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The Vigilantes of Montana Revisited
By John C. Fazio & Carol Buchanan
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

Editor's Note: In February 2005 CCWRT past president John Fazio published his article The Vigilantes of Montana in The Charger, the CCWRT newsletter.  The article was later republished here on the CCWRT Website and in November 2010 a revision of the article was published in The Montana Pioneer where it caught the attention of Montana writer Carol Buchanan.  Ms. Buchanan is the author of God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, an historical novel set in Montana during the vigilante period.  Ms. Buchanan wrote to us taking exception to several points made by Mr. Fazio in his article and even graciously submitted her own overview of the period, Gold, Greed and a Vacuum of Law for publication on the CCWRT website.

The article below is a dialog between our two authors, John Fazio and Carol Buchanan discussing their differences on the history of the vigilante period in Montana.


Carol Buchanan's Comments on John Fazio's Essay,
"The Vigilantes of Montana"

The Vigilantes of Montana could not be more misrepresented than they are in John C. Fazio’s essay, “The Vigilantes of Montana”. To build his conspiracy case, Mr. Fazio ignores historical reality in several important respects.

  1. Far from being “stranglers” on a “terroristic orgy” the Montana Vigilantes united Unionists and Confederate sympathizers to put down rampant crime.

  2. Rather than “bypass(ing) everything resembling due process -- no trials, no judges, no juries,” the Vigilantes’ actions in 1863-1864 established the law where there had been none.

  3. The distance between Bannack and Virginia City over modern roads is 57 miles, according to Montana Department of Transportation. In 1863-1864, Virginia City was not “only 75 miles” from Bannack, it was 75 miles over rocky, rutted trails by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach. A good strong horse can walk 6 miles in an hour in good conditions. Old timers tell of riding 60 miles in a long day with breaks to water and feed the horse. Stagecoach teams, driven at a fast trot or a gallop, were changed at way stations every seven miles.

  4. He accuses the Vigilantes of ignoring due process, but overlooks the legal history of Idaho and Montana Territories, and the state of the law during the Civil War.

  5. He overestimates the amount of gold available to his so-called conspirators. Rather than $800,000 per week, in reality, it was more likely around $96,000 - $100,000. Placer gold has to be dug out of the ground, pounded free of its host rock a bit at a time, then panned in water to separate the dirt from the gold. It is very hard work.

  6. The Vigilantes did not strangle people. The term, “stranglers,” came from their enemies who objected to the hangings.

  7. Rather than being a gang of Unionists, the Vigilantes as a group comprised the entire spectrum of political opinion during the Civil War era. Wilbur Fisk Sanders, the Vigilante prosecutor, was an abolitionist, but Paris S. Pfouts, the Vigilante president, was a secessionist who recounts in his autobiography (Four Firsts for a Modest Hero) how strongly he objected to taking the oath of allegiance to his own country. He also refers scathingly to the “negro equality school.” When Henry Plummer was hanged, Sanders led the Bannack Vigilantes, but George Chrisman, a Southerner, sent his slave (also named George) to get the rope.

John Fazio's Response

Putting aside Ms. Buchanan’s hyperbolic opening sentence (even if one were to grant misrepresentation, surely it is possible for the Vigilantes of Montana to be more misrepresented), let us examine her points in the order in which she makes them.

1. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: Far from being “stranglers” on a “terroristic orgy” the Montana Vigilantes united Unionists and Confederate sympathizers to put down rampant crime.

My response: Ms. Buchanan would have us believe that the Vigilantes were a 19th century version of medieval knights, drawn from all segments of what passed for society, without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, nationality or political sympathies, united in the common and noble cause of bringing law and order, justice and stability, to a chaotic and volatile frontier. Sounds good. But, like so many things that sound good, it wasn’t so. Ms. Buchanan overlooks the fact that the Vigilantes were not creatures from another world, but humans (and therefore frail), all men (and therefore given to testosterone fits), and all unregulated by any higher authority who or which could have held them to account for their actions (and therefore free to do anything they damned well pleased, without consequence) – a deadly mix.

Within two weeks of its creation, the Vigilance Committee (the Vigilantes’ official name) had more than a thousand members, almost all of them Republican Masons from the North. Almost all of their victims were non-Mason, Democrat secessionists from the South. Coincidence? Hardly.

There were doubtless some criminals among the victims, but their status as such was incidental, because the Committee’s real purpose was not to bring criminals to justice, but to root out those Democrat secessionists who showed leadership qualities (such as Henry Plummer, the Sheriff of Bannack, who was dispatched on January 10, 1864) and who were therefore a threat to the gold supply.

