Vigilantes of California, Idaho, & Montana

A Dutchman sold some mules and receiving the money therefore in advance as driving the animals on a public road to deliver them to the purchaser, when he was met by Ives, murdered, and robbed of both money and mules. The sight of this man’s body brought into town in a cart stirred the blood of the honest men of the community, and they determined to capture and hang his murderer. A party of citizens thoroughly armed scoured the country, surprised accomplices of the murderer, and wrung from them the confession that George Ives was the murderer. By the following evening, he was captured, and taken a prisoner to Nevada City. He was given a trial. The bench was a wagon; the jury, twenty-four honest men; the aroused citizens stood guard with guns in hand while the trial proceeded, with their eyes fixed upon the desperadoes, who had gathered in force to aid, support, and, if possible, to rescue their comrade in crime. Counsel was heard on both sides; reliable witnesses proved the prisoner guilty of numerous murders and robberies. Condemned to death, his captors repressed every attempt at rescue, arid held the prisoner with cocked and leveled guns. It was a moonlight night, and the campfire shed its gleam on all around Amid the shouts and yells and murderous threats of the assembled ruffians, the condemned assassin and cowardly murderer was led to the gallows, upon which he expiated his manifold crimes. The next day the far-famed Vigilantes of Montana were organized. Five brave men in Nevada City and one in Virginia City, the towns lying adjacent, formed the secret league who opposed, on the side of law and order, force to force and dread to dread against the road agents organization. This league became as terrible to the outlaws as they themselves had been to the honest, order-loving, and industrious part of the community.

Plummer, the sheriff, was seized, and before lie could escape, was executed on a Sunday morning, together with two of his robber deputies, on a gallows which he himself had erected.

The vigilantes, to put an end to the long reign of terror, assumed the duties of captors, judges, jurors, and executioners. But they were not guilty of excesses. They struck terror to those who had defied the weaker arm of the law by sure, swift, and secret punishment of crime. In no case was a criminal executed without evidence establishing his guilt. How closely they hewed to the line in this respect is attested by the dying remarks of one of the last men hanged by their order: “you have done right. Not an innocent man hanged yet!” But it was understood that the work they had undertaken to perform should be faithfully and thoroughly performed; that there should be no half-way measures, no reprieves, the verdict having once been rendered.

An instance of the severe labor, exposure, and real hardship encountered by these guardians of peace and order is furnished in the pursuit and capture of William Hunter.

At the time of the execution of Boone Helm and his five confederates, Hunter managed to elude his pursuers by hiding by day among the rocks and brush, seeking food by night among the scattered settlements along the Gallatin River. Four of the vigilantes, determined and resolute men, volunteered to arrest him. They crossed the divide and forded the Madison River when huge cakes of floating ice swirled down on the flanks of the horses, threatening to carry them down. Their camping ground was the frozen earth, the weather intensely cold and they slept at night under their blankets, by the side of a fire which they had built. The next day their way led through a tremendous snowstorm, which they welcomed as an ally. About two o’clock in the afternoon, they reached Milk Ranch, twenty miles from their destination, obtained their supper and again proceeded, after dark, with a guide well acquainted with the country. At midnight they reached the cabin where they learned Hunter had been driven to seek refuge from the severe storm and cold. They halted, unsaddled, and rapped loudly at the door. On being admitted they found two persons in the cabin – two visible, and one covered up in bed.

The vigilantes made themselves as comfortable as possible before a blazing fire on the hearth. They talked of mining, prospecting, panning-out, and terms of that character as if they were traveling miners. Before going to sleep, however, they carefully examined the premises as to its exits and placed themselves in such a manner as to command the only entrance and exit. They refrained from saying anything concerning their real business until early the following morning when their horses were saddled and they appeared ready to proceed on their journey. Then they asked who the sleeper was, who had never spoken or uncovered his head. The reply was that he was unknown; he had been there two days, driven in by the storm. Asked to describe him, the description was that of Hunter.

The vigilantes then went to the bed, and allying a firm hand on the sleeper, gripped the revolvers held by him in his hand beneath the bedclothes. “Bill Hunter” was called upon to arise and behold grim men with guns leveled at his head. He asked to be taken to Virginia City, but he soon found a shorter road lay before him. Two miles from the cabin they halted beneath a tree with a branch over which a rope could be thrown and a spur to which the end could be fastened. Scraping away a foot of snow, they built a fire and cooked their breakfast. After breakfast, they consulted and took a vote as to the disposition of the prisoner. That vote determined upon instant execution. The perils of the long tramp over the mountain divide, the crossing of the icy stream, the small force involved in his capture, and the certainty of an attempt at rescue when his capture became known to his accomplices, all rendered this necessary. The long catalog of crimes he had committed was read to him, and he was asked to plead any extenuating circumstances in his own behalf. There were none, and he remained silent. He had once been an honest, hard-working man, and was believed to be an upright citizen. In an evil hour, he joined his fortunes with the wicked band that had likewise perished on the scaffold. His sole request was that his friend in the States should not be informed of the manner of his death.

Thus died the last of Plummer’s famous band of outlaws, executing in his last moments the pantomime of grasping an imaginary pistol, cocking it, and discharging in rapid succession its six ghostly barrels.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Bannock, Montana Gallows

Bannock, Montana Gallows

About the Author: John W. Clampitt wrote this article for Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 83, Issue 495, August 1891. However, the story, as it appears here is not verbatim as it has been edited for clerical errors and updated for the modern reader.  It has also been pointed out to Legends Of America by a reader that Clampitt’s story is lifted (some outright plagiarized) from “The First Vigilance Committees”, by Gustav Bergenroth, published in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, in November of 1856.

Also See:

Adventures in the American West

Lynchings & Hangings of America

List of Old West Vigilantes

California Vigilantes by Emerson Hough


1 thought on “Vigilantes of California, Idaho, & Montana”

  1. The article was written as if the southern part of California didn’t exist. The “Monte Boys” were well known for their vigilante justice in the Los Angeles region from the early 1850’s to the 1870’s.

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