The tradition of vigilante justice in Montana began in the 1860s in what was then a remote part of the eastern Idaho Territory. At this point in history the territorial courts had very little power in the remote mining camps of what would eventually become western Montana. Vigilantes in Montana first came into existence to bring order to what was becoming a lawless community. The Montana Vigilantes have been both celebrated and condemned throughout history. Some believe that they hung innocent people to further their own personal interests while others believe that they were normal people standing up to the entirely unchecked criminal element of their society.
Bannack and Virginia City
In the 1860s the Eastern Idaho Territorial settlements of Bannack and Virginia City were booming. They were both placer gold mining communities where large amounts of gold were being extracted routinely. Like most frontier mining settlements Bannack and Virginia City were full of uneducated people seeking an easy fortune, and of course there was no shortage of saloons. On top of that firearms were standard attire for the residents of any frontier mining community. This meant that the streets of Bannack and Virginia City were full of uneducated miners who often carried fire arms and large amounts of gold, while spending much of their funds and free time drinking at local saloons. In combination with a lack of justice system this environment spawned the first Montana Vigilantes.
In this environment some saw an opportunity and it soon became common for miners and the freighters who transported both gold and supplies, to be robbed and murdered. As this became a more frequent occurrence locals began suspecting that these crimes were being carried out by a single group of outlaws that became known as 'road agents'. Later in Montana history this became a catch all term for outlaws who ambushed innocent people on the roads.
Prior to the creation of the Montana Territory on May 26, 1864 and the arrival of the territorial courts the only court system available for the residents of Bannack and Virginia City were the informal miners' courts. The miners' court was generally limited to small matters that could not be resolved by the individuals involved. They were not set up for major crimes.
While there are not many of accounts of the early court, probably due to their informality and short existence, John X. Beidler recalled a murder trial in the Virginia City miners' court in his memoirs. The trial recalled by Beidler occurred in the fall of 1863. It concerned the matter of the murder of J.W. Dillingham. The trial was held outside, due to the fact that every resident took part.
In the end all three defendants were set free. The first, Charley Forbes, was freed after he gave an eloquent and sentimental speech about his mother. The other two, Buck Stinson and Haze Lyons, were convicted and set to be the first men executed in what would become the state of Montana. However, at what would be a very public hanging friends and sympathizers of Stinson and Lyons convinced the crowd to vote again on the execution. Two attempts at counting the vote were made according to Beidler. The first people voting 'hang' were to walk up-hill while those voting 'no hang' were to walk down-hill. This vote was rejected and the next attempt had four men form two gates and people would cast their vote by walking through the 'hang' gate or the 'no hang' gate. Biedler claims that friends of the condemned men simply walked through the 'no hang' gate multiple times casting multiple fraudulent votes that possibly allowed two murderers to walk free.
In December of the same year a similar trial was held. Although, this time the defendant, George Ives, was hung for the murder of a young German immigrant named Nicholas Tbolt. Hundreds of miners from around the area attended the trial. The trial lasted three Montana December days and like the previous trial it was held outside. While the Ives Trial resulted in an execution many residents were frustrated by the cumbersome process that could easily be manipulated. This sentiment is illustrated by a quote from Thomas Dimsdale who wrote the first published account of the Montana Vigilantes, originally written in 1865 as a series of articles for the Montana Post and later compiled into a book.
"Another powerful incentive to wrong-doing is the absolute nulity of the civil law in such cases. No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community 'Not Guilty' is almost certain to be the verdict, despite the efforts of the judge and prosecutor."
Formation of the Vigilance Committee
In the winter following the Ives Trial a group of local residents formed a secret vigilance committee with an established set of "regulations and byelaws". The vigilance committee started as a small secret institution in Virginia City, but it soon spread, recruiting members throughout the territory. Due to the secret nature of the organization it is difficult to be sure when an execution was carried out by the vigilance committee or another group of motivated citizens. In the months following the Ives trial many suspected road agents were hanged. Notably, Henry Plummer, the Sheriff of Bannack, MT, was suspected by many of being the ringleader of the road agents and subsequently hanged. The Montana Vigilantes hanged men using the testimony of other men who faced their imminent executions as the sole evidence. Of the few accounts of the early actions of the Montana Vigilantes Beidler and Dimsdale are the most complete. Though they give little information about the secret trial of the vigilantes. Estimates vary, but it is believed that between the years 1863 and 1865 somewhere from 15 to 35 people were killed due to the actions of the vigilantes.
Later Vigilante Activity in Montana
While the area that made up the territories First District, around the former mining camps of Bannack, Virginia City and Nevada City, experienced a drop in crime the Third District around Helena and the Last Chance Gulch area began to witness the rise of a criminal element. Residents of the Third District saw how the reputation for swift vigilante justice helped to deter crime around Virginia City and began calling for similar action.
By the 1870s Montana as a whole was experiencing what Montana historian Frederic Allen described as a "sort of pax vigilanticus" Allen claims this was due to the reputation for summary executions and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. This drew many of the prospectors and camp followers out of Montana reducing the sector of the population more closely associated with crime.
- Dimsdale, Thomas J. The Vigilantes of Montana. Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press 1953.
- ^ "An Act to provide a temporary Government for the Territory of Montana" (PDF). Thirty-sixth United States Congress. 1864-05-26. Archived from the original on 2007-01-12. Retrieved 2007-01-20.
- Beidler, John Xavier. X. Beidler Vigilante. Ed Helen F. Sanders and William H. Bertsche Jr. Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.
- Hoffman, Birney. Vigilantes. Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Co, 1929.
- Allen, Frederick. "Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 51.1 (Spring, 2001): 2–19 (This information appears in footnote 58, p 16.)
- Allen, Frederick. "Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 51.1 (Spring, 2001): 2–19
- Dimsdale, Thos. J (1915). The vigilantes of Montana; or, Popular justice in the Rocky mountains; being a correct and impartial narrative of the chase, trial, capture, and execution of Henry Plummer's road agent band, together with accounts of the lives and crimes of many of the robbers and desperadoes, the whole being interspersed with sketches of life in the mining camps of the Far West (Third ed.). Retrieved 2014-05-21.