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The Montana Vigilantes 1863–1870

Gold,Guns and Gallows

By Mark C. Dillon

Publication Year: 2013

 Historians and novelists alike have described the vigilantism that took root in the gold-mining communities of Montana in the mid-1860s, but Mark C. Dillon is the first to examine the subject through the prism of American legal history, considering the state of criminal justice and law enforcement in the western territories and also trial procedures, gubernatorial politics, legislative enactments, and constitutional rights.

Using newspaper articles, diaries, letters, biographies, invoices, and books that speak to the compelling history of Montana’s vigilantism in the 1860s, Dillon examines the conduct of the vigilantes in the context of the due process norms of the time. He implicates the influence of lawyers and judges who, like their non-lawyer counterparts, shaped history during the rush to earn fortunes in gold.

Dillon’s perspective as a state Supreme Court justice and legal historian uniquely illuminates the intersection of territorial politics, constitutional issues, corrupt law enforcement, and the basic need of citizenry for social order. This readable and well-directed analysis of the social and legal context that contributed to the rise of Montana vigilante groups will be of interest to scholars and general readers interested in Western history, law, and criminal justice for years to come.

Published by: Utah State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-13

Map of south central Montana drawn in one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfive.fitted. (Courtesy of the Montana Historical ...

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pp. xiii-xx

This is a book about history. It involves historical stories of greed, cru-elty, politics, chance, crime, and punishment. T_his book is also about law and due process. T_he history and law discussed here are subjects so intertwined that it is not possible to discuss one without discussing the other. Vigilantism in Montana in the one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedzero.fitteds and one.fittedeight.fittedseven.fittedzero.fitteds mixes, in a vibrant way, histori-Writing about the Montana vigilantes poses many challenges, some of which are obvious and some of which may be less so. T_he most obvious challenge is ...

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1. All that Glitters Is Not Gold

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pp. 1-7

The f_irst signif_icant discovery of gold in what is now known as the state of Montana occurred on July two.fittedeight.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedtwo.fitted, at a spring-fed stream at the Big Hole Basin.one.fitted Its discoverer, John White, named the stream Grasshopper Creek because of the swarms of grasshoppers that infested the area.two.fitted Settlers rushed to the area and established the town of Bannack, named after the Bannock Indians that frequented the area for hunting.three.fitted T_he spelling of the Bannack municipality with an ack instead of an ock is not a mistake, as ...

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2. The Rise and Dominance of the “Fourteen-Mile City” at Alder Gulch

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pp. 8-20

Size and production considered[,] it ranks as the world?s richest placer gulch.After John White?s discovery of gold in Bannack, the inf_lux of prospec-tors to the area of south central Montana resulted in additional f_inds of precious metals. On May two.fittedsix.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted, gold was discovered in a creek of Alder Gulch in what became Virginia City, Montana,one.fitted approximately seventy miles east of Bannack.two.fitted T_he discovery was made by William Fairweather, who was hoping to f_ind only enough gold to f_inance a purchase of tobacco.three.fitted...

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3. The First Factor Leading to Vigilantism in the Region: The Absence of Police, Prosecutorial, and Judicial Authority

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pp. 21-43

Plummer ought to be hung, and . . . if he was at the [San Francisco] Bay ?Juror Denny, January one.fittedeight.fittedfive.fittedeight.fitted?George Ives to Jack Cleveland, late one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedtwo.fittedThe areas now known as Idaho and Montana, and all but the southwest corner of Wyoming, were originally part of Idaho Territory, which was created by the US Congress on March three.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted.one.fitted Ef_forts by the Idaho Territorial Legislature in December one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted to create counties and to appoint pub-...

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4. The Second Factor Leading to Vigilantism in the Region: The Value of Gold and Silver

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pp. 44-56

T_he Congress shall have the power to . . . coin money [and] regulate the value thereof.A second factor explaining the rise of vigilantism in Montana is the cen-tral role played by gold in the economies of the United States and its territories in the one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedzero.fitteds and one.fittedeight.fittedseven.fittedzero.fitteds.T_here are one.fittedone.fittedeight.fitted elements on the current Periodic Table, some metallic and some not. Of those elements, gold has historically been the premier metal for use as currency. Other metals have been used as currency to some extent. T_he ...

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5. The Third Factor Leading to Vigilantism in the Region: The Insecure Means of Transporting Wealth

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pp. 57-88

Oh, for God?s sake, don?t kill me! You can have all the money I?ve got.?Bill Bunton, October two.fittedsix.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fittedThe criminal enterprise that allegedly operated under the auspices of Sherif_f Plummer, and which is described below, primarily targeted travelers leaving the region with gold and gold-related wealth.T_he transportation of wealth to and from south central Montana could not be accomplished in one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted?six.fittedfour.fitted by planes or automobiles, yet to be invented. ...