Rampant crime? By that, Ms. Buchanan must surely mean “the Secret Society of Road Agents”, aka “Villains”, those nasty fellows with the secret signs, passwords and similar mummery, who waylaid innocent travelers, robbed them, murdered them and then made off with the gold shipments, and who had as their “secret” leader none other than the Mayor of Bannack(!), the previously named Henry Plummer, who just happened to be a Democrat from Maine, with an alien New England accent besides! The truth, or in any case the far greater likelihood, is that there never was a Society of Road Agents, secret or otherwise, and that “road agents” were nothing more than a foil for the Vigilantes, a fiction used to galvanize a largely hostile population, though it is of course true that there were robberies, murders and heists of gold.

The fiction served the additional purpose of providing cover for individual Vigilantes who, apart from the political purpose previously referred to, had their own motives for wanting certain people dead, including personal enmity, vengeance, political adversity and racism. Some historians have gone as far as to contend that the Vigilantes themselves passed word of gold shipments to out-of-town agents who would then rob stages, wagons and travelers and then blame the “road agents” for the villainy.  In any case, the Vigilantes’ victims numbered 35 by the end of 1865 (the Virginia City Montana Post, 9-23,30 1865) and almost 100 by the time public outrage forced them to get out of the lynching business and to find refuge behind the skirts of revisionist historians.

2. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: Rather than “bypass(ing) everything resembling due process -- no trials, no judges, no juries,” the Vigilantes’ actions in 1863-1864 established the law where there had been none.

My response: It is true that there was no law in the Idaho and Montana Territories during the period, but the Vigilantes did not remedy that deficiency; they merely continued it, becoming a law unto themselves. The word “vigilante”, by definition, refers to summary proceedings without due process. Ms. Buchanan states categorically that “there was a vacuum of law, and their actions established the rule of law.” That categorical statement is categorically false. The Vigilantes did not establish law; they simply killed a lot of people, summarily. To be accused was to be convicted. To be convicted was to die. That is not law; that is anarchy, the “law” of the jungle, a state of affairs in which life is “short, nasty and brutish”.

Their numbers were more than enough to establish law and the trappings thereof if they had wanted to, but it was not their purpose. If it had been their purpose, they could have accomplished it relatively quickly and easily. The first territorial legislature in Idaho, as Ms. Buchanan herself mentions, established a criminal code in less than a month (December 7, 1863, to January 4, 1864), citing the “common law of England”. The Vigilantes might have duplicated the Idaho Code, or established something similar to it, in the first weeks of 1864. Instead, they strangled 21 men between January 4 (George W. Brown) and February 3 (William Hunter). If they had really brought law and order to southwestern Montana, history would not have recorded them as vigilantes, but as lawgivers.

3. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: The distance between Bannack and Virginia City over modern roads is 57 miles, according to Montana Department of Transportation. In 1863-1864, Virginia City was not “only 75 miles” from Bannack, it was 75 miles over rocky, rutted trails by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach. A good strong horse can walk 6 miles in an hour in good conditions. Old timers tell of riding 60 miles in a long day with breaks to water and feed the horse. Stagecoach teams, driven at a fast trot or a gallop, were changed at way stations every seven miles.

My response: I was obviously referring to the distance at that time. Of what relevance is the distance over modern roads?

4. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: He accuses the Vigilantes of ignoring due process, but overlooks the legal history of Idaho and Montana Territories, and the state of the law during the Civil War.

My response: It is precisely because I did not overlook the lawlessness of the time and place that I could describe the Vigilantes as themselves lawless.

5. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: He overestimates the amount of gold available to his so-called conspirators. Rather than $800,000 per week, in reality, it was more likely around $96,000 - $100,000. Placer gold has to be dug out of the ground, pounded free of its host rock a bit at a time, then panned in water to separate the dirt from the gold. It is very hard work.

My response: I did not call them conspirators and I did not say the value of the gold from Virginia City was $800,000 per week; I said it was $600,000 per week (estimated to be from $18 million to $30 million a week in today’s dollars). The value of the gold does not lend itself to a precise determination, no more so than the value of an 1863-1864 dollar, which varies according to which of four indices is used to establish it. Whatever the value of the gold, it was certainly enough for the Federal government to take action to secure it. It was for this purpose that Lincoln sent his men, Sidney Edgerton, a Republican and close friend of Lincoln’s from the earliest days of the party, and his nephew, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, into the territory. We may be certain that they did not go there because they felt the need for a vacation in the highlands.

6. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: The Vigilantes did not strangle people. The term, “stranglers,” came from their enemies who objected to the hangings.

