Outlaws of the Mountains
By Emerson Hough in 1905
The greatest of American gold
stampedes, and perhaps the greatest of the world, not even excepting that
of Australia, was that following upon the discovery of gold in
For twenty years all the West was mad for gold. No other way would serve
but the digging of wealth directly from the soil. Agriculture was too
slow, commerce too tame, to satisfy the bold population of the frontier.
The history of the first struggle for mining claims in California -- one
stampede after another, as this, that and the other "strike" was reported
in new localities -- was repeated all over the vast region of the auriferous
mountain lands lying between the plains and California,
which were swiftly prospected by men who had now learned well the
The gold-hunters lapped back on their own trails, and, no
longer content with California, began to prospect lower
Idaho, and Western
Walla Walla was a supply point for a time.
Florence was a great mountain market, and Lewiston. One district after
another sprang into prominence, to fade away after a year or two of
feverish life. The placers near Bannack caught a wild set of men, who surged back from
Prospector and dog in 1900.
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Oro Fino was a temporary capital; then the
fabulously rich placer which made Alder Gulch one of the quickly perished
but still unforgotten diggings.
The flat valley of this latter gulch
housed several "towns," but was really for a dozen miles a continuous
string of miners' cabins. The city of Helena is built on the tailings of
these placer washings, and its streets are literally paved with gold even
to-day. Here in 1863, while the great conflict between North and South was
raging, a great community of wild men, not organized into anything fit to
be called society, divided and fought bitterly for control of the
apparently exhaustless wealth which came pouring from the virgin mines.
These clashing factions repeated, in
intensified form, the history of California. They were even more utterly
cut off from all the world. Letters and papers from the states had to
reach the mountains by way of California, via the Horn or the Isthmus.
Touch with the older civilization was utterly lost; of law there was none.
Upon the social horizon now appeared the sinister figure of the
trained desperado, the professional bad man. The business of
turned into a profession, one highly organized, relatively safe and
extremely lucrative. There was wealth to be had for the asking or the
taking. Each miner had his buckskin purse filled with native gold. This
dust was like all other dust. It could not be traced nor identified; and
the old saying, '"Twas mine, 'tis his," might here of all places in the
world most easily become true. Checks, drafts, currency as we know it now,
all the means by which civilized men keep record of their property
transactions, were unknown. The gold scales established the only currency,
and each man was his own banker, obliged to be his own peace officer, and
the defender of his own property.
Now our desperado appeared, the man who had killed his man, or, more
likely, several men, and who had not been held sternly to an accounting
for his acts; the man with the six- shooter and the skill to use it more
swiftly and accurately than the average man; the man with the mind which
did not scruple at murder. He found much to encourage him, little to
oppose him. The crowd from both East and West had now arrived.
town was full of gold hunters. Expectation lighted up the countenance of
every new-comer. Few had yet realized the utter despair of failure in a
mining camp. In the presence of vice in all its forms, men who were staid
and exemplary at home laid aside their morality like a useless garment,
and yielded to the seductive influences spread for their ruin.
The gambling-shops and
saloons -- beheld for the first time
by many of these fortune-seekers -- lured them on step by step, until many
of them abandoned all thought of the object they had in pursuit for lives
of shameful and criminal indulgence. The condition of society thus
produced was fatal to all attempts at organization, either for protection
or good order.
Yet the same condition made opportunity
for those who did not wish to see a society established. Wherever the
law-abiding did not organize, the bandits did; and the strength of their
party, the breadth and boldness of its operations, and the length of time
on its unmolested operations, form one of the most extraordinary incidents
American history. They killed, robbed, and terrorized over hundreds of
miles of mountain country, for years setting at defiance all attempts at
their restraint. They recognized no command except that of their "chief,"
whose title was always open to contest, and who gained his own position
only by being more skilful, more bloodthirsty, and more unscrupulous than
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Henry Plummer, the most important captain of these cut-throats
of the mountains, had a hundred or more men in his widely scattered
criminal confederacy. More than one hundred murders were committed by
these banditti in the space of three years. Many others were, without
doubt, committed and never traced. Dead bodies were common in those hills,
and often were unidentified. The wanderer from the States usually kept his
own counsel. None knew who his family might be; and that family, missing
a member who disappeared into the maw of the great West of that day of
danger, might never know the fate of the one mysteriously vanished.
These robbers had their confederates scattered in all ranks of
life. Plummer himself was sheriff of his county, and had confederates in
deputies or city marshals. This was a strange feature of this old desperadoism in the West
-- it paraded often in the guise of the law. We
shall find further instances of this same phenomenon. Employees, friends,
officials -- there was none that one might trust. The organization of the
robbers even extended to the stage lines, and a regular system of
communication existed by which the allies advised each other when and
where such and such a passenger was going, with such and such an amount of
gold upon him. The holding up of the stage was something regularly
expected, and the traveler who had any money or valuables drew a long
breath when he reached a region where there was really a protecting law.
Men were shot down in the streets on little or no provocation, and the
murderer boasted of his crime and defied punishment. The dance halls were
run day and night. The drinking of whiskey, and, moreover, bad whiskey,
was a thing universal. Vice was everywhere and virtue was not. Those few
who had an aim and an ambition in life were long in the minority and, in
the welter of a general license, they might not recognize each other and
Murder and pillage ruled, until at length the spirit of law and order,
born anew of necessity, grew and gained power as it did in most early
communities of the West. How these things in time took place may best be
seen by reference to the bloody biographies of some of the most reckless
desperadoes ever seen in any land.
Go To Next Chapter -
Plummer in The Story of the Outlaw, by Emerson Hough
of America, updated March, 2017.
Other Works by Emerson Hough:
The Story of
the Outlaw - A Study of the Western Desperado - Entire Text
The Cattle Kings
The Cattle Trails
Cowboys on the American Frontier
The Frontier In History
The Indian Wars
Idaho & Montana
Pathways To the West
The Range of
the American West
About the Author: Excerpted from
the book The Story of the
Outlaw; A Study of the Western Desperado, by
Outing Publishing Company, New York, 1907. This story is not verbatim as
it has been edited for clerical errors and updated for the modern reader.
About the Author: Emerson Hough (1857–1923).was an
author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels
of life in the
West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in
literature and motion pictures.
wrote the feature "Out-of-Doors" for the Saturday
Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.
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