Vigilante Days and Ways.  By now, author Nathaniel Pitt Langford has described what life was like in the new and growing mining towns, first Lewiston and then Florence. Gamblers and outlaws spent their time in saloons or hanging out in shebangs, waiting to relieve miners and others of their gold dust as they travel between mining camps and towns. Good citizens are regularly robbed and killed. Frustrated, many are beginning to think about taking the law into their own hands.

The last installment ended with Langford relaying the story of mule train packers being robbed at gunpoint. Soon after that incident, packers Joseph and John Berry were robbed of eleven hundred dollars by three masked men. The packers recognized the voices of two of the robbers – David English and William Peoples; the third was later discovered to be Nelson Scott. When the packers arrived in Lewiston and told their tale, the citizens felt compelled to act.

Chapter X: First Vigilance Committee   As soon as the Berrys were assured of the identity of the villains who had robbed them they appealed to the people to assist in their capture. The robbers had stripped them of all their hard earnings, and they had the sympathy of every honest man in the community. Nothing more was needed to kindle into a flame of popular excitement the long pent-up fires of smothered indignation. Public sentiment was clamorous for the capture and punishment of the robbers. It gathered strength day by day, until it became the all-absorbing topic everywhere. Men assembled on the street corners, in the stores, in the saloons, and at the outside mining camps to compare views and consult upon measures of relief. Meantime, several parties, whose faith in immediate action was stronger than in consultation, set out in pursuit of the robbers.

The robbers fled, splitting up to make capture more difficult, but were found and arrested.

Old west jail, this one in Bannack, MT.

The only surprise they manifested upon being arrested was at the temerity of their captors. In a community which had so long held them in fear any legal interference with their business was deemed by them an outrage. They did not pause to inquire whether their reign was near its termination, nor think that perhaps the people had decided as between longer submission to their villainies and condign punishment for their actual crimes. If they had, their efforts to escape would have been immediate. As it was, they rested easy, and reflected savagely upon the revenge in store for their captors after their friends had effected their rescue.

The robbers were transported to Walla Walla where a judge ordered them sent to Florence for trial. Upon their arrival in Lewiston, however, the indignant citizens decided they should be tried in Lewiston, by the people. A committee was formed and the robbers held in a strongly-guarded building on the bank of the Clearwater. Others were appointed to arrest any other members of the band of robbers upon sight; upon learning this, most of the other gang members fled, including one known as Happy Harry.

One of the shrewdest of the gang, who from a personal deformity was called “Club Foot George,” well known as a robber and horse-thief, escaped arrest by surrendering himself to the commandant of Fort Lapwai (a United States post twelve miles distant), who confined him in the guard house.

The final disposition of the three villains in custody was delayed until the next day. A strong guard of well-armed men surrounded their prison. Just after midnight the sleeping inhabitants of the town were roused by several shots fired in the direction of the place of confinement. In a few minutes the streets were filled with citizens. A former friend of Peoples, one Marshall, who kept a hotel in town, had, in attempting his rescue, fired upon the guard. In return he received a shot in his arm, and was prostrated by a blow from a clubbed musket. The cause of the melee being explained, the people withdrew, leaving the sentinels at their posts.

The next morning at an early hour the people gathered around the prison. The guards were gone and the door ajar. Unable to restrain their curiosity, and fearful that the robbers had been rescued, they pushed the door wide open. There, hanging by the neck, stark and cold, they beheld the bodies of the three desperadoes. Justice had been anticipated, and the first Vigilance Committee of the northern mines had commenced its work. No one knew or cared who had done it, but all felt that it was right, and the community breathed freer than at any former period in its history.

Intelligence of the execution, with the usual exaggeration, spread far and wide through the mining camps. It was received with approval by the sober citizens, but filled the robber horde with consternation. Charley Harper, while on his way from Florence to Lewiston to gather full particulars, met a mountaineer.

“Stranger,” he inquired, “what’s the news?”

“I s’pose you’ve heard about the hanging of them fellers?”

“Heard something. What’s the particulars?”

“Well, Bill Peoples, Dave English, and Nels Scott have gone in. They strung ‘em up like dried salmon. Happy Harry got out of the way in time; but if they get Club Foot George, his life won’t be worth a cent. They’re after a lot more of ‘em up in Florence.”

“Do you know who all they’re after?” asked Harper.

“Yes. Charley Harper’s the big chief they’re achin’ for the most, but the story now is that he’s already hung. A fellow went into town day before yesterday, and said he saw him strung up out here on Camas Prairie. Did you hear anything of it back on the road?”

Harper needed no further information. He felt that the country was too hot to hold him, and that the bloodhounds were on his track. As soon as the miner was out of sight, he turned to the right, crossed the Clearwater some miles above Lewiston, and pursued a trail to Colville on the Upper Columbia, where we take leave of him for the present.

A mining town blooms in 1867 – Gold Hills, near Virginia City, NV. Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan.

Chapter XI: New Gold Discoveries   When the rumored discovery of extensive gold placers on Salmon river was confirmed, the intelligence spread through the Territories and Mississippi States like wildfire. Thousands of young men, thrown out of employment by the war, and other thousands who dreaded the evils which that great conflict would bring upon the nation, and still others actuated by a thirst for gain, utilized their available resources in providing means for an immediate migration to the land of promise. Before midsummer they had started on the long and perilous journey. How little did they know of its exposures! The deserts, destitute of water and grass, the alkaline plains where food and drink were alike affected by the poisonous dust, the roving bands of hostile Indians, the treacherous quicksands of river fords, the danger and difficulty of the mountain passes, the death of their companions, their cattle and their horses, breakage of their vehicles, angry and often violent personal altercations, –all these fled in the light of the summer sun, the vernal beauty of the plains, the delightfully pure atmosphere which wooed them day by day father away from the abode of civilization, and the protection of law. The most fortunate of this army of adventurers suffered from some of the fruitful causes of disaster. So certain were they in some form to occur, that a successful completion of the journey was simply an escape from death.

…Intelligence of the Beaver Head and Boise discoveries unsettled all local projects for building up the towns of Florence, Elk City, and Oro Fino. They were immediately deserted by all who could leave without sacrifice. West Bannack, at Boise and East Bannack, at Beaver Head, sprung into existence as if by enchantment.

Langford ends this chapter by describing how Henry Plummer, leader of a gang of outlaws, left Florence to find a place to hide out. Staying at a farm on Sun River, he falls in love.

Here, sheltered by the arms of kind relatives, Henry Plummer first saw the only being which inspired his bosom with virtuous love. A young, innocent, and beautiful girl, artless and loving as a child, won by his attention and gentlemanly deportment, and the tale seductive as that poured by the serpent into the ear of Eve, which he told of his love, against the advice of her sister and friends, crowned his happiness with her heart and hand. No stories of his past career, no terrible picture of the future, no tears and petitions, could stay the sacrifice. She felt the sentiment so beautifully expressed by Moore,

“I know not, I ask not, if guilt’s in that heart,

I but know that I love thee, whatever thou art,” –

and under its influence she linked her fortunes with those of the robber, murderer, and outlaw, in the holiest of human ties.

Excerpted from Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies, the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, by Nathaniel Pitt Langford, published by D. D. Merrill Company in 1893.

Read earlier excerpts of Vigilante Days and Ways: Introduction; Second Installment, Third Installment and Fourth Installment.

Cover photo is a collection of old west wanted posters.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This