Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion

1999

Thesis Director

Christopher Waldrep

Abstract

In late December of 1863, a group of men in the fledgling Idaho Territory formed a vigilance committee to rid the area of criminals. In little more than a month, the committee hanged twenty-one men, including the area's sheriff, Henry Plummer. This work deals with these events which took place in and around the mining camps of Bannack and Virginia City in Idaho Territory, now in the state of Montana, during the winter of 1863-64. It attempts to answer the following questions: What circumstances led to this significant outbreak of lynch law? Who decided that a vigilance committee was the only method capable of dealing with the situation existing in the territory? How did people throughout the United States learn about these events, which had occurred in the obscurity of the Far West and in the midst of America's Civil War?

This work demonstrates the political nature of the vigilante movement in Montana and its lasting impact on interpretations of the vigilance movement. Radical Republicans in Montana during the Civil War, like their counterparts in Washington, D.C., favored government intervention against slavery. From this abolitionist stand against slavery based on moral principles grew a willingness to use personal definitions of morality as the basis for intervention in political and judicial affairs. The Radical Republican political views held by influential men in Montana such as Sidney Edgerton and Wilbur Sanders caused them to form a vigilance committee in place of the legitimate legal system represented by miners' courts, while also prompting Thomas Dimsdale, another Radical Republican, to present the issue to the public in terms of morality versus immorality, making his version of events both easier for the public to accept and also more enduring. This paper accounts for both the vigilantes' actions, and the acceptance of their views by the public as the true story of what really happened and why.

Chapter I addresses the issue of the judicial system as it existed in Idaho during the period prior to the formation of the vigilance committee. An assessment of the situation shows that even though the territorial court system was not yet functioning, the miners' courts provided a working court system for the mining camps in the area. Chapter II looks at the actual formation of the vigilance committee, detailing the actions of the vigilantes and their leaders to determine what caused them to ignore the miners' court system in favor of mob law. Their Radical Republican ideology of a powerful government acting against individuals based on moral principles provided the vigilante leaders with a concept of government conducive to extralegal action. Chapter III focuses on the acceptance of the Radical Republican interpretation of the vigilantes' actions, as presented by Thomas Dimsdale in his book, The Vigilantes of Montana. By presenting the lynchings in a dramatic story of good against evil based on the moralistic Radical Republican political views, Dimsdale convinced his readers of the ultimate justification of the vigilante hangings.

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