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.
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.
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