Vigilante Days at the Clark Library

by

From Reading Room Assistant Nicoletta Beyer.

Montana vigilantism was born unto a landscape of frontier mining towns in a territory yet to be incorporated as a state of the union. In the 1860’s while the rest of the nation was busy with a civil war, gold was discovered in the mountains of Montana. Towns like Butte, Helena, Virginia City, and Bannack saw the influx of newcomers arriving to scrape minerals from the land, many down-and-out vagabonds with nothing to lose. The roads that led to and fro mining camps for transportation of gold were often the scenes of bloody looting by a growing number of road agents. Law officials were few and far between, and in the year of 1863 tensions ran high between the rugged sojourners and the proud locals. These towns felt the coexistence of extreme survivalism and opportunism, paired with few places for a vagabond to spend newly acquired mountain riches other than the local saloon.

William Andrews Clark Sr., the Clark Memorial Library’s namesake and the father of the library’s founder, arrived at exactly this pivotal moment in Montanan history. In Bannack of 1863, he began establishing his placer mining fortune. It is his collection that we house today, well versed in the various accounts of these vigilante chronicles.

The Montana Collection is a golden hued arrangement documenting little-known historic moments of the Old West. I have happened upon such bold titles as Shallow Diggin’s, Leather Leggin’s, and How She Felt in her Corset. Then of course I came across a section that hinted at a deeper, darker tale of Montana’s past through titles mentioning “Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains”, “Vigilante Days and Ways”, “the Story of an Outlaw”, and “Study of the Western Desperado”, among others.

From the years 1860 to 1870 alone, there were an estimated 50 lives lost to vigilante extra legal executions in these small southern Montanan mining towns, most of whom died by lynching. One of the most notable figures of this torrential time was Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, MT. There are conflicting accounts of Plummer’s history, probably not by accident. Henry Plummer was a man who had relocated many times following various criminal allegations and violent exchanges. Most accounts mention him serving as sheriff in Nevada City, California and being involved in a string of pistol duels that led to incarceration in San Quentin State Prison for murder and possibly theft, before his arrival in the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Henry Plummer’s legacy in the Montana vigilante folklore is one of a corrupt sheriff who lead a band of vicious road agents by night and by day posed as a member of the vigilance committee who hunted these very same criminals. When his betrayal came to light, Plummer was hung from the gallows of his very own making.

The vigilance committees addressed local criminal activity from petty theft to child abuse to murder. At some point in the 1870’s the numbers 3-7-77 began to appear at scenes of vigilante aggression; sometimes painted on an accused criminal’s door in the night, and sometimes pinned on the back of a lynched man hanging from the famous Helena Hanging Tree. These tales of enforcing local law in the absence of a structured government have become inextricable from Montanan history and its present day identity. The numbers 3-7-77 became iconic and in 1920 state officials erected Vigilante Trail signage with the numbers showcased in the center. To this day the numbers adorn the car doors of the Montana Highway Patrol. A tourist can still catch a Vigilante Day Parade in Helena, not too far from its Hanging Valley.

This collection is one of our lesser known sets of bound histories here at the Clark, abundant in primary source tales of the tumbleweeds, gallows and pistol duels that remain influential in our present day collective western memory, no matter how distant they seem.

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