During the coldest days of the winter
of 1864 in the Idaho Territory, while most folks were doing their best
to keep the hearth warm and the animals fed, a small corps of horsemen
rode across the frozen earth on a deadly mission. Fueled by a potent
of fear and righteousness, they scoured the foothills of the Rocky
for troublemakers who had been terrorizing the territory's gold rush
robbing stagecoaches and starting brawls in saloons.
In six weeks, the horsemen apprehended twenty-one suspects and brought them to justice at the end of a rope. None of the men were formally accused or put to a jury trial. All were presumed guilty and executed without question. One of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer.
The vigilantes did their work free of doubt or remorse and their neighbors praised them. Most of the lynchings took place in broad daylight, sometimes in the center of town. Rules of law and conventions of due process were ignored. Establishing order was deemed most important; the community's very survival was at stake.
In late 1863, residents of the Bannack and Alder Gulch camps had reason to be concerned. Many rough characters were drawn to news of their gold strikes and gunplay was not uncommon. A young boy had been murdered a few weeks earlier and two stages had been robbed. Yet, a relatively few incidents inspired unquestioned accounts of more than 100 atrocities and presumed threats to everyone's security.
Mary Edgerton, wife of the chief justice in the Idaho Territory, wrote to family members in Ohio that the suspects had "committed about one hundred murders -- and these murders had not been discovered by the people here. The victims were those who had made money and had started for the States. They were murdered and robbed and then their bodies, some of them, cut into pieces and put under the ice, others burned and others buried."
When Sheriff Plummer, who had quelled vigilantes before in the town of Lewiston, publicly stated that he intended to put a stop to the hanging spree, the vigilantes turned on him and accused him of being the ringleader of the criminals. He was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night, marched at gunpoint to some pines up a lonely gulch and slowly hoisted by the neck until he strangled beneath a moonless sky.
The vigilantes were regarded as heroes by some, and still are to this day. Sheriff Plummer's reputation, once admirable, was effectively destroyed. There would be order on the American frontier, its newest residents insisted, with or without the law.
Historian Frederick Allen, whose history of the vigilantes -- A Decent Orderly Lynching" -- concludes that they were justified in fighting back against violent crime on the frontier when there was no effective government to protect them. But contrary to popular belief, the vigilantes did not disband after Plummer was hanged.
"The remained active for several years afterward, using the cheap, efficient tool of preemptive justice to purge the region of criminals, vagrants, and ordinary nuisances," Allen reports. "Long after the federal government established courts and sent judges to Montana Territory, the vigilantes continued to carry out extra-legal executions, denying their targets due process and the presumption of innocense. Over a six-year period they killed a total of fifty men, many of whom were not guilty of capital crimes, some of whom were not guilty of any crimes at all."
Allen's history takes a close look at the characters involved and finds Sheriff Plummer neither a blameless victim nor a rabid criminal, and the members of the vigilance committees less than heroic and not without ulterior motives. The good-versus-evil morality play gets confusing when innocent people are tormented and the avengers turn to bullies.
While we want protection against terrorists and severe punishments for their criminal behavior, we also need laws and courts and governments that observe them. Seeking out and killing someone who might have murdered, or who may someday commit murder, is a frightful policy.
In trying times, it seems, we must choose between two evils. Do we follow the rule of law, endure its imperfections and risk losing to our enemies? Or do we suspend the law for those who would do us harm and risk destroying ourselves.
Stories like this one, out of our not-so-distant past, caution us to look both ways at such a crossroads.
The Greatest Cowboy Stories Ever Told
Incredible Tales of the Western Frontier
by Stephen Brennan
The Lyons Press, 2005.
"Billy the Kid was not the stuff of ordinary men. There must have been in him a remarkable capacity for forgetfulnees... For him there was no past. He lived in the present from minute to minute, yet he lived happily. He killed without emotion and he accepted the consequences of his killings without emotion. His murders were the strong liquor that left no headache."
Walter Noble Burns
The Saga of Billy the Kid
of cowboy literature, mostly from the early 20th century, shows the
West mythology being shaped and exagerrated and reinforced. The stories
are boldly presented, colorfully written, and almost never historically
accurate. The writers in this selection of nearly two dozen tales
Mark Twain, Frederic Remington, Karl May, Tom Horn and Max Brand, as
as contemporary authors John Graves, Tom McGuane and Larry McMurtry.
Long George Francis
Gentleman Outlaw of Montana
by Gary A. Wilson
A Decent, Orderly Lynching
The Montana Vigilantes
by Frederick Allen
A Tenderfoot in Montana
Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes, and the Birth of Montana Territory
by Francis M. Thompson