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6. The Murder of Nicholas Tiebolt and the Trial and Execution of George Ives

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pp. 89-118

...?John X. Beidler, December two.fittedone.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fittedSometimes in history a singular event serves as a catalyst for other signif_i-cant events that follow.one.fitted Vigilantism in the region of Alder Gulch traces its specif_ic origin to the discovery by William Palmer of a dead male body in early December one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted as Palmer was outdoors hunting grouse near the Stinking Water River.two.fitted T_he body was discovered when Palmer retrieved a grouse that he had killed from some brush.three.fitted Palmer?s inspection of the frozen body revealed ...

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7. Formation of the Vigilance Committee

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pp. 119-134

We the undersigned uniting ourselves in a party for the laudable purpos [sic] of arresting thievs [sic] & murderers & recovering stollen [sic] property ?Vigilante Oath, December two.fittedthree.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fittedThe concept of vigilantism in one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedthree.fitted?six.fittedfour.fitted was not new to the American western frontier. Professor Richard Maxwell Brown has identif_ied three.fittedtwo.fittedsix.fitted vigilante movements throughout the long arc of American history.one.fitted According to Brown, two-thirds of the vigilante movements were in the American ...

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8. The Hanging Spree Begins

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pp. 135-155

...one.fittedthree.fittedfive.fittedDOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c008Now men, as a last favor, let me beg that you will give me a good drop.Sherif_f Henry Plummer, January one.fittedzero.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fittedWith the Vigilance Committee?s procedures and staf_f_ing in place, its founding members set about the boots-on-the-ground work of investigating, arresting, and executing members of the road agent syndicate. Its initial posse of eight menone.fitted sought out persons that were the known ...

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9. The Bloody Drama Moves from Bannack to Virginia City

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pp. 156-177

Every man for his principles?hurray for Jef_f Davis! Let her rip!?Boone Helm, January one.fittedfour.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fitted?Aleck Carter, January two.fittedfive.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fittedJanuary one.fittedfour.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fitted, proved to be the deadliest single day in Montana?s vigi-lante history, as the vigilantes captured f_ive members of Sherif_f Plummer?s gang and hanged them in an unf_inished building at the corner of Wallace and Van Buren Streets in Virginia City.one.fitted T_hose specif_ic events were set into ...

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10. The Establishment of a Territorial Court at Alder Gulch

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pp. 178-193

...one.fittedseven.fittedeight.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c010?Montana Post, January two.fittedeight.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfive.fittedA signif_icant actor in the ef_forts to introduce lawful procedure to Montana Territory was its chief judge, Hezekiah L. Hosmer. To his friends, his nickname was ?Hez.?one.fittedHosmer had almost died in a house f_ire as a child.two.fitted He was born in Hudson, New York, on December one.fittedzero.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedone.fittedfour.fitted, and when he was sixteen years old moved to ...

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11. Vigilantism Migrates North to Helena, 1865–70

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pp. 194-230

...one.fittednine.fittedfour.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c011to Helena, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfive.fitted?seven.fittedzero.fitted[T]his is to notify all whom it may concern, that crime must and will be suppressed; and, to that end, all of_fenders will be summarily dealt with, and punished as of old.?Order of the Helena Vigilance Committee, summer one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfive.fitted...

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12. The Power of Reprieve and the Execution of James Daniels

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pp. 231-284

When escaped murderers utter threats of murder against peaceable citizens, mountain law is apt to be administered without much regard to technicalities.?T_homas Dimsdale, March one.fittedseven.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedsix.fittedIt don?t take a bigger rope to hang the Governor of Montana than it does to hang a Thomas Dimsdale, the editor of the Montana Post, died of tuberculosis on September two.fittedtwo.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedsix.fitted.one.fitted Dimsdale?s bellwether book, T_he Vigilantes of Montana, was f_irst published in Virginia City earlier that same year. ...

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13. Normative Due Process and Trial Procedure in the Criminal Cases of 1860s Montana

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pp. 285-299

...two.fittedeight.fittedfive.fittedDOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c013Why should there not be a patient conf_idence in the ultimate jus-tice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world??President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March four.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedone.fittedWhatever due process vigilantes did or did not provide prisoners must be examined in the context of due process expectations and practices of one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedzero.fitteds America and its territories....

