The Vigilantes Organize, Part II: Bylaws and Officers

In his legal history of the Vigilante era, Judge Mark C. Dillon writes,

“The ceremonial and legalistic manner in which the organization was formed, including the oath of its membership and the adoption of bylaws, suggests that the vigilantes did not intend to conduct themselves as an unruly mob but as a ‘righteous’ and disciplined organization.”*

Who Wrote the Vigilantes'”Regulations and Bye-Laws”?
Although authorship of the two-page document titled “Regulations and Bye-Laws” is unknown, the document itself survives in the archives of the Montana Historical Society (SC953). (Except in quoting the title, I use modern spelling, Bylaws, in this post.)

Hoffman Birney, writing in 1929, quotes Adriel B. Davis, sheriff of Junction and one of the first members of the Vigilance Committee, who attributed authorship “to an unnamed clerk” who worked in the store owned by J. E. McClurg. The unnamed clerk, Birney was told, knew the bylaws of the 1851 and 1856 San Francisco Vigilance Committees. Judge Dillon also recognizes in the Bylaws’ phrasing the possible hand of Wilbur F. Sanders.**

Structure of the Committee
Sanders’s work may also be seen in the military-style structure of the committee. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he had recruited a company of artillery and a company of infantry, and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 64th Ohio Infantry. He was appointed Assistant Adjutant General of the infantry company, and by the time he resigned from the army in August 1862, he had achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel. Of course, he may not have been the only man with a military background involved in writing the Bylaws.

The structure of the vigilance committee included a president, an executive officer, secretary, treasurer, and an executive committee. The president appointed captains for each of the mining districts, who formed a company and chose his lieutenants. Together, captains and lieutenants chose other men of “known worth and integrity” to join them. At some point, each company elected its captain and lieutenant.

In his “Early History of Montana,” Sanders writes that he was the “leader,” i.e., captain of the Bannack Vigilantes.***

The bylaws call for the executive committee to consist of

“seventeen members: the President, Executive Officer, Treasurer, Secretary of the Committee, and three persons from Virginia City, three from Nevada [City],” one each from Junction, Highland, Pine Grove, Bivens Gulch, and two from Summit. “… any eight of [them, i.e., the executive committee] shall constitute a quorum.”

The three main officers were: President – Paris S. Pfouts; Executive Officer – James Williams; Treasurer – John S. Lott. Additionally, Dillon names Wilbur Sanders as prosecuting attorney. (p. 128) In his ”Early History,” Sanders refers to his role simply as “counsel.”

The Bylaws require the following procedure to identify a criminal, which is worth quoting verbatim:

“…whenever any criminal act shall come to their (a member’s) knowledge to inform his Captain or Lieutenant of the same, when the officers so informed shall call together the members of his Company, (unless the Company has chosen a committee for such purpose) when they shall proceed to investigate the case, and elicit the facts and should the said company conclude that the person charged with any offense should be punished by the committee, the Captain or Lieutenant will first take steps to arrest the Criminal and then report the same with proof to the Chief who will thereupon call a meeting of the Executive Committee and the judgment of such Executive Committee shall be final.”

The “Ferreting Committee”
The Vigilantes soon formed a “Ferreting” committee, led by John X Beidler, which collected evidence and investigated allegations. I don’t know if they evaluated the evidence they found, or turned it over to the Executive committee, whose job it was to assess what was known and determine whether or not to collect more, dismiss the particular accusation, or to proceed with an arrest.

Following the procedure mandated in the Bylaws, is this chilling sentence:

“The only punishment that shall be inflicted by this Committee is death.”

A Different Sentence
Despite this, in the summer of 1864, a young man was reported to have several times embezzled money from his employer. The evidence was conclusive. Called before the Executive Committee to answer for his crime, the very frightened youth (age 19 or 20) shakily confessed his guilt. James Williams was among those present. Maybe none of the men, having pronounced the death penalty and in some cases having carried it out personally more than two dozen times, wanted to hang this boy. Williams argued that justice would be best served by another sentence.

The Committee sentenced the lad to repay in full the money he had stolen, after which he was to leave Montana Territory never to return.

Some years later, the young man, now grown into a respected citizen of Portland, Oregon, wrote to thank the Vigilantes. If he had not been caught, and received that sentence, he believed that he might carried on with his life of crime to its inevitable end. Instead, he had been as the saying is, “scared straight.”

