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Beaverhead County, Montana Vigilantes & Stories

The Events of January and February 1864
The  Montana Vigilantes and their lynching spree...


In December of 1863, near the six-month old gold camp of Virginia City, which  was then in the Territory of Idaho, a young German, named Nicholas Tiebolt, was  found murdered. An armed posse headed by James Williams was formed to bring in  three suspects, Long John, George Ives, and George Hilderman. They were tried in  miners' court in Nevada City, a few miles downstream from Virginia City, December  19-21, 1863. Long John turned states witness and gave testimony implicating  George Ives as the murderer. Although he maintained his innocence to the end,  George Ives was convicted and sentenced to die by hanging. George Hilderman was  sentenced to banishment, and Long John went free. Assuming that Ives was really  guilty, you could say that justice was done, and the accused had a jury trial  with counsel to represent him. This was the last time this would happen in  Montana for a long time.

Wilbur Sanders, a lawyer recently arrived from the States with his uncle,  Sidney Edgerton, acted as the prosecuting attorney.

Just before he was hanged, George Ives reportedly said, "I am innocent of  this crime; Alex Carter killed the Dutchman." Although one man was convicted and  hanged for the crime, a group of men decided that justice by a jury in a court  was too slow and ineffective. Five men were sworn in by Wilbur Sanders as the  first members of the Montana Vigilance Committee, patterned on the San Francisco  model (1856). They took as their first goal the capture and trial of Alex  Carter. But the Ives trial was the last in what is now Montana for years to  come. Instead of orderly arrests, trial courts, and sentencing, a reign of  lynching took place. By the end of February, 22 men had been lynched, one whose  identity was unknown.

The most famous victim was Henry Plummer, born in Maine, spent 10 years in  California, came to Montana in September 1862, elected Sheriff of the Bannack  Mining District in May 1863, married one of the few single white women in the  territory in June 1863, and was hanged by a mob at Bannack on January 10, 1864.

Some of the men hanged may have been guilty of some crime, some were innocent  of any crime, but there is no written record of a confession by any one of them.  Not one of those lynched in a public place admitted to a crime as they were  hanged.


Skinner's Saloon

The saloon became a popular gathering place in every mining town. This was  one of the very first such places and was owned by Cyrus Skinner, later hanged  by Vigilantes. Skinner initially built his saloon on Yankee Flats across  Grasshopper Creek. In the spring of 1863, he relocated to Bannack's main street,  it's present location. Early accounts claimed that Skinner's was the  headquarters of a gang of road agents, but many modern historians disagree. In  fact the most recent scholarship lays doubt on the existence of an organized  gang of criminals.


It may easily be imagined that life in Bannack, in the early days of the settlement, was anything but pleasant. The ruffians whose advent we have noticed 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 liers 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 usual arms of a road agent were a pair of revolvers, a double-barreled shot gun* of large bore, with the barrels cut down short, and to this they invariably added a knife or dagger. Thus armed and mounted on fleet, well-trained horses, and being disguised with blankets and masks, the robbers awaited their prey in ambush. When near enough they sprang out on a keen run, with levelled shot-guns, and usually gave the word, "Halt! Throw up your hands, you sons of b---s!" If this latter command were not instantly obeyed, there was the last of the offender; but, in case he complied, as was usual, one or two sat on their horses, covering the party with their guns, which were loaded with buck-shot, and one dismounting, disarmed the victims, and made them throw their purses on the grass. This being done, and a search for concealed property being effected, away rode the robbers, reported the capture and divided the spoils.

*Plummer's gun is now (July 1st, 1915) in the possession of Amede Bessette, Bannack.

The confession of two of their number, one of whom, named Erastus Yager alias Red, was hung in the StinkingwaterValley, put the 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. The remainder of the red calendar of crime and retribution will appear after the account of the execution of Hunter:

Names, Places and Dates of Executions

George Ives, Nevada City, Dec. 21st, 18638; Erastus Yager (Red) and G. W. Brown, Stinkingwater Valley, January 4th, 1864;
Henry Plummer, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson, Bannack City, January 10th, 1864;
George Lane (Club-foot George), Frank Parish, Haze Lyons, Jack Gallaghar and Boone Helm, Virginia City, January 14th, 1864;
Steven Marsland, Big Hole Ranche, January 16th, 1864; William Bunton, Deer Lodge Valley,,January 19th, 1864;
Cyrus Skinner, Alexander Carter and John Cooper, Hell Gate, January 25th, 1864;
George Shears, Frenchtown, January 24th, 1864;
Robert Zachary, Hell Gate, January 25th, 1864;
William Graves alias Whiskey Bill, Fort Owens, January 26th, 1864;
William Hunter, Gallatin Valley, February 3d, 1864;
John Wagoner (Dutch John) and Joe Pizanthia, Bannack City, January 11th, 1864.

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 of all past and future claims on the Vigilance Committee, in which instance he exhibited a wise discretion -

''It's not for nothing the gled whistles.''

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.

The circumstances attending the execution of J. A. Slade,* and the charges against him, will appear in full in a subsequent part of this work. This case stands on a footing distinct from all others.

*First mentioned by Mark Twain in "Roughing It." 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 be in 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 Beeves, in Red Rock Canyon.

The headquarters of the marauders was Rattlesnake Ranche.* 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 and Jefferson, Wisconsin Creek, and Mill Creek, were also constantly occupied by members of the band.

