Vigilante Days and Ways. Author Nathaniel Pitt Langford earlier introduced us to Lewiston, the first significant mining camp in what is today Idaho but was then part of Washington Territory, and what life was like there at the beginning of the 1860-1866 gold rush. He described the roles of saloons and gamblers in those societies, as well as the opportunists who robbed the minors and became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the honest citizens of mining camps and towns alike. Outlaws such as Henry Plummer, Charley Harper and Cherokee Bob. Mining camps closer to the gold strikes came into being and quickly grew: Florence, Oro Fino and Elk City to name a few, filling with “maniacs” drawn by the lure of gold and untold riches, becoming easy targets for the “banditti” riding out of their “shebangs.”
Chapter IX: Florence Florence was now the established headquarters of the robbers. Its isolated location, its distance from the seat of government, its mountain surroundings, and, more than all, its utter destitution of power to enforce law and order, gave it peculiar fitness as a base to the criminal and bloody operations of the desperate gang which infested it. At all hours of the day and night some of them were to be seen at the two saloons kept by Cherokee Bob and Cyrus Skinner. When one company disappeared another took its place, and at no time were there less than twenty or thirty of these desperadoes at one or both of their haunts, plotting and contriving deeds of plunder and robbery which involved the hard earnings, possibly the lives, of many of the fortunate miners of the vicinity.
The crowd from both east and west had arrived. The town was full of gold-hunters. Expectation lighted up the countenance of every new comer. Few had yet realized the utter despair of failure in a mining camp. In the presence of vice in all its forms, men who were staid and exemplary at home laid aside their morality like a useless garment and yielded to the seductive influences spread for their ruin. The gambling shops and hurdy-gurdy saloons – beheld for the first time by many of the fortune-seekers – lured them on step by step, until many of them abandoned all thought of the object they had in pursuit for lives of shameful and criminal indulgence.
The condition of society thus produced was fatal to all attempts at organization, either for protection or good order. Wholly unrestrained by fear or conscience, the robbers carried on their operations in the full blaze of midday. Affrays were of daily occurrence, and robberies took place in the public streets. Harper, the acknowledged chief, stained with the darkest crimes, walked the streets with the boldness and confidence of one who gloried in his iniquity. Peaceable, honest, well-meaning citizens, completely overawed, were fortunate to escape insult or abuse, as they passed to and fro in pursuit of their occupations. Woe to the unfortunate miner who entered the town if it were known or believed that there was any treasure on his person! If not robbed on the spot, or lured into a hurdy-gurdy saloon, or cheated at the gambling-table, he was waylaid by disguised ruffians on his return to his camp, and by threats and violence, or when these failed, by death itself, relieved of his hard-bought earnings. For one of these sufferers to recognize and expose any of his assailants was simply to insure his death at his hands the first convenient opportunity.
Langford describes the robbery and killing of an “eccentric German miner” at his cabin three miles from town. The robbers failed only in their attempt to cover their crime by fire; only a corner of the cabin burned.
Acts of violence and bloodshed were not infrequent among the robbers themselves. Soon after the murder of the German, a company of them, who had been gambling all night at one of the saloons, broke up in a quarrel at sunrise. Before they reached the street, a revolver in the hands of Brockie was discharged, killing instantly one of the departing brawlers. The murderer surrendered himself to a justice of the peace, and escaped upon the singular plea that the shot was accidental and did not hit the person he intended to kill. One of the jury, in a letter to a friend, wrote: “The verdict gave universal satisfaction, the feeling over the homicide among good citizens being that Brockie had done a good thing. If he had killed two of the ruffians instead of one, and then hung himself, good men would have been better pleased.”
(…) For some reason, probably to place him beyond the reach of the friends of the murdered robber, Brockie was assigned to a new position. Ostensibly to establish a ferry at the mouth of Whitebird creek, a few miles from town, but really for the purpose of furnishing a convenient rendezvous for his companions, he took up his abode there. It was on the line of travel between Florence and a gold discovery reputed to have been made on a tributary of the Boise river.
