Montana Days of Outlaws, Vigilantes and Miners' Courts

While the Civil war was raging most violently from the Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic Coast and the Federal Government was absorbing all its powers in the stupendous task of "putting down the Rebellion," little could be accomplished in the way of organizing the western territories of the national domain. It therefore happened that at the seething period of the early gold discoveries in Montana, when adventurers and desperate men and women were gathering at Bannack and Virginia cities and gold centers of lesser fame; at a time when the strong arm of the law should have been most felt, there was absolutely nothing in the form of constituted authority to protect the respectable and peacefully inclined citizen in the possession of his property and the exercise of his legitimate rights. What made the condition of affairs doubly worse and more desperate for the decent citizen was that the weak organization of public authority which was, for a time evinced, was in the hands of the highwaymen themselves and was only used to protect criminals and hide their crimes.

Enter the Arch Villain

Henry Plummer, an oily, scheming, cold-blooded desperado of good address, who had passed a decade of murders and other crimes in California before he insinuated himself into the wild life of Bannack and Virginia cities, induced the irresponsible men of these communities to elect him sheriff. Thus Plummer was actually sheriff of both places at once. This politic move threw the unfortunate citizens into his hands completely, and by means of his robber deputies, whose legal functions cloaked many a crime-he ruled with a rod of iron. The marvelous riches of the great Alder Gulch attracted crowds from all the West, and afterward from the East also; among whom were many diseased with crime to such an extent that for their cure the only available prescription was a stout cord and a good drop.

Although Plummer had appointed as his deputies, Jack Gallagher, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, the head deputy was a man of another stripe entirely named Dillingham, who had accurate knowledge of the names of the members of the Road Agent Band, and was also acquainted with many of their plans, although he himself was innocent. For revealing information which interfered with the road agents' plans, Dillingham was killed by Charley Forbes and, of course, acquitted. After the failure of justice in the case of the murderers of Dillingham, the state of society, bad as it was, rapidly deteriorated, until a man could hardly venture to entertain the belief that he was safe for a single day.

Enter Strong Men of Law and Order

Those were days in Montana which were as decisive of its destiny as those of the Civil War were for the entire nation, and fortunately the stalwart men who were already on the ground, as well as many who came at the height of the gold excitement, were made of metal which successfully resisted all the fires of evil and stamped them out. Among these newcomers were such men as William A. Clark and Col. W. F. Sanders.

The latter was especially prominent in the days when law and order, the protection of lives and property, rested in the keeping of that stern organization of individuals known as the Vigilantes, which the bands of road agents soon learned to dread as the sinner does the eternal hand of Justice.

J. X. Beidler, a sturdy, broad-shouldered, fearless Pennsylvanian, who had failed in his Colorado ventures, also arrived in Alder Gulch in 1863, and perhaps accomplished as much as any one man in the physical work of running down the desperadoes of Hell's Hole, and Bannack and Virginia cities and bringing them to the hangman's noose. During the later days of his intrepid and effective work he was serving as deputy United States marshal under George M. Pinney.

Both Colonel Sanders, who was the leading prosecuting attorney against the deviltries of the outlaw gang, and Mr. Beidler, its physical Nemesis, have left their recollections and observation of the days in which they were such stirring actors, and Montana writers have always generously drawn upon their contributions in dealing with this epoch. Nathaniel P. Langford and Prof. Thomas Dimsdale have also written about the Vigilantes of Montana about their "days and ways" so that the material for the expansion of the subject is profuse and readily available. Mr. Langford, as sheriff, who preceded Henry Plummer (the chief of the Montana road agents) in that office, ofttimes reported the excitements of 1863-64 from direct observation, although, on the whole, the publication of Professor Dinsdale is considered the more authoritative. Reliance is chiefly placed upon it in the preparation of this chapter. In 1866 Prof. T. Dimsdale published his "Vigilantes of Montana," probably the most reliable account of that period, his intention being, as he says in the introduction to the work, "to furnish a correct history of an organization administering justice without the sanction of constitutional law ; and secondly, to prove not only the necessity for their action, but the equity of their proceedings." The writer has evidence before him that the work is reliable, in a note written on the cover of the copy which he is now consulting by ex-Governor W. R. Marshall, of Minnesota. It reads thus: "This most wonderful chapter in criminal history is strictly true in every particular. I have personally conversed with Langford, Hauser, W. F. Sanders and others who had personal knowledge of the events."

