by lyle e davis
The thing about the western states of this great nation is that we have history. Lots of it.
California has reams of history. Most of it fairly recent. We read about it often . . . still, there’s always some new stories coming down the pike. But let’s expand our horizons a bit and leave California, even if only for a little while.
Let’s head over to “Big Sky Country,” . . . that’s what lots of folks call the gerat state of Montana.
Originally, Montana was just a large piece of land peopled by native Americans. Back in 1680 these natives acquired the horse. Forty year later, in 1720, they acquired the gun.
And then the fun began.
This upstart new nation known as ‘The United States” acquired this land as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Two years later, the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled through what was then known as “Montana Territory.” Lewis and Clark liked Montana so much that they crossed it and recrossed it. It was pretty country even then.
Pretty soon, the fur traders started moving in . . . then the fur companies, then the steamboats . . . the Yellowstone River became a major means of communication. In 1841 a Catholic Mission was set up in the Bitterroot Valley.
In 1847 Fort Benton was founded on the Missouri River as a military and trading post; soon the becoming world-renown "Head of Navigation" to the west, and world's furthest inland port. Steamboats brought gold seekers, fur traders, settlers and supplies, making Fort Benton the "Birthplace of Montana."
It wasn’t too long before somebody decided this was good cow country and big herds of beef began to grow . . . sheep herds as well.
Okay. Now we have done what is called “setting the stage.” Got the picture? A young country, wild, wooly, money to be made, fortunes, in fact.
What could possibly go wrong?
Enter Henry Plummer.
Plummer owned a ranch and a mine in Nevada County outside the county seat of Nevada City, California. Twelve months later, he traded mine shares for a business in town, the Empire Bakery.
Three years after arriving in California as a penniless nobody, fellow merchants, impressed with his business acumen, persuaded him to run for town sheriff and city manager. Since Nevada City was the third largest settlement in California at the time, the job would offer state prominence. By 1856, the local residents, so impressed by the young man, persuaded him to run for sheriff. At the age of 24, he became marshal of the third largest settlement in California.
Plummer gave the outward impression of being as honest as the day was long. He stood five feet ten inches tall and weighed one hundred fifty pounds, dressing the part of a dignified servant with his dandified clothes and shiny boots. Everyone liked him. He was prompt and energetic and quickly gained a reputation as a Sheriff who "when opposed in the performance of his official duties, …became as bold and determined as a lion." Even his manners were impeccable. Not only did he tip his hat to any lady he saw on the street, but he politely called people by name. He was the consummate con man of his day and was able to con people into thinking that he was the most competent man for the job.
In 1856, he managed to persuade enough voters with his well-mannered, well-dressed facade to be elected Nevada City’s town marshal by only the narrowest of margins.
The job suited him just fine. As the only lawman for miles in any direction, he could pretty well do what he pleased ... and get away with it. The young marshal was well liked by the Nevada City citizens and respected for his promptness and boldness in handling his duties. He easily won the re-election in 1857.
Becoming an outlaw
On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder. One story says Plummer had been having an affair with Vedder's wife. Another story said Vedder was a mean wife-beater and Plummer, as Sheriff, had come to keep Mrs. Vedder company and prevent her husband from beating her again. Whichever is the accurate story, a shootout ensued and Plummer shot Vedder dead. In the resulting trials, Plummer was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. However, in August, 1859, his many supporters wrote to the governor to seeking a pardon based on his good character and civic performance; the governor subsequently granted the pardon, but it was based on his health—Plummer was suffering from tuberculosis.
Then, in 1861, Plummer tried to carry out a citizen's arrest of William Riley, who had escaped from San Quentin; in the attempt, Riley was killed. Plummer turned himself in to the police, who accepted that the killing was justified, but, fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, recommended that he leave the state.
After his release, Henry returned to Nevada City, to the bakery and became an avid customer to the many brothels of the settlement.
In January 1862, Plummer landed in Lewiston, Idaho, with a woman companion and registered at the Luna House. He worked for awhile in a casino.
Plummer began to roam the area between Elk City, Florence and Lewiston. In Orofino, Idaho, he killed a saloon keeper by the name of Patrick Ford. When he learned a lynch mob was being formed, he lit out for Montana.
