Vigilantism: Justice for All

Jim Marshal, from Hopewell Township, New Jersey, was raised on the Round Martin Farm, known in1810 (and today) as Marshal’s Corner.  For whatever reason, Marshall decided to leave home in 1834 to seek his fortune. After spending some time in Indiana and Illinois, he settled in Missouri and began farming along the river of the same name.  In 1844, after contracting malaria (a common disease in that area), and on the advice of his physician, he decided to relocate to the Pacific Coast.  He joined a wagon train destined for the Oregon territory, arriving there in 1845, and then continuing on to Sutter’s Fort, which at the time was an agricultural settlement.  In 1845, California was part of México and John Sutter, the founder of the fort, served as the local alcalde (mayor).  Sutter hired Marshal to work at the sawmill and perform carpentry tasks around the fort.  Sutter also helped Marshall in the purchase of two leagues of land on the north side of Butte Creek (a tributary of the Sacramento River).

The Mexican-American War began in May 1846 and Marshall volunteered for service under Captain John C. Fremont during the so-called Bear Flag Revolt.  When Marshall returned to Sutter’s Fort in 1847, he found that his cattle had either strayed or had been stolen.  With his only source of income gone, Marshall lost his land.  Marshall and Sutter entered into a partnership for the construction of a sawmill.  Marshall would supervise the mill’s construction and operate the mill, and for compensation, would receive a portion of the lumber.  Marshall scouted out potential sites for a mill, eventually deciding on Coloma—some 40 miles upstream from Sutter’s Fort on the American River.  Construction began in late August 1847, his crew mostly consisting of local Indians and veterans of the Mormon Battalion, who were on their way to Salt Lake City, Utah territory.


Jim Marshall, the man who first discovered gold in California

During construction, Marshall realized that the tailrace, the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel, was too narrow and too shallow for the volume of water needed to operate the saw.  To excavate and enlarge the tailrace, Marshall used the natural force of the river.  To avoid endangering the lives of his workers, this could only be accomplished at night.  It was Marshall’s task to examine the results of the previous night’s excavation.

On the morning of 24 January 1848, Jim Marshall was checking the channel below the mill when he noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed.  Gold had been discovered in California; Jim Marshall was the man who discovered it.

News of the discovery of gold brought a rush of 300,000 people to California from the eastern portions of the United States and abroad.  Half of this number arrived in California by sea.  The sudden influx of gold into the money supply invigorated the American economy and the rapid rise in population propelled California to statehood.  Most of these 300,000 never struck it rich.  For the wise person, the money to be made was in selling goods and services to miners and prospectors.  The money was made in shipping, retail, warehousing, taverns, hotels, and working for the emerging state government.  In fact, the discovery of gold had a significantly negative impact across the entire spectrum of California society.

  • A precipitous decline in Native populations due to disease, genocide, and starvation.
  • Indians were attacked and pushed off their lands by gold-seekers.
  • Migrating people face substantial hardships on their journey to California; not everyone made it to the west coast at all.
  • The cost of living soared; miners and prospectors who did find gold soon spent it on goods with extravagant costs. In some locations, a steak dinner cost $50.00.
  • Between 1848 and 1850, California was a territory of the United States, which means that it fell under the control of the U. S. military. There was no civil legislature, no civilian governor, and no system of courts for the entire region.
  • In the absence of lawyers, judges, and jails, the gold rush created a level of lawlessness in California that borders on the unbelievable.
  • California residents operated under confusing and evolving rules, many of these a mixture of Mexican cultural rules, American principles, and personal dictates.
  • Inadequate enforcement of federal laws, such as those relating to fugitive slaves, encouraged the arrival of free blacks and escaped slaves.

Beyond Sutter’s Mill, gold was also discovered in northern California.  Discovery of gold nuggets brought thousands more into California, many of these headed toward the Siskiyou Trail.  Mining settlements turned into towns.  Some of these grew and prospered, others not-so-much. Portuguese Flat on the Sacramento River sprang into existence, flourished for a time, and then faded away. One town that continues to exist today was initially called Dry Diggins, so named for the way miners moved dry soil to run water to separate gold from soil.  In 1849, Dry Diggins was renamed Hangtown, owing to the number of men hanged for various offenses against the community, arrested by vigilantes, judged by people’s courts, and executed by whomever the “judge” picked to do the hanging. Today, Hangtown is known as Placerville, California, which is not far from Sutter’s Mill.