In noting the condition of Montana "society" in the days of vigilante rule, he writes: "The absence of good female society, in any due proportion to the numbers of the opposite sex is likewise an evil of great magnitude; for men become rough, stern and cruel, to a surprising degree, under such a state of things.

"In every frequent street, public gambling houses with open doors and loud music, arc resorted to, in broad daylight, by hundreds, it might almost be said, of all tribes and tongues, furnishing another fruitful source of 'difficulties,' which are commonly decided on the spot, by an appeal to brute force, the stab of a knife, or the discharge of a revolver. Women of easy virtue are to be seen promenading through the camp, habited in the gayest and most costly apparel, and receiving fabulous sums for their purchased favors. In fact, all the temptations to vice are present in full display, with money in abundance to secure the gratification of the desire for novelty and excitement, which is the ruling passion of the mountaineer.

The Hurdy-Gurdy House

"One 'institution,' offering a shadowy and dangerous substitute for more legitimate female association, deserves a more peculiar notice. This is the 'Hurdy-Gurdy' house. As soon as the men have left off work, these places are opened, and dancing commences. Let the reader picture to himself a large room, furnished with a bar at one end, where champagne at $12 (in gold) per bottle, and 'drinks' at twenty-five to fifty cents, are wholesaled (correctly speaking) and divided, at the end of this bar, by a railing running from side to side. The outer enclosure is densely crowded (and, on particular occasions, the inner one also) with men in every variety of garb that can be seen on the continent. Beyond the barrier, sit the dancing women, called 'hurdy-gurdies,' sometimes dressed in uniform, but, more generally, habited according to the dictates of individual caprice, in the finest clothes that money can buy, and which are fashioned in the most attractive styles that fancy can suggest. On one side is a raised orchestra. The music suddenly strikes up, and the summons, 'Take your partners for the next dance,' is promptly answered by some of the male spectators, who paying a dollar in gold for a ticket, approach the ladies' bench, and in style polite, or otherwise, according to antecedents, invite one of the ladies to dance. The number being complete, the parties take their places, as in any other dancing establishment, and pause for the performance of the introductory notes of the air.

"Let us describe a first class dancer, 'sure of a partner every time' and her companion. There she stands at the head of the set. She is of middle height, of rather full and rounded form; her complexion as pure as alabaster, a pair of dangerous looking hazel eyes, a slightly Roman nose, and a small and prettily formed mouth. Her auburn hair is neatly banded and gathered in a tasteful, ornament net, with a roll and gold tassels at the side. How sedate she looks during the first figure, never smiling till the termination of "promenade, eight," when she shows her little white hands in fixing her handsome brooch in its place, and settling her glistening earrings. See how nicely her scarlet dress, with its broad black band round the skirt, and its black edging, set off her dainty figure. No wonder that a wild mountaineer would be willing to pay, not one dollar, but all that he has in his purse, for a dance and an approving smile from so beautiful a woman.

"Her cavalier stands six feet in his boots, which come to the knee, and are garnished with a pair of Spanish spurs, with rowels and bells like young water wheels. His buckskin leggings are fringed at the seams, and gathered at the waist with a United States belt, from which hangs his loaded revolver and his sheath knife. His neck is bare, muscular and embrowned by exposure, as is also his bearded face, whose somber hue is relieved by a pair of piercing dark eyes. His long, black hair hangs down beneath his wide felt hat, and, in the corner of his mouth, is a cigar, which rolls like the lever of an eccentric, as he chews the end in his mouth. After an amazingly grave salute, 'all hands round' is shouted by the prompter, and off bounds the buckskin hero, rising and falling to the rhythm of the dance, with a clumsy agility and a growing enthusiasm, testifying his huge delight. His fair partner, with practiced foot and easy grace, keeps time to the music like a clock, and rounds to her place as smoothly and gracefully as a swan. As the dance progresses, he of the buckskins gets excited, and nothing but long practice prevents his partner from being swept of her feet, as the conclusion of the miner's delight, 'set your partners,' or 'gents to the right,' and 'promenade to the bar which last closes the dance. After a treat, the barkeeper mechanically raps his blower as a hint to 'weigh out,' the ladies sit down, and with scarcely an interval, a waltz, polka, schottische, mazurka, varsovienne, or another quadrille commences.

