Nathaniel Pitt Langford, 1870.

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.

Introduction to a New McCall Digest Series About Idaho History  

Maybe you, too, grew up watching westerns on TV: The Lone Ranger, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and the Virginian. All of these programs featured strong male leads who confronted outlaws, protecting their loved ones, their towns, and deserving strangers. I remember watching all the lawlessness and having a vague sense that while the town sheriff always tried to uphold the rule of law, often he was outnumbered and needed help. Much of the mayhem and trouble occurred in saloons among gamblers. Occasionally a group of rough vigilantes played into the storyline, but rarely, and usually they were convinced by the sheriff or law-abiding lead character to put down their rifles and let the law prevail.

The Lone Ranger was one of my favorite shows. Now it occurs to me that the “masked man” who always saved the day (with the help of Tonto and Silver) – a Texas Ranger – was really an idealized vigilante. It was just never stated.

And little did I know how closely the plot lines of those shows were based on actual history, or how sanitized their versions of the Wild West were. Reality was much, much worse.

Popular TV westerns.

Reading Langford’s account of the criminals running amok in and around the mining towns of the early 1860s in what was known then as Oregon state and Washington Territory, and the vigilante groups that formed in response to the lawlessness, you realize that he was well aware that the vigilantes, too, were often unlawful and excessive, sometimes frowned upon by law-abiding citizens. In Langford’s view, the vigilantes were the last bulwark against total mayhem and destruction of civil society. Langford was instrumental in forming the Montana Vigilantes, after all, to help protect his own business interests in the town of Bannack as well as those of the other citizens. He had a dog in the fight.

It’s said that history is written by the victors. Langford considered himself an historian and clearly wanted to “set the record” regarding the vigilantes and the outlaws killed by them with this book. He had a bias in favor of the vigilantes, but he also acknowledges there were excesses and mistakes. Other historians were less charitable, which Langford anticipated.

So, take Langford’s telling of this period in history with a grain of salt in terms of who was guilty and who was innocent, while being thankful that today, living in the same region, we are a society governed by laws rather than might. Over the next several weeks McCall Digest will feature excerpts from Langford’s book, showing a writer colorfully describing incidents involving people and places in Idaho, Washington and Montana during the wild mining rush of the early 1860s.

Who Was Nathaniel Pitt Langford?

Nathaniel Pitt Langford (1832–1911) was an explorer, businessman, vigilante and historian from Saint Paul, Minnesota. As a key member creating the Montana Vigilantes, a group tasked with addressing rampant lawlessness in the mining towns of Virginia City and Bannack, MT during 1863-64, Langford played an important role in the early years of the Montana gold fields, its territorial government and the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Langford’s signature during tenure as superintendent of Yellowstone, his initials also standing for National Park.

In June 1862 Langford was a member and officer of the Northern Overland Expedition, commanded by Captain James L. Fisk. They left Saint Paul with the goal of establishing a wagon road to the Salmon river mine regions of the Rocky Mountains. They ended up at gold fields in the area soon to become Bannack, where Langford established freight companies, a saw mill and other businesses.

Later, Langford was a member of the 1870 Washburn–Langford–Doane Expedition, exploring portions of the region to become the Yellowstone National Park. Mount Langford, 10,623 feet in the Absaroka Range, is named after him. Langford was eventually appointed as the first superintendent of Yellowstone Park. Without a salary, however, he had to make a living elsewhere and in his five years as superintendent, he spent time in the park just twice. He was removed as superintendent in 1877. Returning to his home state of Minnesota, Langford began writing about his experiences and Western history. Vigilante Day and Ways was written in 1890 and published in 1893. In 1905 he published a book about his experiences exploring Yellowstone, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park. Prior to his passing he served as the President of and on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Western movies with a vigilante theme.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Vigilante Days and Ways

No one can read this record of events, and escape the conviction that an honest, laborious, and well-meaning life, whether successful or not, is preferable to all the temporary enjoyments of a life of recklessness and crime. …No sadder commentary could have stained our civilization than to permit the numerous and bloody crimes committed in the early history of this portion of our country to go unwhipped of justice. And the fact that they were promptly and thoroughly dealt with stands among the earliest and noblest characteristics of a people which derived their ideas of right and of self-protection from that spirit and the law that flows spontaneously from our free institutions.

Up to this time, fear of punishment had exercised no restraining influence on the conduct of men who had organized murder and robbery into a steady pursuit. They hesitated at no atrocity necessary to accomplish their guilty designs. Murder with them was resorted to as the most available means of concealing robbery, and the two crimes were generally coincident. The country, filled with canyons, gulches, and mountain passes, was especially adapted to their purposes, and the unpeopled distances between mining camps afforded ample opportunity for carrying them into execution. Pack trains and companies, stage coaches and express messengers, were as much exposed as the solitary traveler, and often selected as objects of attack. Miners, who had spent months of hard labor in the accumulation of a few hundred dollars, were never heard of after they left the mines to return to their distant homes. Men were daily and nightly robbed and murdered in the camps. There was no limit to this system of organized brigandage.

…I offer these remarks not in vindication of all the acts of the vigilantes, but of so many of them as were necessary to establish the safety and protection of the people. The reader will find among the later acts of some of the individuals claiming to have exercised the authority of the vigilantes some executions of which he cannot approve. For these persons I can offer no apology. Many of these were worse men than those they executed. Some were hasty and committed grievous offenses. Unhappily for the vigilantes, the acts of these men have been recalled to justify an opinion abroad, prejudicial to the vigilante organization. Nothing could be more unjust. The early vigilantes were the best and most intelligent men in the mining regions. They saw and felt that, in the absence of all law, they must become a “law until themselves,” or submit to the bloody code of the banditti by which they were surrounded, and which was increasing in numbers more rapidly than themselves. Every man among them realized from the first the great delicacy and care necessary in the management of a society which assumed the right to condemn to death a fellow-man. And they now refer to the history of all those men who suffered death by their decree as affording ample justification for the severity of their acts. What else could they do? How else were their own lives and property, and the lives and property of the great body of peaceable miners in the placers to be preserved? What other protection was there for a country entirely destitute of law?

…I have endeavored to narrate nothing but the facts, and these will enable every reader to judge correctly the merits of each case.

I would fain believe that this history, bloody as it is, will prove both interesting and instructive. In all that concerns crime of the blankest dye on the one hand, and love for law and order on the other, it stands without a parallel in the annals of any people. Nowhere else, nor at any former period since men became civilized, have murder and robbery and social vice presented an organized front, and offered an open contest for supremacy to a large civilized community. …And when the vigilantes of Montana entered upon their work, they did not know how soon they might have to encounter a force numerically great than their own.

In my view the moral of this history is a good one. The brave and faithful conduct of the vigilantes furnishes an example of American character, from a point of view entirely new.

…But enough! If the history fails to remove the prejudices of my readers, nothing I can say will do so. It speaks for itself, and though there are a few of its later occurrences I would gladly blot, there is nothing in its early transactions, nothing in the design it unfolds, nothing in the results which have followed, that on a similar occasion I would not wish to see reproduced.

(Editor’s Note: Future installments of Vigilante Days and Ways will be restricted to subscribers only. Please consider subscribing now so you don’t miss a single installment. Reader support is always appreciated!)

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).

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