Category Archives: God’s Thunderbolt

“Water! Water!”

Virginia City had a water problem. You might not think that would be the case, considering that Bill Fairweather, Henry Cover, and their friends discovered gold right in Alder Creek on May 26, 1863. Within days a gold rush was on. A gold camp sprang up on its banks, and within a few months became a town.
The building boom and the gold rush, though, had competing interests in the water. Both brought in scores of people. Although they all came for the gold, they had opposite goals. Settlers built the town, and those who had brought their families made their homes there. Miners appear mostly to have wanted to dig the gold and take it home. Or they tried to, during the era of the Plummer Gang.
During 1863, few people appear to have thought about the necessity for clean water for drinking and cooking. (At least I haven’t found references to it in letters and diaries of the Montana Gold Rush.)
Early in 1864, however, a typhus epidemic struck. It was not generally known at the time that overcrowding, malnutrition, and foul water caused (and do cause) typhus. (In my novel God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, Martha McDowell and her friends Lydia Hudson and Berry Woman fight the typhus epidemic.)

God's Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winnerl

God’s Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winner

Nor did they generally know that the ultimate cause was explained by “germ theory,” now a central tenet of modern medicine.
Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye invading and reproducing in humans and animals can cause disease. Although germs had long been suspected as the causes of disease, germ theory was as debatable in the nineteenth century as are the causes of climate change now. That changed after Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist, proved it correct between 1860-1864 by identifying the cause (germs) of puerperal fever that killed so many women after childbirth.
The general public, including doctors, did not realize that bites from fleas, mites (chiggers), lice, and ticks transmit typhus bacteria. Or that unclean medical implements carry the germs, too. Symptoms of typhus include fever of 102˚or higher, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Other causes allow the disease to spread: overcrowding, poor diet, poor sanitation, and crowding. Those same conditions exist in war, and in areas of poverty.
And they existed in the Alder Gulch mining camps.
By the summer of 1864, an estimated 20,000 people lived in the “14-mile city” along Alder Creek, the primary stream, and along its tributary creeks, such as Daylight Creek that flows through Virginia City into Alder Creek.
The pressure on these sources of water must have been intense. Between the height of spring run-off and low water in the later summer and fall, miners claimed the water as their own.
Then came The Montana Post. It began publication on August 27, 1864, under the ownership of John Buchanan (no relation), who had brought his printing press to Virginia City. The September 8, 1864, issue announced the change of ownership and a new editorial direction – toward the Union. Daniel Webster Tilton had bought the paper and very soon installed Thomas J. Dimsdale as editor.
After publishing a puff piece about Virginia City on September 17 that mentioned “water good and wholesome” as one of the city’s attractive features, Dimsdale apparently changed his mind. Also, during this time, a group of men formed a water company and began to dig a ditch for laying pipes from a spring about a mile and a half up in the mountains.
On October 15, 1864, Dimsdale wrote an article headlined simply “The Waterworks.”
“Good water, and plenty of it, is a necessity as well as a luxury, and the most unthinking will prefer water conveyed in pipes, to the same fluid mixed with all the various and horrible impurities that the most casual inspection cannot fail to detect in the branch which is the main source of supply to the inhabitants of Virginia City.” (p. 2)
He continued, “The works are progressing rapidly. Four augers are at work boring the logs, and the ditch will be ere long completed. There seems to be a prejudice on the part of some of the miners against the undertaking, but a little reflection will … show it to be groundless….”
Miners considered that they owned the water in the streams, and said so plainly in the “Fairweather Mining District Laws,” which Dimsdale printed in the Post, October 22, 1864.
“Section 16: The water in any creek or gulch shall belong exclusively to the miners of the creek or gulch.”
If that weren’t strong enough, the miners backed up their claim to possession in Section 18:
“The interest of the holder or holders, of any creek or gulch claim is hereby declared to be a chattle (sic) interest, consisting of the right to the possession of the land and the water thereupon, inseparable and indivisible except by the consent of the party or parties in interest, made in due form of law, and then only to such an extent, as shall not impair or infringe the rights of others.”***
And finally, Section 19:
“No person, or persons or company shall have the right by pre-emption, or otherwise to claim and hold an exclusive right or privilege in or to any portion of the water in any creek or gulch in the district, except as herein provided, and any ditch, pipe, channel flume or other means of conveyance … which may hereafter be made by which the water in any creek or gulch in the district shall be diverted from its original channel … without leaving in the creek or gulch the quantity of water belonging to each claim, is hereby declared to be a public nuisance….”****
Dimsdale also came down hard on the necessity of water to put out fires “in our town of wood,” as he wrote on November 12, 1864.
“Without this (water) being on hand in quantity, buckets are about as useful as thimbles to thirsty men.” He goes on to advocate several other modes of dousing fires, all of which sound not much more useful than buckets, but would only work even marginally if the water source were not close by.***** (p. 2)
The Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly would not meet until December 12, 1864, and there were no laws in effect in the territory. Created on May 26, 1864, from Idaho and Dakota Territories, Montana had no laws of its own because Congress did not stipulate that Idaho law passed down to Montana Territory. The only effective law in the Territory that pertained to the Alder Gulch region was this mining code.
Nonetheless, the water company pressed on.
In a lengthy article on November 19, Dimsdale reported, “The water is now brought close to the Shakespeare restaurant on Idaho Street.”
He describes the necessity for good water as a public health measure:
“We are firmly of opinion that more than half of the sickness in this town is traceable to carelessness in the selection of water for drinking and culinary purposes. Any person may satisfy himself of the correctness of our ideas on the subject, who will take a walk around the town and examine the condition of the pools and streams from which a large number of our citizens are in the habit of obtaining their daily supply. The water is not in a condition for any human being to drink. Regard to health being thrown out of the account, pleasure and taste must be both out-voted, or no one could think of imbibing the turbid and impure element.”
On November 26, he reported,
“The pipes for the supply of water are now being laid in Main street, and another week’s labor will see the whole city supplied. Any one wishing to have the water conducted into his or her house, can have it done by applying to the proprietors of the water works.”
The cost for having water brought into one’s house was $2.00 per month, which Dimsdale considered reasonable, although a high wage for the time was $30 per month.
In addition, he noted that having an adequate water supply in town would be a benefit in case of fire.
The miners did not give up. They petitioned the legislature on December 10 to grant no charter to the water company. Dimsdale lapsed into editorializing when he wrote,
“…the opponents … are actuated by a desire to run their own grindstone at the expense of the health of the entire body of the citizens.” (Montana Post, December 10, 1864)
The petition failed, and Virginia City soon had a water company.
In March I’ll publish part 2, of this “Water” story. In 1890 a remarkable person became owner and manager of the Virginia City Water Company.
*“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” So goes a famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1789 as one of the Lyrical Ballads, which changed English literary history.