"All varieties of costume, physique and demeanor can be noticed among the dancers, from the gayest colors and 'loudest' styles of dress and manner, to the snugly fitted black silk, and plain, white collar, which sets off the neat figure of the blue-eyed, modest looking Anglo-Saxon. Yonder, beside the tall and tastily clad German brunette, you see the short curls, rounded tournure and smiling face of an Irish girl; indeed, representatives of almost every dancing nation of white folks, may be seen on the floor of the Hurdy-Gurdy house. The earnings of the dancers are very different in amount. That dancer in the low necked dress, with the scarlet 'waist,' a great favorite and a really good dancer, counted fifty tickets into her lap before 'the last dance, gentlemen,' followed by, 'Only this one before the girls go home,' which wound up the performance.

Twenty-six dollars is a great deal of money to earn in such a fashion; but fifty sets of quadrilles and four waltzes, two of them for the love of the thing, is very hard work.

"As a rule, however, the professional 'hurdies' are Teutons, and, though first rate dancers, they are, with some few exceptions, the reverse of good looking.

"The dance which is most attended, is one in which ladies to whom pleasure is dearer than fame, represent the female element, and, as may be supposed, the evil only commences at the Dance House. It is not uncommon to see one of these sirens with an 'outfit' worth from seven to eight hundred dollars, and many of them invest with merchants and bankers thousands of dollars in gold, the rewards and presents they receive, especially the more highly favored ones, being more in a week, than a well-educated girl would earn in two years in an Eastern city.

"In the Dance House you can see judges, the legislative corps, and everyone but the minister. He never ventures further than to engage in conversation with a friend at the door, and while intently watching the performance, lectures on the evil of such places with considerable force; but his attention is evidently more fixed upon the dancers than on his lecture. Sometimes may be seen gray haired men dancing, their wives sitting at home in blissful ignorance of the proceeding. There never was a dance house running, for any length of time, in the first days of a mining town, in which 'shooting scrapes' do not occur; equal proportions of jealousy, whiskey and revenge being the stimulants thereto. Billiard saloons are everywhere visible, with a bar attached, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent there. As might be anticipated, it is impossible to prevent quarrels in these places, at all times, and, in the mountains, whatever weapon is handiest, foot, fist, knife, revolver, or derringer, it is instantly used."

Gathering of the Road Agents' Band

Among the emigrants diverted from the Snake River routes leading to the new Salmon River gold diggings of Idaho, in the spring of 1862, was a gang from Salt Lake City. It was sidetracked at the Beaver Head diggings of Montana, at Bannack City, and included among its members Henry Plummer, afterward sheriff and chief of the road agents, Charley Reeves, Moore and Skinner, his comrades in every evil thing of the West. *These ruffians served as a nucleus, around which the disloyal, the desperate and the dishonest gathered, and quickly organizing themselves into a band, with captain, lieutenants, secretary, road agents, and outsiders, became the terror of the country. The stampede to the Alder Gulch, which occurred early in June, 1863, and the discovery of the rich placer diggings there, attracted many more of the dangerous classes, who scenting the prey from afar, flew like vultures to the battlefield.

Between Bannack and Virginia, a correspondence was constantly kept up, and the roads throughout the territory were under the surveillance of the "outsiders" before mentioned. To such a system were these things brought, that horses, men and coaches were marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder, and thus the lyers-in-wait had an opportunity of communicating the intelligence to the members of the gang, in time to prevent the escape of the victims.

The confession of two of their number one of whom, named Erastus Yager alias Red, was hung in the Stinking Water Valley, put the Vigilance Committee in possession of the names of the prominent men in the gang, and eventually secured their death or voluntary banishment. The most noted of the road agents, with a few exceptions were hanged by the Vigilance Committee, or banished. A list of the places and dates of execution of the principal members of the band is here presented.