About the middle of September, Arthur Chapman, son of the surveyor-general of Oregon, while waiting for ferriage, was brutally assaulted by Brockie, who rushed toward him with pistol and knife, swearing that he would “shoot him as full of holes as a sieve, and then cut him into sausage meat.” With an axe which he seized upon the instant, Chapman clove his skull to the chin. Brockie fell dead in his tracks, another witness to the fulfillment of that terrible denunciation, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Chapman was honorably acquited of crime.
Langford next goes into great and interesting detail about the importance of pack-trains in moving goods over Idaho’s challenging terrain.
Perhaps in the early history of no part of our country were greater difficulties overcome in moving from one place to another than in the mining districts of Oregon and Idaho. Essentially a mountain region, and in all portions of it away from the narrow valleys formed by the streams filled with the remains of extensive volcanic action, its surface, besides being broken into deep canyons, lofty ridges, inaccessible precipices, impassable streams, and impenetrable lava beds, was also covered everywhere with the sharp points and fissured hummocks which were cast out during a long and active period of primeval eruption. There were no natural roads in any direction. The trail of the Indian was full of obstacles, often indirect and generally impracticable. To travel with vehicles of any sort was absolutely impossible. The pack animal was the only available resource for transportation. The miner would bind all his earthly gear on the back of a mule or a burro and grapple with obstructions as they appeared, cutting his way through forests almost interminable, and exposing himself to dangers as trying to his fortitude as to his ingenuity. The merchant who wished to transport goods, the saloon-keeper who had liquors and billiard tables, the hotel-keep whose furniture was necessary, all had to employ pack animals as the only means of transportation from the towns on the Columbia to the mining camps of the interior. The owner of a train of pack animals was always certain of profitable employment. His life was precarious, his subsistence poor, and his responsibilities enormous. He threaded the most dangerous passes, and incurred the most fearful risks, –for all which he received adequate compensation.
The pack-train was always a lively feature in the gigantic mountain scenery of Oregon and Idaho. A train of fifty or one hundred animals, about equally composed of mules and burros, each heavily laden, the experienced animal in the lead picking the way for those in the rear, amid the rocks, escarpments, and precipices of a lofty mountain side, was a spectacle of thrilling interest. At times, the least misstep would have precipitated some unfortunate animal thousands of feet down the steep declivity, dashing him to pieces on the rocks below. Fortunately the cautious and sure tread of these faithful creatures rendered such an accident of very rare occurrence, though to the person who beheld them in motion for the first time the feeling was ever present that they could not escape it. The arrival of one of these large trains in a mining camp produced greater excitement among the inhabitants than any other event, and the calculations upon their departure from the Columbia river and their appearance in the interior towns were made and anticipated with nearly as much certainty as if they were governed by a published time-table.
The confidence of the owner of a train of pack-animals in their sagacity and sure-footedness relieved him of all fear of accident by travel, but he could never feel as well assured against the attacks of robbers. All the men in charge of a train were well armed and in momentary expectation of a surprise. Frequently on the return trips they were entrusted by merchants with large amounts of gold dust. Opportunities of this character seldom escaped the vigilance of the robbers, –and any defect in the police of the departing train insured an attack upon it in some of the difficult passes on its route to the river.
The packer of a train belonging to Neil McClinchey, a well-known mercantile operator of the Upper Columbia, in October, 1862, when four days out from Florence, on his return to Walla Walla, was stopped by a masked party of which Harper was supposed to be the leader, and for want of sufficient force robbed of fourteen pounds of gold. As he gave the treasure into the hands of the assailants, the villain who took it said in a consoling one: “That’s sensible. If every man was as reasonable as you things would go along smoother.”
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
Cover photo: Old Florence, 1907. Based on the photo below, taken in 1896, two of the three buildings still standing in the cover photo are the stage and livery barn and McKenzie’s General store.