**The tree line in that high desert country is the reverse of what it is in wetter places. In a desert country, trees do not grow on hillsides lower than a few thousand feet above sea level, where they can get enough moisture. The trees around Virginia City are of the shorter varieties, juniper. Hardly trees at all (at least compared to the towering pines at higher elevations).

***Chattel (not chattle) property is any property, whether movable or immovable, except real estate and the buildings on it. (Its use in this context separates a mining claim form real estate. Later on, a dispute arose in the Legislature over whether or not to consider claims as real estate. The implications of that aren’t clear to me. Yet.)

****Pre-emption is the right of ownership to a piece of land by virtue of being the first to claim it. After the Civil War, and into the 20th century, people often moved onto a piece of land and build shacks or houses on it, claiming ownership to it by right of pre-emption, or being the first to live on it. Many of them later filed for ownership on the land as theirs under the Homestead Act of 1862, and the courts in the local areas upheld their claims. (It’s now spelled preemption.)

*****Those of you who are acquainted with Virginia City, can imagine putting out a fire anywhere above Wallace or Idaho streets along Jackson or Van Buren streets. Picture passing buckets up the hill from either Daylight creek or Alder creek. By the time the first bucket had reached the fire, the building might well have burned to the ground.

The Posse Rides – Hell’s Ninth Circle

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.

Cover for The Devil in the Bottle

The Devil in the Bottle: Joseph A “Jack” Slade challenges the Vigilantes

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.

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.