Names, Places and Dates of Execution

George Ives, Nevada City, December 21, 1863;

Erastus Yager (Red) and G. W. Brown, Stinking Water Valley, January 4, 1864;

Henry Plummer, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson, Bannack City, January 10, 1864;
George Lane (Clubfoot George), Frank Parish, Haze Lyons, Jack Gallagher and Boone Helm, Virginia City, January 14, 1864;

Steven Marsland, Big Hole Ranche, January 16, 1864;

William Bunton, Deer Lodge Valley, January 19, 1864;

Cyrus Skinner, Alexander Carter, and John Cooper, Hell Gate, January 25, 1864;

George Shears, Frenchtown, January 24, 1864;

Robert Zachary, Hell Gate, January 25, 1864;

William Graves alias Whiskey Bill, Fort Owen, January 26, 1864;

William Hunter, Gallatin Valley, February 3, 1864;

John Wagoner (Dutch John) and Joe Pizanthia, Bannack City, January 11, 1864.

Banishment of Minor Criminals

Judge Smith and J. Thurmond, the counsel of the road agents, were banished. Thurmond brought an action, at Salt Lake, against Mr. Fox, charging him with aiding in procuring his banishment. After some peculiar developments of justice in Utah, he judiciously withdrew all proceedings, and gave a receipt in full for all past and future claims on the Vigilance Committee, in which instance he exhibited a wise discretion.

The Bannack branch of the Vigilantes also sent out of the country, H. G. Sessions, convicted of circulating bogus dust, and one H. D. Moyer, who furnished a room at midnight for them to work in, together with material for their labor. A man named Kustar was also banished for recklessly shooting through the windows of the hotel opposite his place of abode.

Moore and Reeves were banished, as will afterwards appear, by a miners' jury, at Bannack, in the winter of 1863, but came back in the spring. They fled the country when the Vigilantes commenced operations, and are thought to have fled to Mexico.

Charley Forbes was a member of the gang; but being wounded in a scuffle, or a robbery, a doctor was found and taken to where he lay. Finding that he was incurable, it is believed that Moore and Reeves shot him, to prevent his divulging what he knew of the band; but this is uncertain. Some say he was killed by Moore and Reeves, in Red Rock Canyon.

Gathering Places of the Road Agents The headquarters of the marauders was Rattlesnake Ranch. Plummer often visited it, and the robbers used to camp with their comrades, in little wakiups above and below it, watching, and ready for fight, flight or plunder. Two rods in front of this building was a sign post, at which they used to practice with their revolvers. They were capital shots. Plummer was the quickest hand with his revolver of any man in the mountains.

He could draw the pistol and discharge the five loads in three seconds. The post was riddled with holes, and was looked upon as quite a curiosity, until it was cut down, in the summer of 1863.

Another favorite resort of the gang was Dempsey's Cottonwood Ranch. The owner knew the character of the robbers, but had no connection with them; and, in those days, a man's life would not have been worth fifteen minutes' purchase, if the possessor had been foolish enough even to hint at his knowledge of their doings. Daley's, at Ramshorn Gulch, and ranches or wakiups on the Madison, the Jefferson, Wisconsin Creek, and Mill Creek, were also constantly occupied by members of the band.

More Than One Hundred People Killed

By discoveries of the bodies of the victims, the confessions of the murderers before execution, and reliable information sent to the committee, it was found that 102 people had been certainly killed by those miscreants in various places, and it was believed, on the best information, that scores of unfortunates had been murdered and buried, whose remains were never discovered, nor their fate definitely ascertained. All that was known, was that they started, with greater or less sums of money, for various places, and were never heard of again.

Bannack City and Its Fearful Wickedness

This town originated from the "Grasshopper Diggings," which were first discovered in the month of July, by John White and a small party of prospectors, on the Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the Beaverhead. The discoverer, together with Rudolph Dorsett, was murdered by Charley Kelly, in the month of December, 1863, near the Milk Ranch, on the road from Virginia City to Helena. Wash Stapleton and his party came in a short time after, and were soon joined by others, among whom were:

W. B. Dance
S. T. Hauser
James Morley
Drury Underwood
F. M. Thomson
N. P. Langford
James Fergus
John Potter
Judge Hoyt and
Doctor Hoyt
Chas. St. Clair
David Thompson
Buz Caven
______ Burchett
_____ Morelle
_____ Harby
J. M. Castner
Pat Bray
Sturges Bray
Colonel McLean
R. C. Knox

and other well-known citizens of Montana. The name, "Bannack," was given to the settlement, from the Bannack Indians, the lords of the soil. It was the first "mining camp" of any importance, discovered on the eastern slope of the mountains, and as the stories of its wonderful richness went abroad, hundreds of scattered prospectors flocked in, and before the following spring, the inhabitants numbered upwards of a thousand.

