By Emerson Hough in 1905
Henry Plummer was for several years in the early 1860’s the “chief” of the widely extended band of robbers and murderers who kept the placer-mining fields of Montana and Idaho in a state of terror. Posing part of the time as an officer of the law, he was all the time the leader in the reign of lawlessness. He was always ready for combat, and he so relied upon his own skill that he would even give his antagonist the advantage—or just enough advantage to leave himself sure to kill him. His victims in duels of this sort were many, and, as to his victims in cold-blooded robbery, in which death wiped out the record, no one will ever know the list.
Plummer was born in Connecticut in 1837, and, until his departure as a young man for the West, he was all that might be expected of one brought up under the chastening influences of a New England home. He received a good education and became a polished, affable, and gentlemanly appearing man. He was about five feet ten, possibly five feet eleven inches in height, and weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds, being rather slender in appearance.
His face was handsome and his demeanor always frank and open, although he was quiet and did not often talk unless accosted. His voice was low and pleasant, and he had no bravado or swagger about him. His eye was light in color and singularly devoid of expression. Two features gave him a sinister look—his forehead, which was low and brutish, and his eye, which was cold and fish-like. His was a strong, well-keyed nervous organization. He was quick as a cat when in action, though apparently suave and easy in disposition. He was a good pistol shot, perhaps the best of all the desperadoes who infested Idaho and Montana at that time. Not even in his cups did he lose control of voice and eye and weapon. He was always ready—a cool, quiet, self-possessed, well-regulated killing machine.
At the date of Plummer’s arrival in the mining country, the town of Lewiston, Idaho was the emporium of a wide region then embraced under the name of Idaho Territory; the latter also including Montana at that time. Where his life had been spent previous to that is not known, but it is thought that he came over from California. Plummer set up as a gambler, and this gave him the key to the brotherhood of the bad. Gamblers usually stick together pretty closely and institute a sort of freemasonry of their own; so that Plummer was not long in finding, among men of his own profession and their associates, a number of others whom he considered safe to take into his confidence. Every man accepted by Plummer was a murderer. He would have no weaklings. No one can tell how many victims his associates had had before they went into his alliance, but it is sure that novices in man-killing were not desired, nor any who had not been proved of nerve. Plummer soon had so many men that he set up a rendezvous at points on all the trails leading out from Lewiston to such mines as were producing any gold. One robbery followed another, until the band threw off all restraint and ran the towns as they liked, paying for what they took when they felt like it, and laughing at the protests of the minority of the population, which was placed in the hard strait of being in that country and unable to get out without being robbed. It was the intention to seize the property of every man who was there and who was not accepted as a member of the gang.
One killing after another occurred on the trails, and man after man was lost and never traced. Assaults were made upon many men who escaped, but no criminal could be located, and, indeed, there was no law by which any of them could be brought to book. The express riders were fired upon and robbed and the pack trains looted. No man expected to cross the mountain trails without meeting some of the robbers, and, when he did meet them, he expected to be killed if he made resistance, for they outnumbered the parties they attacked in nearly all instances. The outlaws were now indeed about three times as numerous as those not in sympathy with them.
Rendered desperate by this state of affairs, a few resolute citizens who wanted law and order found each other out at last and organized into a vigilance committee, remembering the success of the Vigilantes Of California, whose work was still recent history. Plummer himself was among the first to join this embryonic vigilante movement, as was the case in so many other similar movements in other parts of the West, where the criminal joined the law-loving in order to find out what the latter intended to do. His address was such as to disarm completely all suspicion, and he had full knowledge of facts which enabled him to murder for vengeance as well as for gain.
After Oro Fino, Idaho was worked out as a placer field, the prospectors located other grounds east of the Salmon River range, at Elk City and Florence, and soon Lewiston was forsaken, all the population trooping off over the mountains to the new fields. This broke up the vigilante movement in its infancy and gave Plummer a longer lease of life for his plans.
All those who had joined the vigilante movement were marked men. One after another they were murdered, none knew by whom, or why. Masked robbers were seen every day along the trails leading between one remote mining camp and another, but no one suspected Henry Plummer, who was serving well in his double role.
In the meantime, additional placer grounds had been discovered a hundred and fifty miles south of Florence, on the Boise River, and some valuable strikes were also made far to the north, at the upper waters of the Beaverhead. All the towns to the westward were now abandoned, and the miners left Florence as madly as they had rushed to it from Oro Fino and Elk City. West Bannack and East Bannack, Montana were now all the cry. To these new points, as may be supposed, the organized band of robbers fled with the others. Plummer, who had tried Elk City, Deer Lodge, and other points, now appeared at Bannack.
One after another, reports continued to come of placers discovered here and there in the upper Rockies. Among all these, the strikes on Gold Creek proved to be the most extensive and valuable. A few Eastern men, almost by accident, had found fair “pay” there and returned to that locality when they found themselves unable to get across the snow-covered mountains to Florence. These few men at the Gold Creek diggings got large additions from expeditions made up in Denver and bound for Florence, who also were unable to get across the Salmon River Mountains. Yet others came out in the summer of 1862, by way of the upper plains and the Missouri River, so that the accident of the season, so to speak, turned aside the traffic intended to reach Florence into quite another region. This fact, as events proved, had much to do with the later fate of Henry Plummer and his associates.