Tag Archives: Montana Vigilantes

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.


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.

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: https://history.idaho.gov/territorial-history
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.