It is probable that there never was a mining town of the same size that contained more desperadoes and lawless characters, than did Bannack, during the winter of 1862-63. While a majority of the citizens were of the sterling stock, which has ever furnished the true American pioneers, there were great numbers of the most desperate class of roughs and road agents, who had been roving through the mountains, exiles from their former haunts in the mining settlements, from which they had fled to avoid the penalties incurred by the commission of many a fearful crime. These men no sooner heard of the rich mines of Bannack, than they at once made for the new settlement, where, among strangers, ignorant of their crimes, they would be secure from punishment, at least until their true character should become known.

Sometime in March, 1863,-it is really immaterial exactly when Henry Plummer shot Jack Cleveland to death in Goodrich's Bannack City saloon. Cleveland, who was a desperado who had come from farther West, had struck town with the avowed purpose of supplanting Plummer, in any way within his power, as head of the Montana outlaws. The immigrant was shot to pieces by the outlaw whom he had intended to kill or run out of the country. Moore and Reeves, of Plummer's band, were both implicated in the brawl which ended in murder.

"In March, 1863, Reeves, a prominent clerk of St. Nicholas, bought a Sheepeater squaw; but she refused to live with him, alleging that she was ill-treated, and went back to her tribe who were encamped on the rise of the hill south of Yankee Flat, about fifty yards to the rear of the street. Reeves went after her, and sought to force her to come back with him, but on his attempting to use violence an old chief interfered. The two grappled. Reeves with a sudden effort broke from him, striking him a blow with his pistol and, in the scuffle, one barrel was harmlessly discharged.

"The next morning, Moore and Reeves, in a state of intoxication, entered Goodrich's saloon, laying down two double-barreled shotguns and four revolvers, on the counter, considerably to the discomfiture of the barkeeper, who, we believe, would have sold his position very cheap, for cash, at that precise moment, and it is just possible that he might have accepted a good offer 'on time.' They declared, while drinking, that if the cowardly white folks on Yankee Flat, were afraid of the Indians, they were not, and that they would soon 'set the ball a rolling.' Taking their weapons, they went off to the back of the houses, opposite the camp, and levelling their pieces, they fired into the tepee, wounding one Indian. They returned to the saloon and got three drinks more, boasting of what they had done, and accompanied by William Mitchell, of Minnesota, and two others, they went back, determined to complete their murderous work.

The three above named then deliberately poured a volley into the tepee, with fatal effect. Mitchell, whose gun was loaded with an ounce ball and a charge of buckshot, killed a Frenchman named Brissette, who had run up to ascertain the cause of the first firing, the ball striking him in the forehead, and the buckshot wounding him in ten different places.

The Indian chief, a lame Indian boy, and a papoose, were also killed; but the number of the parties who were wounded has never been ascertained. John Burnes escaped with a broken thumb, and a man named Woods was shot in the groin, of which wound he has not yet entirely recovered. This unfortunate pair, like Brissette, had come to see the cause of the shooting, and of the yells of the savages.

"The indignation of the citizens being aroused by this atrocious and unprovoked massacre, a mass meeting was held the following morning to take some action in the premises. Charley Moore and Reeves hearing of it, started early in the morning, on foot, towards Rattlesnake, Henry Plummer preceding them on horseback. Sentries were then posted all around the town, to prevent egress, volunteers were called for, to pursue the criminals, and Messrs. Lear, Higgins, O. J. Rockwell and Davenport at once followed on their track, coming up with them where they had hidden, in a thicket of brush, near the creek. The daylight was beginning to fade, and the cold was intense when a reinforcement arrived, on which the fugitives came out, delivered themselves up, and were conducted back to Bannack.

"Plummer was tried and 'honorably' acquitted, on account of Cleveland's threats. Mitchell was banished, but he hid around the town for awhile, and never went away.

