During Montana’s gold rush days of 1863, the law was sometimes non-existent in the region that was then in the Territory of Idaho. However, that was not the case in Virginia City, when a young miner was found murdered. A posse was quickly formed to track the killers and they soon returned with three suspects, who were tried in a miners’ court in Nevada City, a few miles downstream from Virginia City. Tried in December 1863, one man was convicted and hanged for the crime, but of the other two, one was banished from the territory and the other set free.
Outraged locals decided that justice in the court was too slow and ineffective and the Montana Vigilantes were born. Five members were originally sworn in as the Montana Vigilance Committee, patterned after the San Francisco Vigilantes of 1856. Almost immediately, orderly arrests and trial courts became obsolete as a reign of lynching began to take place. By the end of February 1864, 22 men had been lynched.
The most famous victim of the Montana Vigilantes was Henry Plummer, who, after arriving in Montana in 1862 and was elected Sheriff of the Bannack Mining District in May 1863. At the same time, a group of road agents called the Innocents were operating in the area and the vigilantes suspected Plummer of being the leader of the group. On January 10, 1864, Plummer was hanged by a mob at Bannack.
Today, historians disagree as to whether these many men that were hanged during Montana’s Vigilante days were truly guilty.
In fact, some researchers believe the entire affair was a cover-up for the “so-called” vigilantes who were actually committing the many crimes occurring in the area.
Random lynchings continued in Montana Territory throughout the 1860s until a backlash against extralegal justice finally took hold around 1870.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2019.