Category Archives: Wild West History

A Historian Responds

Mark C. Dillon has responded to my question from the previous newsletter, “Do you think Yeager’s List was real?”

He writes: “I believe the Yeager list existed but its hard copy has been lost to history. The reason I believe it existed is that so much activity was undertaken by the vigilantes that tracked the “list,” in terms of the hanging spree that followed the deaths of Yeager and Brown. It defies plausibility that the list was fictionally created by the vigilantes after the fact.”

(It may have been lost in any of the devastating fires to consume much of Helena in the 1870’s.)

Judge Dillon is a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, serving in the Appellate Division. He is a historian and the author of Montana’s Vigilantes, 1863 – 1870; Guns, Gold, and Gallows. His book is a frequent resource for me in writing about the Vigilantes of Montana! His book is the only one to assess the legality of the Vigilantes’ actions.

Yeager’s List – Still Controversial After 153 Years

Some 153 years after the Vigilantes came into possession of the list of outlaws (aka “road agents”) given them by Erastus “Red” Yeager, the list is still controversial.

As the posse led by James Williams was about to hang Yeager, he gave them the list shown in the previous newsletter. No one except for the Vigilantes knew it existed until Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, the editor of the The Montana Post, from September 17, 1864 – August 30, 1866, published the story on page 4, November 25, 1865.

No other copy of the list has ever been found, and over the years opponents of the Vigilantes have continued to raise doubts as to the actual existence of the list apart from Dimsdale’s article. That article was published as Chapter XVI (“The Deer Lodge Scout”) of The Vigilantes of Montana by Dimsdale, who serialized his book in the Post August 26, 1865 – March 24, 1866. (In the Post, Dimsdale spelled the name as “Yager.”)

The Vigilantes’ modern opponents, revisionist historians and history buffs, doubt that the list ever existed as an independent entity. Questions probably existed at the time, too, as they do now:

  • Where did the list come from?
  • How did Dimsdale get hold of it?
  • Was Dimsdale himself a Vigilante?

Dimsdale never told how he came by the list, or where it came from other than his account of it in Chapter XVI. In describing the hanging of Yeager and Brown, he referred to some of the posse members jotting down names that someone (or more than one) kept track of as their grim work went on.

He was a journalist, however. He went after stories, riding his horse up and down the Gulch and beyond to find information about quartz mines, and other matters that would bear on the life and future of Montana Territory. He had access to sources no other writer could have cultivated in his hunt for a story.
He knew where to look, and whom to talk to – his friends and associates in the Masonic Lodge.

The Masonic Connection

Dimsdale was an active Mason, a member of the Virginia City lodge when it was formed. He held the title of Grand Orator, and gave speeches at memorable occasions. His best friend, according to his “Obituary”* in the Post was Wilbur F. Sanders, another active Mason, who was also the Vigilante prosecutor.

But Was Dimsdale a Vigilante?

Just because Dimsdale wrote the article and was a Mason, we can’t assume he was a Vigilante himself.

As a Mason, he was close to the core group of Vigilantes. Sanders was his best friend. He was visiting his sick friend when Dimsdale had a coughing fit. Sanders lifted him up to ease his breathing, and Dimsdale breathed his last. He was just 35 years old. The Masons may have trusted him as a brother Mason enough to answer truthfully most of the questions he had. On the other hand, they knew how to keep their secrets, and may have been as close-mouthed with him as with anyone when it came to letting him know some details of their activities.

Dimsdale, being a Mason, knew how to keep some information to himself. We have the list, but not its history or its eventual fate.

Myself, I think he had access no other writer would have had until Lew L. Callaway learned to know James Williams. (See Montana’s Righteous Hangmen.)

By the time he published the first installment of The Vigilantes of Montana, it must have been safe to tell what they did, but not who did it. A year after the fact, he did not reveal any names of the participants, except for the letter X. Some people knew then that X stood for Xavier, John X. Beidler’s middle name. Also his nickname.

Given all this, I don’t believe Dimsdale was a Vigilante. Sympathetic to them, yes. However, in more than 20 years of researching and reading about them, I have not found Dimsdale’s name among any of the various lists.

