The story so far: The hunt for the murderer(s) of Nicholas Tbalt (also spelled in various sources Tbolt, Tiebolt, Theobald) in December 1863 culminated with the trial, conviction, and hanging of George Ives, and the banishment of Long John Franck and George Hilderman. As a result of coming together during the Ives trial, people began talking to each other. Some concluded that hanging George Ives would not end the plague of armed robberies and murders. That realization sparked two Vigilante organizations, one in Virginia City and one in Nevada City. Fearing reprisal, and not knowing whom they could trust, they were so secretive that neither group knew about the other for a few days.
(In Date’s Inferno, the ninth circle of Hell is ice.)
(On December 23, 1863, two days after the Ives trial concluded, the Nevada City group of 24 men swore loyalty to each other in the Vigilante Oath that John Lott wrote (and neglected to sign). After electing “Captain” James Williams* their leader, they rode after Aleck Carter, whom George Ives had accused from the scaffold of murdering Nicholas Tbalt.)
The Ride to Cottonwood
James Williams furnished the men with horses, saddles, and blankets, and they rode out of Alder Gulch northward toward the Big Hole River. On December 24, 1863, according to Frederick Allen (A Decent, Orderly Lynching), they were less than half way to Cottonwood, a small settlement just outside of Deer Lodge.
The weather had been more like October so far, and they wanted as little delay as possible in catching Carter. When a snowstorm struck on Christmas Eve, they had inadequate warm clothes or provisions. Some of them had perhaps never experienced a Montana winter before. The temperature dropped to an estimated -33 F. Their mounts, tough range ponies and mules, had to paw through the snow to find fodder. The only way to survive was to keep moving north, over the Continental Divide, into the storm, until they found shelter.
The riders strung out, almost losing track of each other. They dismounted to spare the horses and followed the trail as best they could by the tracks of the men ahead that the wind rapidly filled with snow.
The storm seemed disastrous at the time, but in the long run it played a fortuitous role in the story of the Vigilantes. On Deer Lodge Creek they met a lone rider heading south toward Bannack. Erastus (“Red”) Yeager (or Yager) told them that Carter, Whiskey Bill Graves, Bill Bunton, and others were lying up in Cottonwood.
Encouraged by his news, the posse slogged on. On Christmas Day, they stopped at John Smith’s ranch where they reunited. The next day, December 26th, they rode into Cottonwood. Counting on Yeager’s story, they expected to find Carter and the others there.
As Dimsdale tells it,** they hoped to take their quarry by surprise. That was not to be. “They put up their horses,” Dimsdale relates, and looked for the men they sought, but “the birds had flown.” A distant camp fire in the mountains meant to them that they had been fooled. Uttering what Dimsdale terms “a hearty malediction,” they inquired among their acquaintances in Cottonwood how the quarry could have known they were on their trail.
They discovered that Red Yeager had delivered a note in care of a man named Tom Reilly, who knew nothing of what had happened in Alder Gulch. Reilly produced the note, which read, “Git up and dust. Look out for black ducks.”
They posse stopped in Cottonwood another two days to rest themselves and build up their horses for the return trip.
And James Williams began to think.***
Williams Suspects Organization
The ride south was worse than the northbound journey. A full-fledged blizzard roared around them. The temperature dropped to an estimated -33 F. “Physical suffering is not conducive to thinking,” writes Callaway (p. 54, Montana’s Righteous Hangmen). Nonetheless, on that long trail “the Captain was revolving in his mind” what had happened, and a “…well-founded surmise ripened into a certainty – that the outlaws had perfected a smooth-working and effective organization. How else to account for the warning so speedily conveyed to Deer Lodge?” Yeager had been in such a hurry to deliver his message that he killed two horses.
Williams, Callaway tells us, concluded that “the messenger must be pursued and captured at any cost. This proved to be a decision of far-reaching importance” (p. 54).
At Beaverhead Rock the men stopped and made camp. Firewood and food were scarce, the blizzard that pursued them continued to howl, and in the morning most of the horses had wandered off in search of shelter from the storm.
Nearly the entire day (December 31) was spent in rounding up the horses and trying to keep from freezing.
Then their luck changed. They met John X. Beidler, the man who had shouted from the rooftop, “Ask him (Ives) how much time he gave the Dutchman!” Beidler and Williams were good friends, and X (as his friends called him), said he thought Yeager might be somewhere around Rattlesnake Ranch.
On January 1, 1865, Williams directed most of the men to wait for him at Bob Dempsey’s place on Ramshorn Creek, while he and eight others rode to Rattlesnake, found Yeager, and arrested him.
On the way back, Williams’s mule stumbled and rolled over two or three times, throwing Williams into deep snow. The animal disappeared into a huge drift. When both were rescued by Williams’s laughing friends, neither was hurt.
When they arrived at Dempsey’s, luck smiled on them again. The bartender who worked for Robert Dempsey was George Brown.
Williams took Yeager into another room and accused him of being a road agent. When Yeager denied it, the Captain asked why, then, had he taken a message to Aleck Carter?
Yeager replied that he had happened to stop at Dempsey’s on his way to Deer Lodge and Brown asked him to do that service. As he was going up there anyway, Red complied. (The sources do not say whether or not Williams asked: If Red were merely doing Brown a favor, why had he ridden so hard as to kill two horses?)