Reeves and Moore were also acquitted although eventually banished from the territory. The pretext of the prisoners that the Indians had killed some whites, friends of theirs, in '49, while going to California, was accepted by the majority of the jurors as some sort of justification; but the truth is they (the jurors) were afraid of their lives and, it must be confessed, not without reason.

"To the delivery of this unfortunate verdict may be attributed the ascendency of the roughs. They thought the people were afraid of them. Had the question been left to old Californians or experienced miners, Plummer, Reeves and Moore would have been hanged, and much bloodshed and suffering would have been thereby prevented. No organization of the Road Agents would have been possible. * * *

"(Hank) Crawford who had been appointed sheriff at the trial of Moore and Reeves tendered his resignation on two or three different occasions; but was induced to continue in office by the strongest representation of his friends. They promised to stand by him in the execution of his duty, and to remunerate him for his loss of time and money. The arms taken from Plummer, Reeves and Mitchell were sold by Crawford to defray expenses."

Plummer Sends Out His Blood-Hounds

Plummer took as few chances as possible to endanger his neck. As an illustration, he and his band held a council in Alder Gulch, in the summer of 1863, for the purpose of killing and robbing Lloyd Magruder, a prosperous and popular merchant of Lewiston, Idaho, as well as a candidate for Congress. He had recently closed out a large stock of goods in Virginia for $14,000 and was about to return to his home town with four companions, all of whom were marked as victims. Plummer selected five of his men to dispose of the Magruder party, but one of the road agents decided to withdraw from the enterprise on the plea that he was "on the rob but not on the kill." Besides Magruder, the party consisted of C. Allen, Horace and Robert Chalmers, and a Mr. Phillips, from the neighborhood of Marysville, and the road agents numbered Jem Romaine, Doc Howard, Billy Page and Bill Lowry.

Charley Allen, it seems, had strong misgivings about the character of the ruffians, and told Magruder that the men would not harm him (Allen), as they were under obligations to him; but they would, likely enough try to rob Magruder. His caution was ineffectual, and Mr. McKDennee, we believe, fixed up for the trip the gold belonging to Magruder. It is a melancholy fact that information of the intention of the murderers had reached the ears of more than one citizen; but such was the terror of the road agents that they dared not tell any of the party. Having reached the mountain beyond Clearwater River, on their homeward journey, the stock was let out to graze on the slope, and Magruder, in company with Bill Lowry, went up to watch it. Seizing his opportunity, the ruffian murdered Magruder, and his confederates assassinated the four remaining in camp, while asleep. Romaine said to Phillips, when, shooting him down, "You, I told you not to come." The villains having possessed themselves of the treasure, rolled up the bodies, baggage and arms, and threw them over a precipice. They then went on to Lewiston, avoiding Elk City on their route, where the first intimation of foul play was given by the sight of Magruder's mule, saddle, leggings, etc., in the possession of the robbers. Hill Beechey,* the deputy marshal at Lewiston, and owner of the Luna House, noticed the cantinas filled with gold, and suspected something wrong, when they left by the coach for San Francisco. A man named Goodrich recognized Page, when he came to ranch the animals with him.

The murderers were closely muffled and tried to avoid notice, but Beechey followed them right through to California, and there arrested them on the charge of murdering and robbing Magruder and his party. He found that they had changed their names at many places. Every possible obstacle was interposed that the forms of law allowed; but the gallant man fought through it all, and brought them back, on requisition of the governor of Idaho, to Lewiston. Page turned state's evidence, and the men, who were closely guarded by Beechey all the time, in his own house, were convicted after a fair trial and hanged.

Romaine, who had been a barber, and afterwards a barkeeper, was a desperate villain. At the gallows, he said that there was a note in his pocket, which he did not wish to "be read until he was dead. On opening it, it was found to contain a most beastly and insolent defiance of the citizens of Lewiston. Before he was swung off, he bade them "Launch their old boat," for it was "only a mud-scow, anyway." A reconnaissance of the ground, in spring, discovered a few bones, some buttons from Magruder's coat, some firearms, etc. The coyotes had been too busy to leave much.

Execution of George Ives | Organization of Vigilantes

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Source: Montana its Story and Biography, by Tom Strout, Volume 1, The American Historical Society, 1921

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