Why Dimsdale Was Not a Vigilante

When he came to Alder Gulch in 1864, he had already contracted tuberculosis. He did not have the strength or endurance to have ridden after the outlaws during the deep winter of 1863-1864, through snowstorms and temperatures that froze the mercury in the thermometers. (Mercury freezes at -40 degrees F.)

He could ride a horse, but he could not fire a revolver until friends gave him a presentation revolver because they had liked his account of the Vigilantes. He eventually learned to shoot it well enough to hit a large tin can at ten steps once in ten times.**

Who Was Josiah T. Dimsdale?

He was born in 1831 to a very wealthy family in the north of England. Never a robust person, he called himself “the runt of the litter.” Because of his sickly constitution, he was destined for a career in the Church of England, rather than in the Army or the Navy, the other two choices for a man of his wealth and position. He was sent to one of the Oxford University colleges for his education. During his second year, his family lost everything in an unwise investment, and he had to leave the university. As many penniless young Englishmen did, he emigrated to Canada determined to make his own living. While there, he heard of the gold discoveries at Alder Gulch and joined one of the wagon trains heading to the place. He was not strong enough to break rock, so he turned his education to good use by founding a school.

While teaching and working as editor of The Montana Post, he wrote The Vigilantes of Montana in the moments between his teaching and editorial duties. Mary Ronan, as a schoolgirl named Mollie Sheehan, remembered him sitting at his table “writing, writing, writing.” (Girl From the Gulches, ed. Margaret Ronan and Ellen Baumler, Sept. 1, 2003.)

Vigilante History Begins with Dimsdale

Validating Dimsdale is important because Montana’s Vigilante history begins with his account. All subsequent retellings of the Vigilante story have to come at it first through his book. If he had not written the book, we would be forced to conjecture what happened mostly from accounts by people who were not there at the time, including Nathaniel Pitt Langford, author of Vigilante Days and Ways (1890). Langford went home for the winter of 1863-1864, and returned after everything was all over.)

To deny the truth of Dimsdale’s book is to turn Montana’s Vigilante history on its head. That does not, however, mean believing that these men were all angels, or that everyone’s motives were pure.

What do you think? Did Yeager’s List exist? How much credibility would you give Dimsdale?

(You can find the Montana Post at, the website for Historic American Newspapers, or at Click here for the link for this specific issue.)

Sources specifically for this article: Goligowski, Robert John, “Thomas Dimsdale: Montana’s First Newspaper Editor, (1965) Theses, dissertations, Professional Papers. Paper 3800, University of Montana.

Yeager’s List

The story so far:
Led by James Williams, a group of 24 or more men rode out from Nevada City on December 23, 1863, to track down Aleck Carter, whom George Ives had accused from the scaffold of being Nicholas Tbalt’s murderer. Although they did not find Carter (see January 27, 2017 issue of this newsletter), they returned with proof that an organized gang was responsible for about 100 murders in the region.
This proof is known as “Yeager’s List.”

It has been controversial almost from the start.

Yeager’s List*
Perhaps with his death immediately upon him, Erastus (”Red”) Yeager wanted to square himself with other men, and with God, before he died. We’ll never know for sure.
In any event, he seems to have made a full and complete confession. His list not only names the gang members, but defines their roles in the organization.

