A vigilance committee was a group formed of private citizens to administer law and order where they considered governmental structures to be inadequate. The term is commonly associated with the frontier areas of the American West in the mid-19th century, where groups attacked cattle rustlers and gangs, and people at gold mining claims. As such groups operated outside the law, they sometimes took excessive actions and killed innocent people. In the years prior to the Civil War, groups worked to free slaves and transport them to freedom.
In the West
In the western United States, both before and after the Civil War, the primary purpose of these committees was to maintain law and order and administer summary justice where governmental law enforcement was inadequate. In the newly settled areas, vigilance committees provided security, and mediated land disputes. In ranching areas, they ruled on ranch boundaries, registered brands, and protected cattle and horses. In the mining districts, they protected claims, settled claim disputes, and attempted to protect miners and other residents. In California, some residents formed vigilance committees to take control from officials whom they considered to be corrupt.
Vigilance committees were generally abandoned when the conditions favoring their creation ceased to exist. In the west, as governmental jurisdiction increased to the degree that courts could dispense justice, residents abandoned the committees.
Vigilance committees, by their nature, lacked an outside set of checks and balances, leaving them open for excesses and abuse.
In the West, the speed of the vigilance committees and lack of safeguards sometimes led to the innocent being hanged or to their just disappearing. A few committees were taken over by fraudulent individuals seeking profit or political office.
- Philadelphia Vigilance Committee; 1840s & 1850s, abolitionists who worked to subvert the Fugitive Slave Act and helped escaped slaves, including Henry Box Brown.
- Know-Nothing Riot; 1850s, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Jackson County, Indiana Vigilance Committee (aka Scarlet Mask Society or Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee), 1868 - captured and hanged 10 members of the Reno Gang
- Committee of Vigilance; 1851 & 1856, San Francisco, California
- 3-7-77 Vigilance Committee; 1860s-1870s, Virginia City, Montana
- Anti Horse Thief Association; 1860s, organized at Fort Scott, Kansas
- Baldknobbers; 1880s, Taney, Christian and Greene Counties, Missouri
Other nations and times
- Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
- Whitechapel Vigilance Committee; 1888, London, UK - founded to capture Jack the Ripper.
- Black Panther Party; 1960s, formed by African American activists against police brutality and oppression.
In film and media
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a movie directed by William A. Wellman, based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (19xx). The story tells of a group of men pursuing cattle rustlers, capturing and hanging them, and the moral consequences.
Other uses of the term
- Vigilance Committee is also a term used by some interest groups who monitor the actions of others.
- Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984. ISBN 0-520-06026-1