During the trial of George Ives (December 19 – 21, 1863) hundreds of people milled about the main street in Nevada City, sometimes listening to the evidence, or wandering off in search of beer or food.
As they moved around, they heard other people’s stories and began to tell their own. And it dawned on them that a lot of them had had very similar experiences, run-ins with the same armed robbers, warnings like that George Ives gave Anton Holter: “If you value your life, you’ll keep quiet.” Or, “It could go harder with you next time.”
Up to now, fear had kept them silent because they were mostly strangers to each other and did not know whom they could trust.
But safety in numbers gave them courage.
It did something else, too. They began to think past the general notion that ‘someone ought to do something.’
Two groups of men decided independently and unknown to each other that ‘something’ was up to them.
One group, perhaps led by John S. Lott, with his brother Mortimer, was in Nevada City, and the other was in Virginia City.
The Virginia City group began as an idea discussed privately between Wilbur Fisk Sanders and Paris S. Pfouts. Years later, Sanders wrote an account of forming the group that Thomas Josiah Dimsdale later dubbed “The Vigilantes of Montana.”
In his account, he recalls that he and Pfouts “on two occasions in November 1863, walked up Daylight Gulch in what is now Wallace Street above Van Buren Street, but which was then untrodden sagebrush” (p. 5).(1) They discussed the possibility of a vigilance committee. By then, Sanders writes, “…the trade (i.e., occupation) of blood was being pursued with increasing intensity as more and more the murders (i.e., murderers) counted on immunity from punishment for their crimes.”
They talked over who might be willing to listen to the idea, and who might be opposed. Each man suggested a few names and agreed to broach the subject to them.
As Masons who believed in the rule of law, and despite their widely separate political views, both men found it difficult to consider a vigilance committee. An attorney, Sanders may have found it especially difficult, but continued threats and intimidation from the ruffians (or roughs as they were known) during and after the Ives trial convinced him that a vigilance committee was the only solution available.
“Of course the objections to the movement were fully considered. The immunities which the constitution of the country and the laws of the United States and of the subordinate organizations of territories drew around the citizen gave no warrant to a movement of this kind, but it seemed that such movement was not in defiance of such immunities because neither the constitution or the laws were present to assert themselves or to secure to the citizens of this region that protection which they were meant to supply ….” (p.6) (Emphasis mine.)
Sanders is mistaken in saying the Constitution was not present, because it was reprinted in the “Organic Act” for every new territory that Congress authorized. However, given the formation of Idaho from other territories on March 4, 1863, Congress overlooked its duty to assure that the laws of one of these territories passed down to Idaho Ty.(2)
Because of that oversight, there was no legal code in Idaho Territory between March 4, 1863, when the Idaho Territorial Legislature was convened, and February 4, 1864, after the Vigilantes had taken control of the gold region.
We felt that the constitution and laws had abdicated their functions here and while no one was to blame therefor, the right to protect ourselves had returned in all its fullness. (p. 6)
Sanders here refers to the natural law that underlies the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is, when Constitutional law fails to protect citizens because it is perverted by the powerful as in San Francisco during the 1850’s, or because it is absent as in the gold fields of Idaho/Montana in 1863-1865, people have the right to fall back on natural law and protect themselves.(3)
Sanders goes on to explain that Constitutional laws could not
“secure to the citizens of this region that protection which they were meant to supply and which was the consideration and motive of the community and citizen in surrendering the inalienable right to enjoy in freedom and peace the inalienable natural rights of man.” (Emphasis mine.)
When Sanders, Pfouts, John Nye, and one or two other frightened men met in Nye’s tin shop to form the Vigilance Committee, they put sheets of tin over the windows and huddled around a shaded candle. So powerful were the ruffians, the criminal element known as the “roughs,” that even Sanders, who had defied them all in open court, whispered.
With Ives hanged, the roughs’ rage burned white hot. They shook their fists and shouted that Sanders and others were dead men.
Yet the Vigilance Committee grew. They met again and elected officers. Some people reported that they took an oath of mutual loyalty and secrecy, and perhaps they did, but it was never written down.
“The Vigilance Committee proper kept no written account of its transactions, had no secretary, nor any ritual or other document reduced to writing.” (p. 18)
They had trained memories that kept track of people’s accounts of being robbed at gunpoint and nearly being killed.
At a subsequent meeting, probably on Christmas Day 1863, they wrote the bylaws, or “bye-laws” as it was spelled in the nineteenth century.
As this edition of the newsletter is long enough, I’ve decided to split it in two. Today’s article on the rationale for forming the Vigilance Committee will be followed on Nov. 16 by the article on the bylaws, and more information on who the Vigilantes were.
1*Sanders, Wilbur F. “Account of forming the Vigilance Committee,” Montana Historical Society Archives, MC53, 1903(?). Sanders’ recollection is corroborated by John Nye, in an account held in the Montana Historical Society Archives, MC53.Box 4 Folder 8.
2 For more information on the formation of Idaho Territory, see the website of the Idaho Historical Society: https://history.idaho.gov/territorial-history
3 There is, by the way, no record of Sanders having discussed this idea with his uncle, the Chief Justice of Idaho Territory, Sidney Edgerton, who would be named Governor of Montana Territory six or seven months later. Edgerton himself later denied any connection with the Vigilantes.