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14. Due Process and Procedure: Vigilante Arrests and Trials

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pp. 300-315

...three.fittedzero.fittedzero.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c014?T_he evidences of their guilt were too patent to require much time for investigation, so that the [Vigilance] Committee decided unanimously on their execution.??Jem Kelly, June one.fittedfive.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fittedFollowing the description of many of the vigilante events of Bannack, Alder Gulch, and Helena and also trial procedures that were generally used in the one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedzero.fitteds, some observations and conclusions can now be drawn ...

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15. Due Process and Procedure: Vigilante Sentences

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pp. 316-337

...three.fittedone.fittedsix.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c015?J. A. Slade, March one.fittedzero.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedfour.fittedThe regulations and bylaws of the Vigilance Committee specif_ically provided that ?[t]he only punishment that shall be inf_licted by this Committee is death.?one.fitted T_hus, Jem Kelly?s f_irst sentence of f_ifty lashes and Henry Brent?s banishment notwithstanding, the bylaws of the Vigilance Committee left no room for due process once a prisoner had been determined ...

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16. Postmortem Echoes of Times Past

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pp. 338-383

...three.fittedthree.fittedeight.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c016Some more cold lead and twisted hemp is badly needed on the Musselshell.?Fort Benton River Press, July nine.fitted, one.fittedeight.fittedeight.fittedfour.fittedI request that the State of Montana grant Sherif_f Henry Plummer a pardon.?Frederick J. Morgan, May two.fittedone.fitted, one.fittednine.fittednine.fittedthree.fitted...

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17. Conclusion

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pp. 384-392

...three.fittedeight.fittedfour.fitted DOI: 10.7330_9780874219203.c017No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by ?Magna Carta, June one.fittedfive.fitted, one.fittedtwo.fittedone.fittedfive.fittedThis book has endeavored to avoid use of the term ?vigilante justice.? Vigilantism, by def_inition, deprives or at least curtails an accused?s due process. T_he denial or curtailment of due process is not a form of ...

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Appendix A: Organic Act of the Territory of Montana, with Amendment

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pp. 393-403

AN ACT to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Montana. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled: That all that part of the territory of the United States included within the limits, to wit: commencing at the point formed by the intersection...

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Appendix B: Bylaws of the Vigilance Committee

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pp. 404-405

This Committee shall consist of a President or Chief, an Executive Officer, Secretary, Treasurer, Executive Committee, Captains and Lieutenants of Companies and such gentlemen of known worth and integrity as the Captains, Lieutenants, and other officers enumerated above may deem worthy of being members...

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Appendix C: Petition for the Reprieve and Pardon of James Daniels

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pp. 406-407

The undersigned, your fellow citizens and petitioners, would respectfully represent to your Excellency, that at the last term of the United States District Court, for the 3rd Judicial District of the Territory of Montana, one James B. Daniels, who was indicted by the grand jury for said District, and tried before said indictment...

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Appendix D: Reprieve of James Daniels

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pp. 408-431

Know all men, that whereas, at a late term of the United States District Court for the Third Judicial District of the Territory of Montana, one James B. Daniels was convicted of the crime of Manslaughter, and sentenced by the Judge of said Court, to three years of imprisonment and hard labor, and to pay a fine of One Thousand...

Appendix E: Military Procedures for Execution by Hanging

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pp. 409-410

Appendix F: Petition for Pardon of Henry Plummer, May 21, 1993

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pp. 411-413

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pp. 414-416

Truth be told, this writing was originally intended to be a law review article comparing Montana?s vigilantism in the one.fittedeight.fittedsix.fittedzero.fitteds against the level of due process recognized by the law at the time. No law review article on that topic has yet been written, and the idea for it seemed to be both fresh and intriguing. As the research and writing grew larger and more involved, I eventually realized that ...


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pp. 417-432

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About the Author

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pp. 433-457

Ma.scr.sck.sc C. Di.scl.scl.sco.scn.sc is an associate justice in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court and an adjunct professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York City, and has a special interest in the history of law- making, law enforcement, and ?unauthorized justice? in the Montana Territory of the Judge Mark C. Dillon at a historical marker in Virginia City, Montana....


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pp. 435-449

E-ISBN-13: 9780874219203
E-ISBN-10: 0874219205
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874219197
Print-ISBN-10: 0874219191

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 45 b&w photographs
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Montana.
  • Montana -- History -- 19th century.
  • Outlaws -- Montana -- History -- 19th century.
  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- Montana -- History -- 19th century.
  • Vigilantes -- Montana -- History -- 19th century.
  • Vigilance committees -- Montana -- History -- 19th century.
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