Callaway writes that Williams was “a rare judge of human nature” (p. 56). Brown he judged to be weak and sly and cowardly, and would break down under questioning. Red, he thought, was straightforward, but not a good liar.
Unable to shake Red’s story, Williams decided to question them separately. Their stories conflicted. “Brown’s explanations were confused and highly incriminatory as to both himself and Red. On the other hand, Red attempted to maintain his original story, but he fell into inextricable inconsistencies and explanations” (Callaway, p.57).
The truth came out.****
By afternoon, everyone had heard all the prisoners had to say. Williams led the men outside, onto the bridge over the Stinking Water River (now the Ruby River). Callaway again: Williams said, “‘All in favor of hanging Brown and Yeager should move to the right side of the bridge.’”
He moved to that side, and all the men but one stepped to that side, too.
This one man now found that he had to leave immediately and go home or he would lose $2,000. Whether he had objections to hanging in general or did not think the case had been proved, the sources do not say. When the others faced him down with their pistols’ one-eyed stare, he changed his mind and stayed.
They took their prisoners to Virginia City, by way of Laurin’s, where Williams could go no farther without sleep.
While he (and the prisoners) slept, the others discussed their situation. Based on their experience before the Ives trial, they did not trust Jack Gallagher, Plummer’s chief deputy in Virginia City, and they feared that an argument over venue would turn into armed conflict. They agreed that they should not take Yeager and Brown to Virginia City, but “hang them here and be done with it” (Callaway, p. 60).
With that, they went back inside Laurin’s saloon and awakened Williams. After thinking about what they told him, he agreed.
When they roused Brown and Yeager and told them, Brown wept and begged for his life. “What will become of my wife and children?” His family was in Minnesota.
“You should have thought of them before,” Yeager retorted. When Williams suggested that he had no reason not to make a full confession, he agreed.
He gave them everything he knew about an organized gang. What he told them has come to be known as “Yeager’s List.” (We’ll take that up in the next newsletter.)
When he had finished, the group took Brown and Yeager to some cottonwood trees by the river and hanged them. Brown wept and pleaded, but Red shook each man’s hand and said, “Good-bye, boys. You’re on a good undertaking.” When, (as Dimsdale puts it) “the bodies had ceased to move,” the posse pinned a note to the back of each man’s shirt: “Brown! Corresponding Secretary!” and “Yager! Road Agent and Messenger.”
Afterwards, they rode to Nevada City where John Lott informed them that men in Virginia City had organized a Vigilance Committee.
Next time: Yeager’s List
* How Williams got his nickname, “Captain” or “Cap”
Williams was also known as “Captain or “Cap.” On the way to Alder Gulch, the wagon train he led joined with another train, led by Joseph A. “Jack” Slade, for mutual protection. He vied with Williams to be captain of the combined train. Drunk, Slade threatened Williams, challenged him to a fight, which Williams managed to evade.
Slade was a courageous man of great ability. He had been a superintendent for the Central Overland Stagecoach Company, until his habit of binge drinking and destructive belligerence led to his being fired. He had a fearsome reputation. Now, when he lay down to take a nap, the combined train elected Williams. Awakening in a more sober state, Slade peaceably accepted the will of the people. (More on Slade in a subsequent newsletter.)
** Thomas Josiah Dimsdale
Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana is the first book to be published in Montana. I bought my copy in 1953 in Virginia City. It was printed in 1950 by McKee Printing Co., Butte, MT. The account of the pursuit of Aleck Carter is given in chapter XVII, “The Deer Lodge Scout.” In the years since, there have been so many different editions of this book that page numbers would probably be incorrect, but the chapter number has not (to my knowledge) changed.
***James Williams and Judge Llewellyn Link Callaway
Llewellyn Link (Lew) Callaway came to Virginia City in 1871 when he was not yet three years old. His father, Col. James Edmund Callaway, became partners with James Williams in a ranch, and his son grew up hearing the former Vigilante, his father’s friend, reminisce about his Vigilante days. (Generally, Williams never talked about his Vigilante experiences.) When he died in 1888 during the winter made famous by Charles Russell’s famous painting, “Waiting for a Chinook” (or “The Last of the 5,000”), young Callaway was 20 years old. From 1922 – 1935 he served as the Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court. He based his own history of the Vigilantes, Montana’s Righteous Hangmen, on his own memories of his father’s friends.
****Judge Callaway adds, “Be it said to the credit of the Vigilantes that no modern ‘third degree’ methods were employed, neither force nor threats were resorted to” (p. 57).
Sources used in this article:
Allen, Frederick. A Decent, Orderly Lynching. Oklahoma University Press, Norman, OK. 2004.
Dillon, Mark C. The Montana Vigilantes, 1863-1870: Gold, Guns, & Gallows. Utah State University Press, Logan, UT. 2013.
Dimsdale, Thomas Josiah. The Vigilantes of Montana. 12th Printing Revised. McKee Printers, Helena, MT 1950.
Langford, Nathaniel P. Vigilante Days and Ways. American & World Geographic Publishing, Helena, MT. 1996.