April 01, 2012

Montana’s Vigilantes: Crime and Order

Memoirs have painted a sometimes sympathetic picture of the frontier justice that accompanied that Montana Territory's lawlessness, but history provides a harsher account.

Robert Aitken, Marilyn Aitken

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There was no law and order in the Idaho Territory east of the Bitterroots, where one of the world’s largest gold strikes took place at Alder Creek in May 1863. Stages carrying miners and merchants to the small settlement of Nevada City and the larger neighboring boom town of Virginia City were regularly ambushed by “road agents,” who forced passengers to hand over pouches of gold dust. No territorial courts existed; the chief justice had not been sworn in and refused to act. He was waiting to become governor when this remote area would be split off and be called Montana Territory. Law enforcement was typified by Henry Plummer, a notorious sheriff, who appointed members of his robber band as deputies. Then the corpse of Nick Tiebold (Tbolt) was discovered.

In December 1863, the trial of George Ives for Tbolt’s murder took place, an epic spectacle with a cast of at least a thousand: lawyers, prosecutor, judge, jury, and a huge crowd of spectators deciding the verdict. Justice was swift, but a trial took time. In those lawless days, it was more efficient to entrust the enforcement of order to a small band of prominent citizens. Memoirs and journalism celebrated the resulting spree of hangings, but history, while understanding the fury against lawlessness that fueled the early vigilante actions, provides a harsher account of the private war that continued even after a court system was established.


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