I was recently watching Westward Ho, one of the many dozens of B Westerns I have in my collection, and it struck me that until the 1940’s vigilantes were most often portrayed in the movies as the good guys. Following the credits at the beginning of Westward Ho we read, “This picture is dedicated to the Vigilantes . . . builders of the New Empire of the West . . . stern frontiersmen of the days of ’49. Men who gave their lives to purge the new frontier of lawlessness.”
The 1935 movie stars a lean and youthfully handsome John Wayne. The beautiful Sheila Bromley, a former Miss California, is his love interest, and a lanky Frank McGlynn, Jr., plays his long-lost brother. John Wayne’s character forms a vigilante organization and sets out to fight outlaws and find his brother. There are fistfights, gun battles, and chases aplenty, and great stunt riding by Yakima Canutt and other Gower Gulch cowboys. Throughout the movie the vigilantes, at great risk to themselves, are ridding the frontier of thieving and murderous miscreants.
Westward Ho and other B Westerns were far more accurate in portraying the nature of vigilantism in the Old West than most of what came later. The same is true of literature. Thomas J. Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana, published in 1866 in Montana—making it the first book published in the Territory—is nothing less than a tribute to the work of the vigilantes. Dimsdale was an Oxford-educated and tubercular Englishman who came to the American West for his health. He arrived in Virginia City, Montana, in 1863 and established the mining camp’s first school. A year later he became editor of the Montana Post, the region’s first newspaper. He remained in that position until dying of consumption in 1866 at the age of 35.
Dimsdale’s years in Virginia City coincided with the peak of gold mining in Alder Gulch. In 1864 alone gold worth $30 million—more than three billion in today’s dollars—was taken from placer deposits. The Alder Gulch towns of Virginia City and Nevada City, separated by only two miles, boomed, and 70 miles to the west so, too, did Bannack, which had its own spectacular gold strike on Grasshopper Creek. Men toting bags of gold dust, flakes, and nuggets were soon leaving their claims and headed home to the states.
During the fall of 1863 a series of murders and robberies occurred that aroused the citizenry. In October, Lloyd Magruder, a merchant from Lewiston, Idaho, was returning home from Virginia City with $12,000 in gold, the proceeds from selling goods to the miners. He had hired several men to help him with his wagons and provide protection. He didn’t know some of the men belonged to a gang of outlaws. They murdered him and his other employees, and took his gold. Also in October, a stagecoach traveling between Rattlesnake Ranch and Bannack was held up, and highwaymen relieved the passengers of $2,800 in gold.
In November, a teenage boy, employed by Wilbur Sanders and Sidney Edgerton to care for their horses, was waylaid by three masked men. He had no gold on him and was let go, although the men told him if he talked about what had happened he’d be killed. The boy told his employers of the incident and said he recognized one of the men as Henry Plummer. His employers thought he must be mistaken because Plummer was the sheriff at Bannack. Then a stagecoach on its way to Bannack from Virginia City was stopped by three men, who took $1,000 in gold from the passengers. LeRoy Southmayd, one of the passengers, thought he recognized the men and told Sheriff Plummer all about it. On his way back to Virginia City he was stopped by several men and told to keep his mouth shut, or he’d be killed. At the end of November, Conrad Kohrs, destined to become one of the great cattle barons of Montana, was on a cattle-buy trip with $5,000 on his person when he passed through Bannack. In a conversation with Sheriff Plummer, he mentioned the money he carried. Once again out on the trail, Kohrs found himself the target of road agents, but the blooded horse he rode proved too fast for those of his pursuers.
Early in December the frozen body of Nicholas Tiebolt, a popular young German immigrant, was discovered. He had been shot through the head, and a pouch of gold he was known to have been carrying was missing. Then a wagon train carrying freight and $80,000 in gold was attacked, but, in a blazing gun battle, the highwaymen were driven off. A week later a man driving cattle into Virginia City for sale was shot at but narrowly escaped. There were also reports of several men who left the diggings with gold they had washed from their placers who had simply disappeared out on the trail.
As a result of these murders, disappearances, and robberies the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch was organized just after Christmas. Its membership consisted of many men who would later become prominent in Montana history, including Wilbur Sanders, the first senator from Montana; Sidney Edgerton, the first governor of Montana Territory; John Bozeman, who pioneered the Bozeman Trail and established the town of Bozeman; and Nathaniel Langford, the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Although a couple of modern-day writers have tried to ascribe hidden economic and political motives to the vigilantes, they simply don’t fit neatly into any category. They were miners, merchants, teamsters, cattle ranchers, newspapermen, pioneers and newcomers, Republicans and Democrats.