By September 1862, Plummer was beginning to feel the effects of his tuberculosis and wanted to return home. Heading from Idaho across the Bitterroot Mountains, he traveled to Fort Benton with the intention of going back east. While waiting for a steamer to reach Fort Benton on the Missouri River, Plummer was approached by James Vail who was seeking volunteers to help protect his family from anticipated Indian attacks at the mission station he was attempting to found in Sun River, Montana. It was wintertime and no passage home being available, Plummer accepted, along with Jack Cleveland, a horse dealer who had known Plummer in California. While at the mission, both Plummer and Cleveland fell in love with Vail's attractive sister-in-law, Electa Bryan; Plummer asked her to marry him, and she agreed. As gold had recently been discovered in nearby Bannack, Montana, Plummer decided to go there to try to earn enough money to support them both. Cleveland followed him.
In January 1863, Cleveland, nursing his jealousy, forced Plummer into a fight and was killed. Fortunately for Plummer, this happened in a crowded saloon, and there was no doubt that it was self-defense.
Plummer had now killed four men. That we know of.
Bannack, Montana Today . . .
Bannack, Montana, in the 1860’s, was a typical boomtown. The town was full of hastily-built structures, tents, and brothels, peopled with all sorts of transient young men with all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes. Practically everyone in town engaged in some form of mining, and thousands of claims were scattered all over the hills. Each new strike also brought another saloon or gambling hall. As fortunes were made, hundreds of others arrived wanting in on the action.
It was absolutely the wildest and woolliest town in the whole Idaho Territory with outlaws totally out of control and raising hell. Holdups occurred daily, and killings were just as frequent. No one was safe. The outlaws took what they wanted and killed all the witnesses.
In sheer desperation, the harassed citizens finally decided they needed a lawman...one who would protect them from “The Innocents,” the meanest, most cursed road agent gang in the annals of crime.
In May of 1863 Mr. Plummer, with a background in law enforcement, and who was now living in Bannack, Montana, why, he just up and gets himself elected as sheriff of Bannack. Imagine that. Yes, he was elected Sheriff of Bannack and all gold camps southeast of the Bitterroot.
That same year, on June 29, Chief Deputy Donald H. Dillingham of Virginia City, becomes the first lawman killed in the line of duty, assassinated in broad daylight on Virginia City’s Main Street by two of Plummer’s deputies.
The ambitious sheriff soon extended his operations to Virginia City when he was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the region of Idaho Territory east of the mountains in August of 1863.
However, even though Plummer was the Sheriff of Bannack, Montana, and the US Marshall for the Idaho Territory, the following winter the stage was robbed twice, an attempt was made to rob a freight caravan, and a man was murdered. By December, one account alleges there were 102 known killed and over a quarter million dollars in gold (at 1863 prices) stolen by Plummer's alleged "Road Agents" gang.
By December, 1863, the citizens of Bannack and Virginia City had had enough. Men from Bannack, Virginia City and nearby Nevada City met secretly and organized the Montana Vigilantes. Masked men began to visit suspected outlaws in the middle of the night issuing warnings and tacking up posters featuring a skull-and-crossbones or the "mystic" numbers "3-7-77." While the meaning of these numbers remains elusive, the Montana State Highway patrolmen wear the emblem "3-7-77" on their shoulder patches today.
The vigilantes dispensed rough justice by hanging about twenty-four men. When one such man, by the name of Erastus "Red" Yager, who was about to be hanged, pointed a finger at Henry Plummer as the leader of the gang, all hell broke loose.
The residents were divided on whether or not Henry was part of the murderous gang. But one night after heavy drinking in a local saloon, the vigilantes decided that Henry was guilty and tracked him down. On January 10, 1864 fifty to seventy-five men gathered up Plummer and his two main deputies, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray.
The three were marched to those very same gallows that Plummer, himself, had built. Ned Ray was the first hanged, followed by Buck Stinson--both men spewing epithets every step of the way. According to one legend, Plummer promised to tell the vigilantes where $100,000 of gold was buried, if they would let him live. However, the vigilantes ignored this as they gradually hoisted him up by the neck.
