a Constable (“Bobby”) in England, but his first job in America was as an Illinois farmworker before coming to Laramie by 1874.

 In that year the Union Pacific Railroad was building a major facility in Laramie, the Rolling Mills, which would take worn out steel rail and remake it into new rails—Laramie’s first recycling plant. He hired onto the construction crew and worked off and on at the mill for many years when he wasn’t drawing a salary from the city or county in law enforcement. No doubt he (along with many other Laramie residents) was saddened when the mill which employed so many in Laramie burned in 1910 and was not rebuilt by the railroad.

 In 1886 he was serving as deputy under Sheriff Louis Miller. He was elected sheriff himself to succeed Miller, serving from 1887 to 1889. Following that, he became undersheriff to the newly-elected Sheriff, Charles Yund. By that time Wyoming had become a state (1890). He continued in law enforcement until his death, as a policeman in Laramie (1892), City Marshall and Chief of Police (1897, 1898, 1903), and undersheriff in 1911 and 1913 according to the Laramie City Directories. At the time of his death in 1915, he had been appointed for another term as Chief of Police for Laramie.

 Gorzalka writes that he was a “powerful figure in Laramie, Wyoming Territory, and Albany County law enforcement.” But he was more than that, since he was elected County Commissioner in 1892, and mayor of Laramie in 1908. He also served as a representative to the State Legislature, and a Laramie City Council member.

 His grandson, Melvin Johnson, told Gorzalka that he played the bagpipes and violin, and was called upon from time to time to dance the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, and other Scottish dances. He was known as “Scotty” around town and as the “Scotch Terrier to hobos along the Union Pacific line, according to his grandson.

 Public service seems to have been bred into the family, since his daughter Edith Stirling Johnson served as the elected Albany County treasurer for many years. Their family home was at 362 North 6th street, which stayed in the family from at least the 1890s through 1970.

 Judy E. Knight

Caption: A studio photo of James and May (Couts) Stirling with children Anna and Elizabeth. They were married in Laramie in 1881 and he was elected Albany County Sheriff in 1887. Photo by Hartwell and Son Photographic Art Gallery, 108 S. 2nd St., Laramie, Wyo. Circa 1890. Laramie Plains Museum, Edith Stirling Johnson Collection.