For their president the vigilantes elected Paris Pfouts, who had cofounded the vigilance committee with Wilbur Sanders. Despite his Ohio birth and rearing, Pfouts was pro-slavery and supported the Confederacy. On the other hand, Sanders was an abolitionist who had served as an officer with an Ohio infantry regiment and had fought and been wounded in the Battle of Shiloh. A practicing lawyer, Sanders would be elected Official Prosecutor for the vigilance committee.
Within days the ranks of the vigilantes had swelled to more than a hundred and by early 1864 to several hundred. They were organized in military fashion into companies and squads, all with elected officers. Everyone reported through a chain of command right up to an executive committee of 17 and President Pfouts. There was a formal constitution and a set of bylaws.
The vigilantes soon had companies of men in the field capturing suspects. From victims of various robberies and attacks, the vigilantes had descriptions and several name identifications of highwaymen. When they captured suspects, the vigilantes also got incriminating evidence and confessions. They learned Sheriff Plummer was the leader of the gang, which surprised some of the vigilantes but confirmed the long-held suspicions of others. They also learned the gang members identified one another by repeating the phrase “I’m innocent” and knotting their neckerchiefs in a particular manner. Moreover, it was revealed that Rattlesnake Ranch, which had long been notorious for the many hard characters who were often there, served as something of a headquarters for the gang.
By February 1864 the vigilantes had hanged Plummer and 20 others, including those with the colorful monikers Greaser Joe, Red, Clubfoot, Dutch, Buck, and Whiskey Bill. The vigilantes probably banished as many men as they hanged, although we have no records of the numbers. Then, too, some of the Plummer gang members escaped, including Rattlesnake Dick, Cherokee Bob, and Irwin of Big Hole. A dime novelist could not have invented a better cast of characters.
The Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch was typical of such organizations that sprang up in the mining camps of the Old West from the Mother Lode country of California in the 1850’s and in other states and territories in the Far West during the next three decades. Americans rejected any suggestion that government had a monopoly on violence and thought they themselves had not only a right but a duty to defend themselves and preserve their way of life. Unfortunately, few Americans today know much about the vigilance committees in the Old West, and I suspect most Americans would confuse vigilance committees with lynch mobs. The latter represented wild outbursts of anger—emotion trumping reason—that was expended in a matter of hours. Lynch mobs were unruly and unorganized, and actually rare in the Old West.
Much of the blurring of lynch mobs with vigilantes comes from novels and movies beginning in the 1940’s and from television since the 1950’s. In addition to the misleading conflation, there is a theme that became popular at the same time and has remained so ever since: The men hanged were innocent. Walter Van Tilburg Clark may not have been the first to develop this theme, but he certainly inspired dozens of other novelists and screenwriters to produce works in a similar vein.
Clark was born in Maine and reared in New York City until he was nine. His father was the chair of the economics department at the City College of New York and took his family to Reno when he was named the new president of the University of Nevada. Clark would graduate from Reno High School and then earn a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the university that had brought his family west. Clark was active with the campus theater group while at the university and had something of the thespian in him.
After receiving his M.A. in 1931 he left for the East and further graduate work at the University of Vermont, studying poetry and philosophy. Two years later he was married and teaching English at a high school in New York. It was while teaching that he wrote his first and most successful novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, published in 1940. Beautifully crafted and poignant, and set in Nevada in 1885, it tells the story of three men hanged by vigilantes, who soon afterward learn they have killed innocent men. One of the vigilantes commits suicide as a result. Critics loved it. Some called it the first “modern” western. Others called it the first “serious” western. Clark certainly meant it to be serious, saying his aim was a deep psychological study of men and evil. Hollywood loved it and bought the rights to the book. In 1943 a movie of the same name was released, starring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews. It would be nominated for Best Picture.
As a work of fiction The Ox-Bow Incident is superb, but it has next to nothing in common with the vigilance committees that operated in the Old West. “I don’t think they made any mistake in hanging anybody,” said Alexander Toponce, a prominent merchant and freighter in Bannack and Alder Gulch at the time. “The only mistake they made was about fifty percent of those whom they merely banished should have been hung instead, as quite a number of these men were finally hung.”