    I have added the crimes they were convicted for, as far as I have found them up to now, and the dates and places of their hangings.
  • Henry Plummer, Chief. Attempted armed robberies of Samuel T. Hauser and Nathaniel P. Langford, November 14, 1863, and of young Henry Tilden; murdered Jack Cleveland, ordered Dillingham murdered. Hanged at Bannack, January 10, 1864.
  • Bill Bunton, second in command, co-owner of Rattlesnake Ranch, stool pigeon. Deer Lodge Valley, January 19, 1864.
  • Frank Parish, roadster** and horse-thief, co-owner of Rattlesnake Ranch. Hanged with four others at Virginia City, January 14, 1864.
  • George Brown, secretary. Hanged at Laurin’s with Erastus “Red” Yeager./li>
  • Hayes Lyons, roadster. Helped murder D. H. Dillingham, June 30, 1863. Hanged with four others at Virginia City, January 14, 1864.
  • Sam Bunton, roadster. Left the country. His fate is not known — to me, at least.
  • Cyrus Skinner, roadster, fence, spy. Murderer of Bannack Indian named Old Snag, uncle of Robert Dempsey’s wife. Hanged at Hell Gate (Missoula) January 25, 1864.
  • George Ives, roadster. Murderer of Nicholas Tbalt. Armed robbery of Samuel T. Hauser and Nathaniel P. Langford, November 14, 1863; recognized during robbery of Leroy Southmayde. Hanged at Nevada City, December 21, 1863.
  • Steven Marshland, roadster. Attempted robbery of Milt Moody’s wagon train, early December 1863. Hanged at Big Hole Ranch, January 16, 1864.
  • Dutch John Wagner, roadster. Attempted robbery of Milt Moody’s wagon train, early December 1863. Hanged January 11, 1864.
  • Aleck Carter, roadster. Accused of Nicholas Tbalt’s murder by George Ives. Accessory before and after Nicholas Tbalt’s murder. Hanged at Hell Gate (Missoula) January 25, 1864.
  • Whiskey Bill Graves, roadster. Recognized during armed robbery of Leroy Southmayde. Hanged at Fort Owens, January 26, 1864.
  • George Shears, roadster and horse-thief. Hanged at Frenchtown, January 24, 1864.
  • Johnny Cooper, roadster. A “lieutenant of the gang” (Dimsdale). Wanted for murderer and escaping arrest. Hanged at Hell Gate (Missoula) January 25, 1864.
  • Buck Stinson, roadster. Helped murder D. H. Dillingham, June 30, 1863. Attempted armed robbery of Samuel T. Hauser and Nathaniel P. Langford, November 14, 1863. Hanged at Bannack January 10, 1864.
  • Ned Ray, council-room keeper at Bannack City. Attempted armed robbery of Samuel T. Hauser and Nathaniel P. Langford, November 14, 1863. Hanged at Bannack, January 10, 1864.
  • Mexican Frank, roadster.
  • Bob Zachary, roadster. Refused to participate in Magruder murder, but did not warn Magruder. Recognized during attempted robbery of Leroy Southmayde. Hanged at Hell Gate (Missoula) January 25, 1864.
  • Boone Helm, roadster. Hanged with four others at Virginia City, January 14, 1864.
  • Club-Foot George Lane, roadster. Spy, marked stagecoaches for targeting. His ride to Bannack to get Henry Plummer also implicated him as one of the gang. Hanged with four others at Virginia City, January 14, 1864.
  • Bill Hunter, roadster and telegraph man. Hanged at Gallatin Valley, February 3, 1864.
  • George Lowry, roadster. Tried, convicted of murder of Lloyd Magruder in Idaho, on evidence of Billy Page. Hanged March 4, 1864, in Lewiston.
  • Billy Page, roadster (turned state’s evidence in the Magruder murder). Cowered in his blankets while Magruder and his men during the murders.
  • “Doc” Howard, roadster. Tried, convicted of murder of Lloyd Magruder in Idaho, on evidence of Billy Page. Hanged March 4, 1864, in Lewiston.
  • Jem Romaine, roadster. Tried, convicted of murder of Lloyd Magruder in Idaho, on evidence of Billy Page. Hanged March 4, 1864, in Lewiston.
  • Billy Terwiliger, roadster.
  • Gad Moore, roadster. Banished winter 1863. Fled the country again.

Next time, March 15, 2017. Yeager’s List, part II. Why it remains controversial.

* Montana Post, November 25, 1865, page 4. Thomas Josiah Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana was first published as a serial in the weekly Montana Post from August 26, 1865, through March 24, 1866. Its publication in pamphlet form was announced on October 6, 1866, two weeks after Dimsdale’s death at age 35 on September 22, 1866, from tuberculosis. Its publication as a book was announced on December 8, 1866, by D. W. Tilton & Co. The price per copy was $2.00 in dust or $2.25 in greenbacks. The Vigilantes of Montana is the first book to be published in Montana.
** “Roadster”: a man who held up travelers on the road, a road agent, or outlaw.