Next: The Vigilantes Ride (January 11, 2017)
*The Montana Vigilantes, 1863-1870: Gold, Guns & Gallows, p. 127.
** The Montana Vigilantes, 1863-1870: Gold, Guns & Gallows, p. 127; Vigilantes, 1929, p. 218.
Note: Both Birney and Dillon include the entire document in their books. Short as it is at about 1,650 words, printing it in full here would overwhelm this post, so I’ve decided to paraphrase its main points.
Dillon includes the “Regulations and Bye-Laws” in his Appendix B, “Bylaws of the Vigilance Committee,” pp. 404-405.
Quotations here are from the original document in …: “Vigilante Records (Virginia City) 1863-1863, MHS, SC 953.”
To defray the expenses of the Ferreting committee, such as paying confidential informants, John Lott, the treasurer, kept a meticulous record. It has survived intact and is deposited in the Montana Historical Society Archives. Lott, who wrote the oath subscribed to by the posse on Dec. 23, 1863, may not have been an accurate speller, but he balanced the books.
***Sanders and his immediate and extended families lived in Bannack. He happened to be in Virginia City to discuss the possibility of sending delegates to Washington, DC, to persuade Congress to break a new territory (Montana) away from Idaho Territory.

The Vigilantes Organize

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.”

God's Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winnerl

God’s Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winner

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.

Sanders recalls,

“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.
Sanders writes,

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.

Sanders writes,

“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:
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.

Who Were the Vigilantes?

After the Ives trial ended on December 21, 1863, two groups of men organized themselves for the purpose of ending the rule of terror in Madison and Beaverhead counties – and beyond.
One group, 25 men in Nevada City, organized themselves as a posse to ride after Alex Carter two nights after George Ives was hanged.

The other group organized themselves in Virginia City. Each acted without the other group’s knowledge – at first.

This is Part I of the story of how these men formed one organized group that became known to history as the Vigilantes of Montana will be told in three parts.

Today’s article tells who they were; it will name names and offer evidence for you to puzzle over one remaining question: How deep was the involvement of the Masons? I’d be very interested to know what you think.

On November 9, I’ll discuss the Vigilante organization – complete with by-laws and officers. If you have information about who wrote the by-laws, by all means share it with all of us.

On December 12, I’ll get into some of the Constitutional issues that raised controversy at the time the Vigilantes were active — and even now.

(When I capitalize Vigilante or Vigilantes, I mean the organized Montana Vigilance Committee or individual members rather than unorganized groups or individuals that subscribe to vigilantism where organized law enforcement is present.)

The Masonic Question

There is an old Montana saying: “Not all Vigilantes were Masons, but all Masons were Vigilantes.” (Again, my capital V on Vigilantes.)

As Wilbur F. Sanders wrote in his account, “…while there were a number of masons in the country, there was not, and never had been an organized masonic lodge….” (Montana Historical Society Archives, MC 53, p. 5).

Sanders himself was a Mason. A Republican and an abolitionist, he was also one of two prosecutors in the George Ives trial. The other was Charles S. Bagg, a Democrat. Although the two men remained fast friends all their lives, I have not yet discovered whether or not Bagg was a Vigilante, although I think it likely that he was.

At first, not even the Masons knew who were the other Masons. Then on Nov. 2, 1862, William H. Bell died of natural causes in Bannack, in the Grasshopper diggings. As he lay dying, Mr. Bell requested a Masonic funeral. Someone put signs on posts and trees asking all Masons to gather and grant Brother Bell’s dying request. According to reports, some 70 or so Masons answered the call.

At this time of deep division in the country, during the Civil War, the Masons became a unifying force in the region. Being a Mason crossed religious lines: Wilbur Sanders was a Protestant, and Solomon Content (who built Content’s Corner) was Jewish.

Masons also came together over issues of law and order that crossed political boundaries. Wilbur Sanders believed in equality for black people – now. Not at some future date. At a time when slavery still held sway in much of the United States and in some of its territories, this was a radical idea.

Another Mason, Paris Swayze Pfouts, was an adamant Confederate sympathizer who sneered in his autobiography at the “negro equality school.” (Written in 1868, the autobiography is titled, Four Firsts for a Modest Hero, and was published in 1968.)

