History Helps Navigate Tough Times

When I watch the news on social media and TV, sometimes my heartbeat increases. It went pitty-pat during this past week as Congress hassled over the coronavirus relief bill, which has now passed and President Trump has signed. The fierce arguments in the Senate reminded me of an attack on Senator Charles Sumner in 1856.

The run-up to the Civil War bears an astonishing resemblance to the spectacle of Senators and Representatives flailing the air in manufactured indignation, except that 164 years ago we couldn’t watch in real time or on video. Communications were obviously much slower or nonexistent between 1850 and 1865. No social media, no telegraph or radio. Not even any typewriters. When the first transcontinental telegraph tied the two coasts together in 1861, communications made a great jump ahead. And put the Pony Express out of business.

In Congress tempers flared over slavery even before the first guns fired on Fort Sumter. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat and pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, attacked Charles Sumner, a Republican abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, as he sat writing at his desk. Brooks beat Sumner unconscious with his heavy gold-headed cane, and continued to beat him after he was down. Sumner was so badly injured that he could not return to work for a few years, but the Massachusetts legislature reelected him anyway. His empty desk in the Senate awaited him when he was able to return in December 1859. He became the leader of the Radical Republicans, the people who demanded that slaves be freed immediately, with full citizenship rights.

During this era Americans fought each other, families came apart, and violence became a way of life for some. And a remote section of mountains and plains became Montana Territory (May 26, 1864). Some young men grew up to think of a shooting war as a way of life, and they became the outlaws beloved of stories and movies of the “Old West,” aka the “Wild West.” In Montana, the frontier ended later than in other states, and the Curry Gang, most notably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, rode and robbed and murdered well past the turn of the Twentieth Century.

But while Western fiction and movies love to portray gun-toting good guys as righteous, another type of young man rode hard for a different way of life. They were literally voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Chief in the hearts of Montanans was William Wesley Van Orsdel, the Methodist circuit rider known as “Brother Van.” As a boy, he watched the battle of Gettysburg, which touched the Van Orsdel family farm. In 1872 he came to Montana to “preach and sing and encourage people to be good.” His lifelong message was God’s love for everyone, and he carried that love in his heart throughout his life. He befriended saloon keepers and drunks as well as “respectable” people. He condemned no one, but sought to bring them all to a better way.

Knowing Montana history comforts and inspires me, not from the example of the Curry Gang, but of Brother Van. Far more than Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) or the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh), Brother Van remains a part of who we are a 101 years after his death.

When I’m discouraged by situations and the news media, I think of Brother Van and I think that while evil stalks the land, goodness rides to counter it. Then I have hope for the future. And I’m comforted.

A Failure of Imagination

A few months ago, I ran into another repetition of an old revisionist claim about the Vigilantes of Montana. A Western blogger wrote a post titled “Hanging the Sheriff.” In it, he recycled a shallow claim that the Vigilantes were a gang of thugs who lynched a duly elected sheriff named Henry Plummer. It gave no citations, but I recognized the title of the piece as the title of a book written by R. E. Mather and F. E. Boswell and published in 1987.

Since that book was published, two significant histories of the early Vigilante era have come out:
A Decent Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes by Frederick Allen
The Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870: Gold, Guns & Gallows by the Hon. Mark C. Dillon, Associate Justice for the New York State Supreme Court, serving in the Appellate Division.

I highly recommend both books to anyone who wants to know the real story of the Vigilantes, what they did, and why they did it. I particularly recommend Justice Dillon’s book, written from the perspective of a distinguished legal professional and legal historian.

My own response to the revisionist blog (short version) is this:

  • Yes, Henry Plummer was a duly elected sheriff of the Grasshopper Mining District.
  • Yes, the Vigilantes hanged him.
  • Yes, they were justified.

Neither the book nor the blog post titled “Hanging the Sheriff” provide substantiating research in more depth to discover the real story. Mather and Boswell researched Plummer’s early life in newspapers of the time and skimmed over his later misdeeds and crimes.

The blog post simply echoes the book: Lynching a sheriff is a crime.

Granted, lynching is a crime. It’s murder, on the same order as patricide, matricide, or infanticide.

Before condemning the Vigilantes out of hand, though, we have to get outside our own heads to understand why they hanged Henry Plummer (and 23 other members of the Plummer Gang).

We live in a settled society (current gale-force political winds notwithstanding). We have laws, law enforcement, and a justice system. Despite considerable difference of opinion about capital punishment, under our laws the execution of murderers, including those involved in a conspiracy to commit murder, is not murder.

The Vigilantes did not live in a settled community. They had no recourse to law for the protection of their society. The consequences they visited on Plummer and the other members of the Plummer gang were capital punishment.

hangman's noose

The Hangman’s Noose was the Vigilantes’ weapon against the ruffians who ruled the gold fields of the region now known as southwest Montana.

Between 1862 and 1865, the first phase of the Vigilante Era,

  • Gold seekers inhabited a remote area of the Northern Rocky Mountains, now known as Southwestern Montana, which comprises more than 25,000 square miles, all of it mountainous, and all of it subject to massive winter snowfalls.
  • Until February 10, 1864, when the first Idaho legislature completed its work of writing laws, Idaho Territory had no laws but the Ten Commandments and the United States Constitution.
  • Between March 4, 1863, and May 26, 1864, Montana was part of Idaho Territory.
  • As part of Idaho, the region that became Montana Territory also had no law. None.
  • On May 26, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed Montana Territory into being.
  • With transportation and communication between Lewiston, ID, and Virginia City, Montana Territory, hampered by rugged mountain ranges, very few men, even lawyers, knew what the laws were until a “few” (perhaps 6 or so) bound copies of the Idaho Code were brought to The Montana Post on November 26, 1864.
  • As mandated by the Organic Act that instructed Governor Edgerton in his duties, the Montana Territorial Legislature could not officially meet until December 12, 1864. Only then could the legislators begin to write and pass laws for Montana.

The Legislature appointed committees to write and codify Montana criminal law and procedures. These were not printed and made available to the public until The Montana Post published the entire code in a series of issues during June and July 1865. Not until 1866 did the editor of the Post complete the job of printing the entire code of law and binding the pages into a book. (In those days, printing was a laborious job of setting type by hand, proofreading, marking corrections, and resetting type to make the corrections. I’ve done it. I know how time-consuming it is.)

The problem with the approach from both Mather and Boswell, and the recent blogger, as I see it, is twofold:

First is our definition of “Vigilante.”

According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (online version), the noun “vigilante” only dates from the mid-nineteenth century. It comes from “vigilance” which has been in use from the late sixteenth century (half a millennium) defined as: “The quality or character of being vigilant; watchfulness, alertness to danger etc.; close monitoring of a situation…” The phrase “vigilance committee” is used in the U.S. to designate “a self-appointed body for the maintenance of justice and order in a community lacking well-established procedures for such matters.”

The meanings of words morph as time goes on. The most common meaning people generally apply to “vigilante” is “lynch mob.”

Second, revisionist historians suffer from a failure of imagination.

They view history through the lens of current standards which regulate a settled society. They cannot imagine times so different from the 21st century, except in the obvious – clothes, transportation, communication, and indoor plumbing. But people 150 years ago thought differently than we do. For example, the overriding political issue during the Civil War was not racism, but slavery. These days, we condemn racism, but slavery – human trafficking, as we call it – is not as high on our moral or political radar. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be.

In order to correctly understand any historical period, writers of history and historical fiction would do well to enter into the mindset of the people who lived in that era, without judging it. If we don’t, we’ll get it so horribly wrong as to call Henry Plummer a victim and the Vigilantes a lynch mob.