The Vigilantes of Montana, Part 1

Montana's Vigilantes deserve an honorable place in Montana history because they ended an era during which ruffians ruled and murder was tolerated.

The Legal Background

A group of prospectors discovered gold in June 1863, in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains between the Beaverhead River and what is now Yellowstone Park. This area they dubbed Alder Gulch.

Alder Gulch lay hundreds of miles from anywhere. Five hundred miles west, across high ranges of mountains, lay the closest administrative center, Lewiston, Idaho. Three-hundred-fifty miles north lay Fort Benton, again across rugged mountain ranges. The nearest major supply center was Salt Lake City, 700 miles south.

Effectively, the people flocking to the gold mines had a vacuum of law. Think of it. No law. No civil or criminal codes except those for Idaho territory, with no copies held locally. No police force. No jails. No courts of law as we know them.

The Gulch, some 14 miles long, was organized (sort of) into mining districts, each 1 - 1.5 miles long on the banks of Alder Creek. Each mining district elected its own sheriff, recorder, judge, and president (who usually functioned as judge).

The officers of one mining district did not have jurisdiction in another mining district.

Even worse, Congress, when it formed Idaho Territory, had forgotten to connect the U. S. Constitution to the Territory, so until the Idaho Legislature met, the Constitution did not govern the Territory. The Constitution did not apply to Idaho until early in 1864, and news traveled extremely slowly over rugged, snow-filled mountain ranges.

A legal vacuum existed in the Alder Gulch area.

(Next: The Miners Court)

This site by Byte Savvy, LLC. Text & Graphics © Carol Buchanan  

Carol BuchananPhoto by Trevon Baker

The Legal Background

The Miners Court

The Murder of Nicholas Tbalt

Forming the Vigilantes

Henry Plummer

The Bannack Hangings

The Virginia City Hangings

The Hanging of Joseph Slade

Further Reading


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