The Montana Vigilantes became an admired group in Montana history. Beginning in the late 20th century, that view has been widely challenged. Books have appeared depicting Plummer as an innocent victim. In recent years, many historical researchers have come to question the "traditional" histories relating to Henry Plummer, most of which were written by Masons. Given that the Masons played a critical role in the hanging of Henry Plummer, and further, that political ambitions clearly were the predominant force underlying the hangings, there is strong reason to believe that Henry Plummer was not implicated in a "road agent" gang. Historical fiction writers, too, have examined the issue. The most recent is the historical novel by James Gaitis, entitled "A Stout Cord and a Good Drop" (Globe Pequot Press 2006). In contrast, Frederick Allen, in his highly praised 2004 book, "A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes," goes somewhat against this trend. He believes there is considerable evidence of Plummer's guilt, and he suggests the early phase of the lynchings was a widely supported response to a real breakdown of law and order, and a fairly measured response for its time. Allen does believe, however, that the movement later degenerated into a campaign of terror that still haunts the state.
In May 1993 a posthumous trial on Plummer resulted in a mistrial because of a split verdict. Had a trial been held when Plummer was still alive, and had a mistrial been declared, he would have walked out of jail, a free man.
Since this trial, more evidence has come to light to support Henry Plummer's innocence. He was dying of TB when he was hung without the drop, therefore he died slowly and in agony, strangling to death.
Is there a stolen treasure, estimated at $6 million dollars in gold nuggets, coins, and gold dust still hidden in the stark Montana hills? Those are questions that may never be answered. Only the ones who participated in the gold frenzy days of Bannack know for certain and they, too, lie buried somewhere in the Montana countryside.
The historical town of Bannack was placed under the protection of Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in 1954. That means that anyone without a special permit is barred from digging for gold on state-controlled land. But since no one knows exactly where Henry Plummer buried the gold---if he did, indeed, bury any---the search still continues nearly a century and a half later.
On May 26, 1864, Montana Territory was officially created by act of President Abraham Lincoln, Bannack was chosen as the first Territorial Capitol. The first newspaper, the Montana Post, published in Virginia City that same year.
In 1865 Montana's first U.S. Marshal was appointed by President Lincoln: George M. Pinney, serving from 1865 to 1867. Pinney first sets up his office in Butte, later moving to Helena.
In 1870 the open-range cattle industry begins on Montana Prairies.
In 1872 Congress creates Yellowstone National Park.
In 1873 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police begins its campaign to "destroy illegal whiskey trade and lawlessness" caused by the "Whoop-Up Trail" operation from Fort Benton into Canadian Northwest Territories, the "Trail" having been created by Fort Benton's first sheriff, and subsequently participated in and protected by five of his successors.
On June 24, 1876, one of Montana’s more notable historic events occurred. The Sioux Indians defeated Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn River.
Another historic event followed that: The Nez Pierce Indian Chief Joseph leads his people out of Oregon into Montana, outwitting superior U.S. Army forces, until his surrender in 1877 near Bear's Paw Mountains in northern Montana.
The cattle industry had already begun in Montana by now. But now, in 1877, another new venture was to contribute to the economy of Montana. Copper Mining. Significant copper mining begins in Butte.
In 1880, another new adventure begain to build in Montana. The Utah and Northern Railroad entered Montana. By 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad had completed its route through Montana. That same year the town of Anaconda and its smelting works was founded.
On November 8, 1889, Montana becomes the 41st state of the United States under President Benjamin Harrison's administration. There were 16 original counties established, and 16 sheriffs appointed by the new state government.
In 1910 Congress establishes Glacier National Park; from 1910-1918 the Homesteading boom peaks on Montana's plains. In 1914 Montana women receive the franchise (right to vote). In 1916 - Jeanette Rankin was elected the first woman in the U.S. Congress. In 1917 she would vote against the US entry into World War I.
In 1923 - Jack Dempsey-and Tommy Gibbons fought in the world heavyweight championship fight in Shelby.
In 1930 tourists learn about Yellowstone National Park, about Glacier National Park, and about the “Custer’s Last Stand” battleground. All generate a significant tourist industry in Montana.
In 1941 - Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin votes against U.S. entry into World War II
In 1951 - The petroleum boom begins in eastern Montana. In 1988 the U.S. and Canada initiate a Free-Trade Agreement, directly affecting Montana's economy; In 1995 - wolves are returned to Yellowstone National Park, where they thrive.
In 2000 summer wildfires scorch nearly 1,000,000 acres and raze 320 homes, mostly in the Bitterroot Valley; 19,600,000 acres of state and federal land are closed due to fire hazard. In 2001, wildfires again dominate Montana's drought-beset summer.
Big Sky Country!