But the two men agreed about the necessity for law and order.

Sanders writes: “On two occasions in November 1863, I with Paris S. Pfouts, a merchant in Virginia City from St. Joseph, Missouri, having satisfied each other of our Masonic affiliations, had walked (up) Wallace Street (into) untrodden sagebrush, and consulted and planned and speculated with reference to the formation of a Vigilance Committee and the probable support and opposition it would receive.”

They worked together to bring the law and law enforcement to a chaotic area where gold, greed, and a vacuum of law led to ruffians’ rule and a tolerance for murder. Pfouts was elected president at one of the first organizational meetings, perhaps because he was absent. Sanders served as the Vigilantes’ legal counsel.

What do you think about the Masons’ involvement?

Naming Names

Here, then, are the names of some of the original Vigilantes I have verified in at least two sources. The obligation reads:

“We the undersigned uniting ourselves in a party for the laudible purpos of arresting thieves and murderers and recovering stollen propperty do pledge ourselves and our sacred honor each to all others. We solemnly swear that we will reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right and never desert each other or our standerd of justice. So help us God, as witnessed by our hand and seal this 23 of December AD 1863.”

The original Vigilante oath. Used by permission of the Montana Historical Society, SC953

The original Vigilante oath. Used by permission of the Montana Historical Society, SC953

A. J. Noyes, editor of the fourth edition of Dimsdale’s Vigilantes of Montana, attributes the oath’s composition to John Lott, who became the Vigilante treasurer, but he did not sign it. I have left in the misspellings because Lott probably did not consider that editorial perfection was necessary to catching murderers.
Beginning at the upper left, the signatures are:
James Williams, Joseph Hinkley, J. S. Daddow, C. F. Keves or Keyes; Chs (Charles) Brown, E. (Elkanah aka “Elk”) Morse, J. H. Balch, W. C. Maxwell, Nelson Kellock, S. J. Ross, Ch (Charles) Beehrer, Thos. (Thomas) Baume, Wm. H. Parown (or Brown), John Brown, Enoch Hodson, Hans. J. Holst, ? Hoofen (nearly illegible), Alex Gillon, William Clark, John Traff (?), A. D. Smith, W. (William) Palmer, L. Seebold, and M. S. Warder.

  • James Williams became the Vigilance Committee’s Executive Officer. He gave the order, “Men, do your duty.” Thomas J. Dimsdale refers to him as the “Captain,” because he won an election as captain of a wagon train. 9The other candidate was Joseph A. Slade, posthumously known as “Jack” Slade.)
  • Charles Beehrer was an immigrant from Germany, and like William Palmer, a brewer. There’s a story that before he earned enough money to buy a team and wagon he would deliver kegs of beer to his customers on his shoulders.
  • Thomas Baume identified Nicholas Tbalt by the pocket knife he had loaned or given Nick.
  • William Clark, again, was Nick’s foster father. Although Senator William A. Clark denied ever after that he had been in the area during the Vigilante years, I have not yet come across another William Clark among the Vigilantes or another William A. Clark who was not a Vigilante.
  • William Palmer, saloon keeper, discovered Nicholas Tbalt’s body.

Some of these men had ridden with the original posse to confront Long John Frank at Wisconsin Creek about Nick Tbalt’s death. As Frank was distinctly unhelpful to William Palmer, they no doubt figured that was a good place to start. Hoffman Birney lists them as: “Charles Beehrer (German brewer), Elkanah “Elk” Morse, Joseph Daddow, Thomas Baume, Henry Clark, George Burtchy (Bertsche), John Wilson, Frank Angevine, Elias Story. (Elias Story was Nelson Elias Story, who later drove the first cattle herd from Texas to Montana and is credited by some as having begun Montana’s cattle industry.)

These, are some of the men who became Vigilantes. They did not boast of belonging to the group, because at first to be known as a Vigilante endangered their lives and the lives of their associates. And even at the time, despite the calm and relatively orderly society that prevailed after March 1864, many good people bitterly opposed their actions as being nothing short of murder.

The legality of their actions is if anything more controversial 152 years later.
We’ll look at this issue in a subsequent article, in January 2017.

Next: The Vigilantes Organize