Wilbur F. Sanders

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Wilbur Fisk Sanders
Wilbur Fisk Sanders, Senator of Montana. He was the prosectuting lawyer for the Vigilantes against the "Road Agents" in Virginia City, Montana.
United States Senator
from Montana
In office
January 1, 1890 – March 3, 1893
Preceded byNone
Succeeded byLee Mantle
Personal details
Wilbur Fisk Sanders

(1834-05-02)May 2, 1834
Leon, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 7, 1905(1905-07-07) (aged 71)
Helena, Montana, U.S.
Resting placeForestvale Cemetery, Helena, Montana
Political partyRepublican
SpouseHarriet P. Fenn
ChildrenJames, Wilbur E., and Louis
OccupationLawyer, politician
Military service
Years of service1861-1862
RankFirst Lieutenant
Unit64th Ohio Infantry
Battles/warsBattle of Shiloh

Wilbur Fisk Sanders (May 2, 1834 – July 7, 1905) was a United States senator from Montana. A leading pioneer and a skilled lawyer, Sanders played a prominent role in the development of Montana Territory and the state's early political history.

Early life[edit]

Sanders was born in Leon, Cattaraugus County, New York, to Ira and Freedom (Edgerton) Sanders. His father was a farmer originally from Rhode Island, and his mother a native of Connecticut.[1] Being a devout Methodist, Ira Sanders named his firstborn son after a hero of his faith, the founding president of Wesleyan University, Willbur Fisk (the name was often misspelled by his contemporaries with one "l," instead of two). Family stories tell of a precocious child displaying a keen intellect and studious character. Wilbur attended the common schools in New York and afterward taught school himself.[2]

Following his mother's wishes, Sanders moved to Akron, Ohio, in 1854, where he continued teaching and studied law under his uncle, Sidney Edgerton. His Uncle Sidney, 16 years his elder, exercised a profound impact on his life.[2] Also born in western New York, Edgerton had moved to Akron ten years earlier and rose to prominence under the tutelage of the veteran Ohio politician and lawyer Rufus P. Spalding.[3] Edgerton likewise took Sanders under his wing. Sanders gained admission to the bar in 1856, and he and Edgerton soon entered a law partnership.[4] Edgerton had become involved with the Free Soil Party in the 1840s, and by the mid-1850s, around the time Sanders joined him in Akron when his political activities had shifted to the fledgling Republican Party.[3] Sanders followed his uncle's political development.

On October 27, 1858, Sanders married Harriet P. Fenn, a native of Ohio. They had five children, but only three survived into adulthood: James, Wilbur E., and Louis.[5]

Civil War[edit]

During the Civil War, he recruited a company of infantry and a battery of artillery in the summer of 1861 and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 64th Regiment, Ohio Infantry, of which he was made adjutant. Sanders served in the Battle of Shiloh, and later in 1862, he assisted in the construction of defenses along the railroads south of Nashville. His family reported that he resigned from the army in August 1862 following an illness aggravated by a wound.[2] He returned to his family in Akron, Ohio.

Montana Territory[edit]

He settled in that part of Idaho Territory, which later became Montana, where he engaged in the practice of law and also became interested in mining and stock raising. He was a young lawyer when he moved to Montana (Bannack[6]) in 1863. He was there before courts were organized and, being one of the first permanent settlers, took a prominent part extralegal activities in the territory. He was a founder of the infamous Montana Vigilantes, using his position as a lawyer to cover for the gang's summary murders.[7] In December 1863, Sanders led the prosecution of George Ives as the murderer of Nicolas Tiebolt in Nevada City, Montana. Ives was convicted and hanged on December 21, 1863.[8] The George Ives trial initiated a period of vigilantism, extrajudicial killings orchestrated in part by Sanders that eventually brought an end to thefts and murders by "road agents" in the Virginia City region. Sanders was one of the five original organizers of the Alder Gulch Vigilance Committee, which was formed on December 23, 1863 in Virginia City, Montana.[9] As a ringleader of the Vigilantes, Sanders was implicated in the mysterious 1867 death of acting territorial governor Thomas Francis Meagher, who had opposed vigilantism and its associated Freemasonry and Protestantism. Meagher was also a formidable political opponent well-positioned to outrun Sanders in any future bid for office once Montana was granted statehood.[10]