In the gold camps, hundreds of men lived and worked side-by-side.  They were highly distrustful men, afraid that a neighbor would steal the gold they had worked hard for.  When a thief was discovered, ad hoc courts were formed, heard the evidence, and solved the matter in a more or less permanent way.  There were no jails, but there were sufficient trees with stout limbs, and plenty of rope.

No one really wanted to have the responsibility for ordering someone hanged, and so the people living in these mining camps and emerging towns were eager for formalize a legal framework: hire lawmen, establish courts, and construct jails.  The influx of people from the eastern United States provided just what was needed: lawyers, men who knew how to handle a gun, and people eager to become municipal or state judges.  Until these people were of sufficient population to make a difference, vigilantes did the heavy lifting.  These were citizens who formed vigilance committees, who sometimes met in secret and ordered the arrest or execution of someone who desperately needed it.

Vigilantes 001

Some of America’s vigilantes

Vigilantism existed throughout the Old West at various times and places.  In the absence of formalized legal systems, citizens meted out justice. When legal systems proved corrupt or unresponsive to the concerns of local citizens, vigilance committees took the law into their own hands—sometimes even hanging crooked judges and town marshals.

Vigilante justice was intended to have the strongest possible deterrence or unseemly behavior with the least amount of pussyfooting around.  In 1851, James Stuart arrived from Australia to prospect for gold.  He was suspected of several thefts and, in one instance, the killing of a merchant.  The Vigilance Committee, which had been organized by a wealthy businessman, promptly seized Mr. Stuart.  Hundreds of residents poured into the streets demanding justice.  The crowd was more than the local marshal could handle.  Mr. Stuart was marched through the town and then hung.  There was nothing the law could do about it.  No one was even sure who it was that yanked on the rope that broke his neck.

A few weeks later, the same Vigilance Committee ordered an assault upon the town jail, seized two other men, and hanged them.  When the Committee believed that the message had been received, they quietly disbanded. They were back a few years later when the law proved inadequate to the task of providing justice to the committee. In each case, the Vigilantes had the full support of local citizens and press.

Vigilantes were also present in cattle country, where beef was as valuable as gold.  Horse thieves were not tolerated, either.  One American who supported Vigilante Justice was a young rancher who would go on in his life to become President of the United States:

 “As soon as the communities become settled and begin to grow with any rapidity the American instinct for law asserts itself; but in the early stages each individual is obliged to be a law unto himself and to guard his rights with a strong hand.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

In 1863, Bannack was a small, remote community in the Montana territory.  The community had become infested with a gang of road agents who assaulted and robbed gold convoys and stagecoaches, murdered travelers, stole cargo, rustled cattle, and made off with horses.  The folks who lived in Bannack and those in the nearby settlement of Alder Gulch formed a vigilance committee —but then discovered that their own sheriff was the mastermind of these lawless acts.  His name was Henry Plummer, and he wasn’t very well liked because he was an odd character, short-tempered, and a man who, over the years, had shot and killed several men in barroom fights.

Plummer was originally from Maine.  As a businessman, Plummer made a fortune during the California gold rush.  He had also been convicted of murder and was sent to prison at San Quentin.  Winning his court appeal, arguing that he’d killed the man in self-defense, Plummer was released and moved to Montana.  He initially made a good impression on the people there, and they elected him to the post of sheriff.

The Bannack vigilantes acted in broad daylight.  They seized one of the gangsters —a fellow named George Ives— and examined him at an outdoor trial that lasted three days (in the dead of winter).  The trial was attended by residents and local gold miners.  Apparently, Mr. Ives wasn’t a good public speaker because at the end of the trial, Ives was summarily hanged. Then the vigilantes went on to round up the other members of the gang.  In total, the vigilantes hung 20 men, including Sheriff Plummer.