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 one hundred and two 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. The Phillips ranch at the crossing of Rattlesnake, on the road from Bannack to Deer Lodge.

 Pete Daley. He was supposed to have known much of the highwaymen, but would not tell. In old age, he was sent to the insane asylum.

More information online can be found at this address.  and search Montana Vigilantes. Insert the chapter number you want in the address bar of your browser.


John C. Innes, an 1862 Man.

I came to Bannack, September 8th, 1862, with Woodmansee Brothers' train -- ten teams. These were loaded smith flour, supplies, vegetables, etc. There were no houses in Bannack. Neil Howie was one of our party. We crossed at Meek's Ferry, on the Snake.

I do not remember who it was that built the first cabin in Bannack, as none were built until it began to get cold. Then everyone commenced to build. It would certainly be hard to say who was the first. The man who panned out the first gold on White Bar, Charlie Reville (as near as I can spell it). He got one dollar, using the lid of a camp kettle for a gold pan. William Still was also of this party. His name was not Still, but only a nickname.

We met Bill Hickman on the Snake River Valley, going back with horses, which he claimed to have recovered from some one who had stolen them. I was with Charlie Brown when he arrested Williams, the driver of the stage that was held up at Port Neuf, near Denver, 1865, late in the fall, November or December.

The first lumber was cut in Lumber Gulch -- a gulch that comes into the Grasshopper, between Bannack and Marysville. This was cut by a man named Cris. I got my claim, on Jimmie's Bar -- Jim was named Griffeths, or Adobe Jim. He came to the country with Jim darby, Smith Ball and Billy Simpson. Phil, the Cannibal, he was General Harney's scout, was there also. He got his name, as he told me, in the following way: He killed a man in Philadelphia, and left for the west, where he became a squaw man. He and an Indian were sent to a post on the Yellowstone. They run out of provisions. Phil got to the fort, and made his report. After he was through, they asked him what had become of his companion. "Part of him is hanging on my saddle," he said. He had lived 11 days on rosebuds. Hc was killed by the fall of a cabin in Virginia City. He seemed a harmless old fellow and would never refuse a drink.

At Green River, in August, 1862, a party of soldiers were crossing, swimming their horses behind the ferry boat. I recall that Jim Bridger came up to me, as tickled as a small boy, because his pony was making such nice progress in his attempts to swim over. Jim was a little dried up man.

Plummer had no sister in Bannack. He may have been arrested at his sister-in-law's. His wife was east when he was hung and never came back.

I was the guard over John Wagner the time he was at Sayer's corral, as Howie had sent for me. I also took him to get his meals.

In the middle of the night, two men came to the corral and wanted to come in, and I got up and let them in. They had come from Alder. They soon explained what they wanted. They took Howie, and went out and organized the Bannack Vigilantes. They left me in charge of John. I did not get to see John hung, as I was too busy at something else.

When we were going west in 1861, at a post made at Rocky Point, Wyoming, we found a party of hostile Indians, at the station. The driver said that he had never seen any there before. The party was large enough to take us, had they wished. I had the only rifle in the crowd. There was some talk as to what we should do -- stay or get the mules and run. We had not been able to get the Indians to speak to us, so we concluded to go on; but some of the boys got out and walked on one side, as they did not wish to be caught in the coach. I got up with the driver, who said, "There is no use in trying to run, unless we are compelled to." Then I will hit this old mule with this buffalo robe, we will sure do something. We were not molested. When I came to Montana, I was told that I had saved the coach.

In the summer of 1864, a party kept a ranch on Grasshopper. A French Canadian with a squaw. A white man, by the name of Roup, and a young cowboy, they made up their minds to go over to the Bitter Root, and steal horses. They accomplished the end, and were returning to the Grasshopper, and were back near the Point of Rocks, but up near the timber, when the Indians from Bitter Root came in pursuit. The horses were running as fast as possible. There was one Indian who was a splendid shot with bow and arrow. Roup had stayed behind to use his revolver on the Indians, when he was shot off his horse by an arrow. He crawled back into the timber. The Indians came to town, and reported what they had done, and a young man by the name of Richardson, and myself, went to find Roup. We found him as described, with the addition of a wound in the eye, which looked as though he had been shot with an arrow, and that it had been pulled out of the wound, also bringing the eye with it. Roup had been almost stripped -- had on a pair of pants with the pockets turned inside out. We reported that we had found him, and a couple of his friends went up and buried him where he fell.

Johnnie Grant was probably the biggest stockman of Montana in those days. I remember that we depended on that bunch of cattle for our food supply, if need be. Granville Stuart kept a butcher shop in those early days in Bannack.

"Give us a King, let his name be Harry." The cause of that remark was as follows: When Plummer, Ray and Stinson were hanged, Ray made the most trouble, and Little Harry King was behind him with a gun. He poked Ray in the back, and said: "You know what is behind you, and if you don't go ahead, you'll get it."

After the hanging of these men, they had a big public meeting and nearly all of the miners up and down the gulch joined. It was at the meeting that Sanders quoted the above. Harry King was a very active member of the Vigilantes. Mr. Innes joined them at this meeting, and was placed at the head of a company to try and round up some of the highwaymen. His command went to Horse Prairie, but did not succeed in grabbing anyone. (source: University of Montana, Western, Carson Library)

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