In his career as an attorney, Sanders gained a reputation for representing minority defendants, including Chinese and Indians. In a sensational 1881 trial, Sanders led the defense for Ah Wah and Ah Yen, Chinese miners on trial for murder. Sanders argued reasonable doubt and lack of evidence, and the Montana Territorial Supreme Court acquitted the defendants.[11]

In 1873, Sanders became a member of the Territorial Legislature. Also, he realized the importance of preserving early records and was for thirty years the president of the Montana Historical Society, established in 1865. He accumulated newspapers and documents in his law office. Sanders was a founding member of the Society of Montana Pioneers and served as its secretary (1884) and president (1888). [12]

He unsuccessfully ran as a Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives in 1864, 1867, 1880, and 1886 and was a member of the Territorial House of Representatives of Montana from 1873 to 1879.

State of Montana[edit]

Upon the admission of Montana as a State into the Union, he was elected as a Republican to the US Senate and served from January 1, 1890, to March 3, 1893. While in the Senate, he was the chairman of the Committee on Enrolled Bills in the Fifty-second Congress.

In the 1890s, Sanders represented the Chinese community in Butte, Montana, against labor unions boycotting Chinese businesses.[13]

Sanders died in Helena, Montana, at 71, and was interred in Forestvale Cemetery there. Sanders County, Montana, is named in his honor.


  1. ^ Sanders, Helen Fitzgerald (1913). A History of Montana (Vol. 2 ed.). Chicago and New York: The Lewis Publishing Company. p. 851. Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Sanders II, W. F.; Taylor, Robert T., eds. (1983). Biscuits and Badmen: The Sanders' Story in Their Own Words. Butte, Montana: Editorial Review Press. p. 3.
  3. ^ a b Thane Jr., James L. (October 1976). "An Ohio Abolitionist in the Far West: Sidney Edgerton and the Opening of Montana, 1863-1866". Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 67 (4): 151. JSTOR 40489499.
  4. ^ Burlingame, Merrill G. (1998). "Sanders, Wilbur Fisk". In Lamar, Howard (ed.). The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 1007.
  5. ^ A.W. Bowen & Co. Progressive Men of the State of Montana. Chicago: A.W. Bowen & Co. pp. 35–36. Retrieved August 31, 2015.
  6. ^ Montana's State Capitol: The People's House - Kirby Lambert, Patricia Mullan Burnham, Susan R. Near p.82? (archive)
  7. ^ Egan, Timothy (2017). "New Ireland". The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780544272880.
  8. ^ Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "The Murder of Nicolas Tiebolt and the Trial and Execution of George Ives". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 89–118. ISBN 9780874219197.
  9. ^ Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "Formation of the Vigilance Committee". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 119–134. ISBN 9780874219197.
  10. ^ Egan, Timothy (2017). "Inquest For Ireland". The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780544272880.
  11. ^ Arata, Laura J. (Spring 2012). "Beyond the 'Mongolian Muddle': Reconsidering Virginia City, Montana's China War of 1881". Montana The Magazine of Western History. 62 (1): 33. JSTOR 23127846. Retrieved March 19, 2021.
  12. ^ Sanders, James U., ed. (1899). "State Society Officers". Society of Montana Pioneers-Constitution, Members, Officers with Portraits and Maps... (PDF). Montana Society of Pioneers. pp. xxi–xxvi.
  13. ^ Brian Shovers. "Butte, Montana" Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006. Credo Reference. Web. 3 September 2014

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
U.S. senator (Class 1) from Montana
Served alongside: Thomas C. Power
Succeeded by