In another Montana community, cattle rustlers were helping themselves to other people’s cows and horses. One of these ranchers was a man named Granville Stuart, one of the territory’s wealthier ranchers.  Mr. Stuart was enraged by the theft of a prize stallion and three dozen of his cattle.  He organized a vigilance committee, hunted down the rustlers, engaged them, and killed them.  The number of outlaws summarily executed at various times and places number between twenty and one-hundred.  In one incident, referred to as the Battle of Bates Point (1884), Stuart’s men set fire to the cabin in which the suspected cattle rustlers were sheltering —and then shot them down as they emerged from the flames.  Mr. Stuart maintained his reputation as one of Montana’s leading pioneer citizens.  He was later appointed US Ambassador to Uruguay and Paraguay.

Given the rampant crimes that exist in some of our modern-day cities, some citizens are wondering —since the legal system does not appear to meet the needs of our communities, and since some law enforcement agencies are corrupt— if it is not time to once more turn to secret vigilance committees.  If the people of southside Chicago organized themselves, and took care of business by depopulating the criminal elements, then that section of the city would be a safer, economically more-vibrant, and a happier place to live.

Something to think about, I suppose.

Marshall Cabin

Jim Marshall’s cabin

A footnote about Jim Marshall, the man who discovered gold in California.  What became of him?  In 1857, Marshall returned to Coloma and found some success in the 1860s with a vineyard he started.  Due to high taxes and increased competition, perhaps also his lack of expertise in growing grapes, his venture ended in failure.  With no other opportunities, Marshall returned to gold prospecting in the hopes of finding success.  He became a partner in a gold mine near Kelsey, California but the mine yielded nothing; Marshall and his partner went bankrupt.

For six years, Marshall lived on a small pension awarded to him by the California State Legislature in recognition of his role in the discovery of gold.  Eventually, however, a penniless Jim Marshall ended his days alone, living in a small isolated woodland cabin.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Vigilantism: Justice for All

  1. Kid says:

    Very interesting. I don’t think vigilantes would have much luck with the military equipment obama sent out to the police forces. Plus if we’re going to fight, why not go for the big enchilada and put the progressives into their own country. The rest of us would live farily peacefully. In fact, if we took the ghettos out of American gun crime statistics, we’d be near the bottom of the world wide list for gun crime.


    • Mustang says:

      Of course. I only think that justice must be served, Americans must perceive that is being done. Otherwise, we lose faith in the institutions that serve as the glue that binds us as a society.


  2. Kid says:

    Especially at the highest levels. FBI, NSA, CIA, DHS, DOJ. If no justice is done here it is probably going to put the final nail in America’s coffin.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If Chicago residents in the areas that suffered the most from violence were
    a) allowed to arm and defend themselves (arming being a prerequisite to a vigilante comittee)
    b) were willing to give up their relatives (snitch) to the police
    things might change there.
    But they keep voting to be disarmed.

    I am reminded of The Oxbow Incident, of course, by this post.
    Life just isn’t fair sometimes…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      The best novels are predicated on real events. I have a long-time friend who left the Marines to pursue a career in the Chicago Police Department. After listening to his point of view, one has to wonder why anyone would want to be a cop in Chicago —and apparently, this is a question in the minds of people living there. So, with a paucity of individuals who are interested in a law enforcement career, the city of Chicago now recruits people who have a felony record. Worse, in order to provide equal opportunities for women and minorities, most of today’s Chicago cops are standing around 5’5” tall and weigh 125-pounds soaking wet. These are the people who have to ‘arrest’ the 6’4” tall, 300-pound gorillas who have better firearms than do the police. It’s not going well. There’s no shortage of firearms in Chicago, but only the worst sort of person has them. Since the 1960s, the Chicago has never supported it law officers. Over time, these people probably develop a “to hell with it” attitude. Turning a blind eye to serious crime is better than having to undergo police review boards and possible trials for using “excessive force.” According to my friend, no cop in Chicago gets excited when criminals kill other criminals. Sadly, as you know, innocent people are sometimes standing at the wrong place at the wrong time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Sutton-Taylor Feud | Old West Tales

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