A Friendship Forged in Danger: Neil Howie and John Featherstun

Josiah T. Dimsdale in his book The Vigilantes of Montana tells how Henry Plummer recruited likely members of his gang of road agents. Plummer stopped to exchange the time of day with a miner named Neil Howie who was working his claim. Howie, mud-crusted and cold from standing in icy water, his back aching from digging down into the creek bed, was polite but not over-friendly. He knew Plummer.

Sitting his horse, Plummer said, “That’s mighty hard work for damn little return.”

“I know it,” said Howie.

“There’s a way you could make a lot more money without killing yourself.” Plummer acted the part of a genial fellow letting another in on a good thing, much as one man might tip another to a fixed horse race, or which saloon had the best beer.

Howie, being smart, said he didn’t think he’d take Plummer up on his suggestion just now: he hadn’t got to the end of what he might find in this claim.

Plummer acted unconcerned. “Have it your own way.” And then his manner changed from affable to menacing. “Keep this conversation to yourself if you know what’s good for you.”

“Don’t worry. I will.” As he watched Plummer ride away, Howie didn’t only shiver from the cold water.

He had arrived in Bannack on September 8, 1862, with the Woodmansee freight train carrying provisions that saved the miners from starvation.

In the fall of 1863 he went to Salt Lake City and bought a freight outfit of his own, loaded it up with supplies, and returned to Alder Gulch.

On the return trip, late in December, Howie met Ben Peabody, of Peabody and Caldwell, owners of the first stage line in Alder Gulch. Their stage had been robbed in October, and Peabody was now headed for Salt Lake “with a cayuse pack train for goods.” (The Vigilantes were not yet fully organized after the trial of George Ives, December 19-21, 1863.)

Peabody filled Howie in on recent events, including the robbery of Leroy Southmayde in late November and the attempted armed robbery of Milt Moody’s train in early December.

The Moody robbers had been identified as Dutch John Wagner and Steve Marshland, and every freighter on the road to Salt Lake had been warned to be on the lookout for Dutch John, who had escaped and was heading south with an Indian companion. Every man in three nearby trains promised to lend a hand in capturing him.

Dutch John had been shot in the upper chest during the Moody robbery, but had made his way to Bannack, where his wound was taken care of. Attempting to flee Bannack on foot with an Indian companion, he carried his saddle, intending to steal a fine, fast horse pastured at a ranch on Horse Prairie.

People talk. Word of Dutch John’s intentions came to the ears of the horse’s owner, who gathered some men and stopped him before he reached the ranch. They “confiscated” his saddle and gave him an old mule to ride, and two blankets.

Not long after this encounter, Dutch John and his companion came in sight and were recognized. But not a man would help Howie capture him, even though they outnumbered Dutch John considerably, and carried an arsenal of revolvers, shotguns, and rifles. In his effort to be fair, Dimsdale admits that Dutch John was not a man to be trifled with. He was about six feet tall and strongly built, with a gunman’s reputation.

Which probably put him on even ground with Neil Howie, who had a similar reputation with a pistol.

When Dutch John met the first train – Peabody’s – he carried a rifle, but even so, he must have made quite a sight riding bareback on the disreputable mule. When he asked for tobacco, the men told him they had none, but that a large train down below might have some. Howie, who was with them, could not persuade anyone to help arrest him.

After Dutch John rode off, Howie mounted his horse and went after him. He caught up to Wagner, made an excuse about borrowing a shoeing hammer from that next train, and rode on.

With Wagner behind him and armed with a rifle, Howie’s back felt prickly, but he rode to the train where he asked for help. And got none.

The same story played out at the third wagon train. Among all three trains on the road that day, not one of perhaps thirty men would help Neil Howie apprehend the dangerous fugitive.

So he decided to go it alone.

Neil Howie walked up to a desperate man armed with a rifle and no compunction about using it, together with a friend who carried a full quiver of arrows.

Howie disarmed Dutch John. Dimsdale attributes that to Howie’s own reputation for speed with his revolver.

Then John Featherstun, whom Howie had not met before, offered to help take the outlaw back to Bannack. Where Henry Plummer was Sheriff. Howie did not like Plummer, but at this point he may not have been aware of Plummer’s role as the leader of the outlaw gang that had been terrorizing travelers for nearly a year.

Together the two men rode toward Bannack with Dutch John, who made two unsuccessful attempts to escape. By the time they reached the town, Howie and Featherstun had become fast friends.

At Horse Prairie, just above Bannack, Howie suggested that he would go into town and make sure it would be safe to bring in Wagner. Featherstun agreed to wait an hour, and built a fire to keep himself and Wagner warm.

By now, from Dimsdale’s account, the Vigilantes had organized in Nevada City and Virginia City, and a contingent had ridden to Bannack to organize a group there that very evening. That would explain Neil Howie’s failure to return to the camp. He was participating in organizing the Bannack Vigilantes under the leadership of Wilbur F. Sanders.

But after waiting two hours, Featherstun rode into Bannack with Dutch John. They put up the animals, and sought a warm place to wait. Featherstun was unacquainted in Bannack, but he was smart enough to be wary of turning Wagner over to anyone but Howie. He and Wagner walked to a saloon, where they sat down to wait until Howie could find them. They played cards and drank some beer.

From this point, the story seems to have become a deadly comedy of errors, with Howie looking for Featherstun, who was determined to hold onto his prisoner, while the road agents Ned Ray and Buck Stinson (who were Plummer’s deputies and members of the gang) gathered forces to rescue Dutch John, and the Vigilantes got organized in Bannack, and everybody – Vigilantes and road agents – came and went from one saloon to another.

At last, thanks in part to John Featherstun’s courage and intelligence in picking out whom he could trust, and Neil Howie’s return with other Vigilantes, Dutch John was apprehended and kept prisoner until the Vigilantes could try him according to the rules in their by-laws.

They hanged Dutch John Wagner on January 11, 1864.

Afterword:

Howie and Featherstun remained life-long friends after their Vigilante days.

According to The Montana Post (February 17, 1866) they served together as officers in the Second Montana Volunteers, Howie as Colonel and Featherstun as Major.

Howie played the more prominent part in Montana’s early history of law and order, becoming Sheriff of Madison County and later, U. S. Marshal, naming both John Featherstun and John X. Beidler as Deputy Marshalls. In the early 1870’s, Howie sought a warmer climate, and moved to Florida, where he died of a fever in 1874.

Featherstun went into partnership in the Hotel Tremont in Virginia City. In the March 2, 1867, issue of The Montana Post the editor remarked that as “chief of the hotel calaboose” he also served dinner to two inmates. On June 15, 1867, his arrival in Virginia City after a trip “looking well and hearty” is the last reference to him in the Post. After that, his later career, as well as the dates of his birth and death are unknown.

Have you anything to add to this story? Feel free to respond in the comments. I’d enjoy hearing from you.

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 chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, the website for Historic American Newspapers, or at montananewspapers.org. 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.