Vigilante Justice in the American Wild West

From a lecture eries presented by Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

The sudden rush to California in 1849 was something new. Population rose there much faster than the local authorities’ ability to deal with the problems the gold-seekers, nearly all men, brought with them. These were the perfect conditions for vigilante justice to arise.

image of San Francisco Harbor for vigilante justice in the wild west article
San Francisco Harbor, c. 1850—Between 1847 and 1870, the population of San Francisco exploded from 500 to 150,000.

Vigilante Justice in Mining Camps

In the gold camps, hundreds of men living and working side by side feared that the gold they found might be stolen. When they discovered a thief they often created ad hoc courts, heard the evidence, and dealt summarily with the offender. The punishment was usually flogging or banishment, but if the offense was more serious the offender was hanged. Thus began an era of vigilante justice in the American West.

Learn more: Westward the Course of Empire

Even so, the mining camps moved as quickly as they could to formalize legal institutions, create courts and elect sheriffs. Travelers who were impressed by the presence of guns were also impressed by how men from back East had brought with them the civic and democratic traditions of their homes.

At the camps and in the port city of San Francisco, whose population was also growing at breathtaking speed, vigilante justice was also popular at first. Newspaper editors supported it as the necessary response to what would otherwise be chaos and brute force. They also appreciated the fact that it saved the nascent community a lot of money and time.

The speed and ferocity of vigilante punishments was designed to have the strongest possible deterrent effect. For example, an Englishman named James Stuart traveled from Australia —which was then then the site of a large British penal colony— to the gold rush camps of California. He was suspected of a series of thefts, and then of killing a merchant in 1851. The San Francisco Vigilance Committee seized him; it was organized by Sam Brannan, a Mormon businessman and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Hundreds of supporters of the committee poured into the streets as news spread of Stuart’s arrest.

The local sheriff, lacking manpower to take the accused villain away from the vigilantes, made a feeble and ineffective protest before Stuart was marched down to the harbor and hanged in public. California’s governor approved of the action. When an indignant judge impaneled a grand jury to indict the ringleaders, it refused to do so; several of its members belonged to the Vigilance Committee.

Learn more: The West in the Colonial Era

Vigilantes Perform Popular, Yet Violent, Public Service

A few weeks later the Committee attacked the city jail, seized two other men, and hanged them both, despite the authorities attempts to protect them. The committee abolished itself after three months out of deference to due process, but reconvened in 1856 and undertook four more lynchings, again with a high degree of popular and press support, public demonstrations, and pseudo-military regalia.

The states and territories of the plains and mountain West showed comparable patterns of vigilante justice. While miners feared that the gold dust they were painstakingly accumulating might be stolen, cattlemen had to be vigilant against the threat of horse and cattle thieves. Theodore Roosevelt was expressing a fairly common opinion when he wrote that in the early days of these ventures, vigilante justice and even vendettas, were defensible.

“As soon as the communities become settled and begin to grow with any rapidity the American instinct for law asserts itself; but in the early stages each individual is obliged to be a law unto himself and to guard his rights with a strong hand.” – Theodore Roosevelt

In 1863, Bannack, a remote community in Montana territory, was plagued by a gang of hijackers who attacked gold convoys and stagecoaches, seizing property and killing travelers. The citizens of Bannack, and those of the nearby settlement of Alder Gulch, created a vigilance committee of their own, only to discover that the criminal mastermind was their own sheriff, Henry Plummer. Henry Plummer was an odd, many-sided character, extremely hot-tempered, who over the years had shot and killed several men in barroom brawls.

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Image of Henry Plummer for article on vigilante justice
Henry Plummer (1832–1864) Prospector, lawman, and outlaw in the American West in the 1850s and 1860s.

Originally from Maine, he had made a fortune in the California gold rush and been a successful businessman, but then gone to San Quentin prison for murder. Released after winning an appeal, claiming that he had killed his victim in self-defense, Plummer migrated to Montana, made a good impression on the local people, and won election as sheriff.

Learn more: The California Gold Rush

As in San Francisco, the Montana vigilantes who organized to oppose Plummer acted in broad daylight. They seized one of the gang, George Ives, and cross-questioned him at an outdoor trial that lasted for three days despite icy winter weather, and was attended by hundreds of local gold miners. At the end of the trial he was summarily hanged. The committee went on to round up the other members of the gang, lynching twenty men including Plummer himself, in January 1864.

Another Montana vigilance committee, led by Granville Stuart and known as Stuart’s Stranglers, hunted down cattle rustlers across the territory. One of the territory’s richest ranchers, Stuart was enraged by the theft of a prize stallion and thirty-five cattle. His vigilantes killed a large number of thieves, variously estimated at between twenty and a hundred.

Nine men died in one incident, the Battle of Bates Point in 1884, when Stuart’s men set fire to the cabin in which the rustlers were sheltering, then shot them down as they emerged from the flames. He later justified his ruthless approach to law and order in a book, Forty Years on the Frontier, and retained a reputation, not for lawlessness, but for being one of Montana’s leading pioneer citizens. President Grover Cleveland made him the United States’ ambassador to Uruguay and Paraguay.

Keep reading:
Violence in the American West—Unions and Miner Rights
The Ten Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War
American Civil War: The Overland Campaign
The Inauguration of Thomas Jefferson

From the course The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy presented by Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.