My response: The Vigilantes most certainly did strangle their victims, to obtain maximum deterrent effect, compared to a broken neck from a quick drop. The strangulation, however, was not accomplished as one might picture it, such as with a garrote or piano wire. It was done, rather, by placing a noose around the victim’s neck and then stringing him up from the ground to a point where his feet barely touched the ground. The result was that a victim would wrap his legs around whatever was handy, if he could, or do a little dance in a vain effort to relieve the pressure around his neck, until he could dance no more. Eight minutes of excruciating pain was the usual period before death mercifully overcame the unfortunates, though some hung on longer. Witnesses observing these spectacles were powerfully induced to tread the straight and narrow, which was the purpose of course.

7. Ms. Buchanan’s comment: Rather than being a gang of Unionists, the Vigilantes as a group comprised the entire spectrum of political opinion during the Civil War era. Wilbur Fisk Sanders, the Vigilante prosecutor, was an abolitionist, but Paris S. Pfouts, the Vigilante president, was a secessionist who recounts in his autobiography (Four Firsts for a Modest Hero) how strongly he objected to taking the oath of allegiance to his own country. He also refers scathingly to the “negro equality school.” When Henry Plummer was hanged, Sanders led the Bannack Vigilantes, but George Chrisman, a Southerner, sent his slave (also named George) to get the rope.

My response: I did not characterize the Vigilantes as a “gang of Unionists”, though I might just as well have, because it was Unionist work they were doing. I should add, however, that we may be certain that the grisly particulars were kept from Lincoln. The President was too kind a man and had too big a heart to have countenanced such methods, and Edgerton surely knew that. Not so, however, with Edgerton himself, who has a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners look, which suggests that he was a bottom-line man capable of anything. Further, it would have been extraordinary if, among more than a thousand Masonist Republican Vigilantes, there was not the odd Democrat secessionist, Copperhead or someone who just defied a label. As for one of the exceptions – Paris Pfouts – Chief of the Committee, I already mentioned him as being an anomaly. Doubtless there were others who, like Pfouts, had their own reasons for joining the Vigilantes – deserters, parolees, those with mixed loyalties, those who had taken oaths or those who simply realized that the Confederacy wasn’t going to win the war and that prudence, therefore, dictated discretion rather than valor.

Ms. Buchanan’s little vignette about who fetched the rope for Henry Plummer’s execution is a colorful tidbit, but if it is meant to demonstrate that the Vigilantes were not overwhelmingly Unionist, doing Sidney Edgerton’s and Wilbur Fish Sanders’ Unionist work, it falls far short of the mark.

In conclusion, let me say that Ms. Buchanan uses the word “conspiracy” too easily, as in “To build his conspiracy case, Mr. Fazio…etc.” The word “conspiracy” connotes secrecy and clandestine operations. But in my judgment, there was nothing secret or clandestine about what the Vigilantes were doing. Lincoln’s men were Edgerton and Sanders. Call them the brains. Their men were Sergeant James Williams, their hatchetman or Unit Commander, and John X. Beidler (known simply as X. Beidler), their executioner. They had a job to do in what was essentially hostile territory where there was no law. (It was estimated that 80% of the population of the area were Confederate sympathizers.) Rather than establish law and order, which would have meant yielding to the proclivities of the secessionist majority, and the loss of the gold to the Confederacy, they resorted to extra-legal and extra-judicial means. It was not the only extra-legal and extra-judicial thing the Federal government did to preserve the Union. Desperate times require desperate measures. In any case, there was no conspiracy to it; it was all quite open, and the results were there for everyone to see. As far as the Vigilantes were concerned, especially Edgerton, Sanders, Williams and Beidler, the more who saw such results the better.

 


JOHN C. FAZIO'S SOURCES

  1. Interview With Dan Cushman, by Louis Schmittroth (February, 1997) (Available On-line at Vigilantes of Montana Website (Secret Trials and Midnight Hangings 1863-1864))

  2. Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer, by R.E. Mather (January, 1999)

  3. Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer, by R.E. Mather and R.E. Boswell (June, 1987)

  4. Henry Plummer, Lawman and Outlaw, by Art Pauley (1980)

  5. Lincoln's Man: The Golden Road, by David Yablonsky

  6. Lincoln's Vulnerable Treasure Chest, the Civil War in Montana, by Tom Sargent (Virginia City Preservation Alliance) (Available On-line)

  7. Montana-The Gold Frontier, by Dan Cushman (December, 1992)

  8. Afterthoughts on the Vigilantes, by Dr. J.W. Smurr (Available On-line at Vigilantes of Montana Website (Secret Trials and Midnight Hangings 1863-1864))

  9. The Economics of the Civil War, the Civiil War in Montana, by Tom Sargent (Virginia City Preservation Alliance) (Available On-line)

  10. Vigilante Victims: Montana's 1864 Hanging Spree, by R.E. Mather (July, 1991)

  11. Vigilantes of Montana: 1864 Revisited, by L.A. Schmittroth (Available On-line at Vigilantes of Montana Website (Secret Trials and Midnight Hangings 1863-1864))
 

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable