Idaho Vigilance Committees
(Vigilantes part 3)
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Vigilante justice was talk of the state in the 1860s
The bitter rivalry between the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of Boise and the Idaho World of Idaho City was never more intense than it was over the issue of law enforcement in 1865 and 1866. The Radical Republican Statesman felt that county sheriffs elected by Democrats were not enforcing the laws, and that the organization of vigilante bands was justified and necessary.
The first mention of vigilante law appeared in the World on Dec. 31, 1864: “Mr. H. Bledsoe, Wells Fargo & Co.’s messenger arrived in Placerville on the 28th inst., six days from Walla Walla, and sends us the following news: The vigilantes are operating along the Payette, from Horseshoe Bend down; understand they are driving out the ‘gold dust spelterers’ and horse thieves from the community generally.”
“Spelterers” created bogus gold dust by putting lead filings and a small amount of real dust in a frying pan. When heated, the gold coated the lead, making it look like the real thing. Bogus Basin probably takes its name from a band of crooks who counterfeited gold dust in this way in the hills above Boise City.
Before a system for electing local officials had been set up in the new Idaho Territory, President Abraham Lincoln appointed judges for three judicial districts and a United States marshal. Sheriffs were appointed for each of the counties. Naturally only loyal Republicans and Union sympathizers received these appointments. Sumner Pinkham was Boise County’s first appointed sheriff. He served only until a Democrat was elected.
William J. McConnell, who organized the Payette Valley vigilantes mentioned earlier, and later was elected governor of Idaho, described ex-Sheriff Sumner Pinkham as “one of Nature’s noblemen, six feet two inches tall, with the frame of an athlete … not only physically but mentally he was a leader among men … marked from the first for the bullet of an assassin.” When Ferdinand J. Patterson shot and killed Sumner Pinkham on July 23, 1865, he was promptly accused of murder, but a Boise County grand jury failed to indict him. Statesman Editor James S. Reynolds was understandably outraged and demanded that Patterson be tried for murder.
World Editor H.C. Street wrote sarcastically on Aug. 12, 1865, “The Idaho Statesman is greatly alarmed because the Grand Jury ignored the bill against Mr. Patterson, charged with the killing of Mr. Pinkham. Wonder why somebody does not abolish all the courts and all the juries of the Territory, and appoint the editor of the Statesman to perform their functions? It would be much cheaper and more expeditious, for he could try and hang a man without hearing a particle of evidence or knowing anything whatever about the case. Forty miles or so of distance would be nothing at all in the way. Guilty or innocent would be all the same to him, if he could make a vote by it. Really we can see but little need for courts or Judges, if men are to be condemned, but not heard.”
From the World’s point of view, vigilantes were nothing but “stranglers” who had created a reign of terror in which any person could be chased out of the Territory or killed without a trial or hearing. Vigilantes, like lynch mobs and others who took the law into their own hands, occasionally may have rid the world of scoundrels, but they also must have made mistakes and murdered innocent men.
Ferd Patterson was tried for Pinkman’s murder at the beginning of November 1865. The testimony of numerous eyewitnesses was vague or contradictory and the jury was unable to determine who had fired first, even though some said Pinkham had tried to avoid a shoot-out. The usual verdict of “not guilty” was rendered, since there was at least the possibility that Patterson had acted in self-defense.
When Ferd Patterson was shot to death in a Walla Walla barber shop in February 1866, by a man named Tom Donovan, the World said, “It is the general opinion that he was hired to commit the murder of Patterson by some of the vigilantes in that portion of the country.”
source: Arthur Hart, Idaho Statesman June 27, 2015, Part 1 (part 2 near the bottom)
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Idaho’s Vigilante Farmer Brought Law and Order
By Syd Albright
More than 200 outlaws were hanged by vigilantes in Idaho between 1861 and 1866.
Miners, farmers and ranchers throughout Idaho were in constant danger of being robbed and killed by marauding outlaws. One of the farmers was William J. McConnell of Payette Valley who grew vegetables for sale.
Idaho Territory was created in 1863, but it took some time after that for law and order to become effective. It was still the Wild West and legal justice was rudimentary. Lawyers and judges with little or no training made trials a sham. In many communities, there was scant relief from law enforcement officers, and court dockets were clogged with mining disputes.
Then when criminals were treated with unwarranted leniency, the public became fed up and demanded something be done. That gave rise to vigilance committees.
West of the Rockies, it started in the 1850s in California and soon spread to Montana and Idaho. The vigilantes – often comprising prominent citizens – were the combined tracking posse, judge, jury and executioner. Some vigilante groups, however, were simply ruthless gangs of outlaws taking matters into their own hands – under the guise of performing community service.
Vigilante justice varied. Sometimes trials had a semblance of fairness, but frequently trials ended in minutes, with the miscreants immediately hauled away for a beating or hanging. Often, criminals were tried in secret, and their fates sealed before they were even arrested.
Punishment included whipping, banishment from town, or being lynched. Usually, it was the gallows.
continued: By Syd Albright Special to The CdA Press November 09, 2013
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Life in the Early Mining-Camps
168. Self-Government: The Mining-Camp
Following a stampede, a group of miners often found themselves in some far-away gulch without government, laws, courts, or officers. In order to protect their mining-claims, and preserve order, they found it necessary to unite themselves into a simple, democratic organization known as the mining-camp. After adopting a body of rules and regulations for the guidance of the camp, the miners usually elected a judge, a recorder, and a sheriff. Disputes arising over mining-claims and criminal cases were sometimes attended to by the judge, and again by the miners’ meeting, which was generally held on Sunday. The miners’ meeting was a genuine little democracy and closely resembled the famous New England town meeting. While important powers were often delegated to the judge and other officials, the miners’ meeting was always the final source of power.
The mining-camp was a singularly interesting political institution, and will stand as an abiding memorial to the ability of those early miners to rear an orderly structure of self-government in a region beyond the pale of law and buried in the depths of mountain solitudes.
169. The Struggle for Order: The Vigilantes
Our gold-fields had scarcely become known to the world before bands of desperadoes who had made crime a profession in California and Nevada, came flocking to the newest Idaho camps. Their chief business was robbing stages, stealing horses and cattle, and murdering miners. So well organized were these roughs that if a judge, jury, or miners’ meeting attempted to punish one of their number, other members of the “gang” could be counted upon to wreak a brutal vengeance upon the men who presumed to bring the ruffian to justice. Finally these outlaws became so numerous and powerful in some of the camps that the miners found it necessary to form themselves into Vigilance Committees.
The peculiar feature of the Vigilante procedure was that it first tried the criminal in secret, and arrested him after ward. The punishment that followed conviction was swift, sure, and generally terrible. Since there were no jails, these convicted outlaws usually left the camp “at the end of a rope.” The mysteriousness and severity of the Vigilante tribunals overawed the most desperate criminals, and they usually began to conduct themselves decently or fled to districts where the strange sign of the Vigilantes was not in evidence. As soon as local and Territorial laws became effective, the career of these “popular tribunals” was, of course, at an end.
source: History of the State of Idaho, 1918, By C. J. Brosnan, Superintendent of Public Schools, Nampa, Idaho Copyright, 1918, by Charles Scribner’s Sons (page 114-116)
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Character of Inhabitants, Prosperous Community, Early Days, Stage Robbers, Scenes of Violence, Vigilance Committee.
The Idaho Murderers
In 1863 there was great excitement, and the people of the whole country were interested in the capture of the four men known as “the Idaho murderers,” who were accused of having killed two traders, Loyd Magruder and Charles Allen, for the money on their persons, while on their way from Magruder’s store in the Bitterroot country to Lewiston, in October, 1863. Hill Beachy, special messenger of Governor Wallace, traced the murderers to San Francisco, and, with the aid of the police, arrested them and brought them back to the Territory. They arrived under military escort December 1st, at Lewiston, and were delivered up to the authorities.
Magruder was a Democratic candidate for delegate to Congress, and formerly a member of the California Legislature.
A vigilance committee was organized in Lewiston, November 8, 1863, on account of the inefficiency of the authorities in bringing criminals to justice, and three notorious robbers were taken by force from the jail and hung, but we are not at this writing positive it was the party last mentioned that was hung.
Miners Gathered in the Saloon on a Wet Day
Description of Counties and Villages Payette Valley
“In very early days, Capt. Jonathan Keeney, the first American settler, who lived for many years in Payette Valley, made his first fence by driving willow stakes into the soft, moist soil and ‘watling’ them with smaller specimens of the same wood. The ‘watlings’ decayed and the fence was superseded by a better structure, but the stakes were allowed to remain in their places, where they grew into long rows of beautiful shade trees, most of which have now a diameter of over twelve inches, and with their tall trunks and wide-reaching branches present a scene of rural beauty that would grace an English manor that counts its age by hundreds of years.”
The first building put up in what is known as the Lower Payette Valley was the Pickett Corral Fort, two miles above Emmettsville. This place was once the most notable on the Payette River, and will ever be remembered by the old settlers, although it is torn down and entirely removed. It was built about the last of December, or first of January, 1862.
A cabin was first built of pine logs, and this surrounded by a picket fence of piles set in the ground, and ten feet high. It was built to corral stock at night against the Indians, and to keep a public house, or station. The proprietors were John Price, who died in Boise City some few years ago, Sam Wakefield, and Lew Roadpath, who were hung in Montana by the vigilantes. It is unknown what became of the other three, Paddy Miles, Scotty, and Wooley. The place soon became noted as the head center of horse thieves and bogus-dust operators.
The citizens of Payette organized a vigilance committee, and, in connection with the officers of the law, the bogus-dust operators and horse thieves were hunted down.
souce: History of Idaho Territory with Illustrations 1884 (pg 143, pg 199) Wallace W. Elliott & Co., Publishers, 421 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, Cal
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William J. McConnell: Vigilante, U.S. Marshal, Merchant, and Governor
On September 18, 1839, William J. McConnell, third governor of the state of Idaho, was born in Commerce, Michigan, about twenty-five miles northwest of Detroit. He moved to California in 1860 and engaged in mining and other work for a couple years. He spent the following year in Oregon, where he taught school and perhaps worked in a store.
McConnell followed the major gold rush into Idaho’s Boise Basin in 1863. Schooled by his experience in California, the young man recognized the opportunity offered by the excellent bottomland along the Payette River. Thus, he did not stay with the scramble of hopeful prospectors. Instead, McConnell and a few other settlers began raising vegetables, which they sold – at fabulous prices – to those same miners.
All was not profits and prosperity, however. The wild new Territory lacked any vestige of effective law enforcement. Shootings, knifings, and robberies were commonplace, and men with gold routinely disappeared on the tracks that linked the various camps.
Finally, when thieves made off with 8-10 horses and mules belonging to McConnell and his neighbors, he and two friends went after the robbers themselves. They returned with the animals a couple weeks later. No one inquired about the fate of the crooks.
William and the Payette Valley settlers then organized a regional Vigilance Committee, modeled on those established in California the decade before. When McConnell later prepared his History of Idaho, he made no apologies for their actions. He simply observed that they had no choice because “no effort was being made by those whose duties it was to enforce the law.”
Reports from the time indicate that the vigilantes did succeed in reining in the criminals, and the Committee disbanded. Popular opinion of their efforts was very positive: McConnell was appointed a Deputy U. S. Marshal, his term starting in 1865. After two years in that duty, he left the state for Oregon and California.
McConnell returned to Idaho in 1878, after the extensive farm lands of Latah County opened up . He established a general store there and became a major factor in the area’s growth.
McConnell General Store, Moscow. Latah County Historical Society.
When leaders convened a Constitutional Convention to enhance the appeal for statehood, McConnell represented the county in that body. After statehood, he became one of Idaho’s first two U.S. Senators. He served the abbreviated term needed to get the new state into the normal election cycle.
He did not stand for a full senatorial term, but ran instead for Governor … was elected, and then re-elected. McConnell served at a critical time in Idaho history. Much of the new state’s administrative structure was in a state of flux, and the “Panic of ’93” – a worldwide depression – blighted the economy. Still, his administration made several vital contributions, perhaps the most important being the vote for women’s suffrage in 1896.
McConnell remained in public service for the rest of his life, serving the U.S. government in various appointive positions. For part of that time, he was a Regent of the University of Idaho. He passed away in March 1925.
source: South Fork Companion
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Payette Vigilance Committee
Wagon roads, from Boise City to Bannock, were early constructed, and from Horseshoe Bend on the Payette river to Placerville, thence to other towns. … Consequently most of the supplies distributed in the Basin came over that road. After these wagon roads were completed, stage-lines were quickly started, and big Concord coaches, with four or six horses attached, arrived and departed daily, carrying passengers from each of the towns. …
With hundreds of men passing over the Payette Valley road, road- houses were quickly provided. Of these, Shafer’s, Horseshoe Bend, Burner’s Ranch, now called Marsh, the Black House, Payette Ranch, Thompson’s Ranch, and the “Big Hay Press,” were noted places during the summer of 1863. They all served meals consisting usually of bread and meat, generally bacon, with brown bread and black coffee, all for the nominal sum of one dollar each. These houses were invariably kept by unmarried men, and most of them were orderly and well conducted. …
For three years the market price for all kinds of farm produce, except hay, was never less than twenty-five cents a pound, and during that time, ten cents a pound for hay was the lowest price it reached in the mining towns. Hence the farmer shared with the miner and others the general prosperity. There was one embarrassment, however, which seriously hampered their operations. This was the loss of horses stolen by horse thieves, this loss falling most heavily on the settlers in the upper sections of the valleys, those nearest the mines, and increased, rather than diminished, for two years. …
Thousands of saddle and pack animals, many of them very valuable, were turned loose to range over the hills lying east, north and south of Horseshoe Bend. Thus the stock was entirely removed from their owners, and, for that matter, from anyone else who knew them, as it was impossible for the owners of the horse ranches to familiarize themselves with such a diversity of brands, and, in fact, many were not branded at all. … Hence the risk of driving off and appropriating this class of stock was not considered great, owing to the lax methods by which the laws were administered, methods which had a tendency to make the business of stock stealing a favorite vocation among those who had received training along this line in other regions.
Three former citizens of New Mexico who had graduated in that territory as stage robbers, horse thieves and cattle rustlers, arrived on the river early in the spring of 1863, and after sizing up the situation, established headquarters in the Payette valley, near the entrance of the canyon, above where is now located the prosperous town of Emmett.
They built a strong log house and corral, which was planned for defense, should necessity arise, and named the place “Picket Corral,” by which sobriquet it soon gained repute, the residents thereof being known as the “Picket Corral Gang.” After getting established, they proceeded to organize the business, one of their number locating a ranch and building a cabin and corral across the river from Boise City, on the site of what is now South Boise. …
One of the peculiar characteristics of the people in all frontier countries is their hatred of horse thieves, and their belief that nothing less than capital punishment is adequate to suppress them. This sentiment was no doubt prompted in Idaho by the well known fact that those who were entrusted with the enforcement of the law – the sheriff and his deputies – were nominated and elected to their positions through the influence of the admirers of horse-flesh. …
There is no record of more than one stolen horse being recovered by the owner during the three first years of the mining furor …
This was the culmination of what might have been foreseen – the breaking down of the barrier of loyalty to law and order which is an instance of all pastoral people. The evidence was no longer lacking that the farmers and traveling public could expect no protection from the ordinary sources through which justice is administered. …
[In that] part of the Payette Valley which lies above Jackass Creek, and is now called Jerusalem, was raided, and nine animals stolen – five horses and four large mules. There were at that time four gardens, or miniature farms, being cultivated in that neighborhood and the stolen stock belonged to the owners of these gardens. These people had been “long suffering and slow to wrath,” but the recent experience of one of their number in trying to obtain justice in a Boise court, had thoroughly aroused their fighting instincts.
A posse of four men was organized, and after ascertaining that the thieves had started to the lower country with their booty, pursuit was begun. Well mounted and well armed, each riding a horse and leading another, these men, fewer in number than the pursued, took the Brown Lew trail – determined to recover what they had lost or lose their lives in the attempt. They were gone about three weeks when all returned, bringing with them the lost animals, jaded and worn almost to skin and bones. …
It is known, however, that the recovery was made in Oregon, on the Grand Ronde river below the valley of that name; and also that the transfer was not a friendly one – but if any casualties occurred they were all on one side.
On their return trip a stop was made at the road-house along their route, and open war was declared against horse-thieves and stage robbers.
A few days after their arrival home a meeting which included all the residents in their locality was held on Porter Creek, and while no permanent organization was effected, resolutions were unanimously adopted pledging themselves as follows:
1st, to stand as a unit on all matters affecting the personal safety or the property rights of any individual resident.
2nd, to pursue and capture, regardless of expense, all horse-thieves who thereafter appropriated any horses, cattle or mules belonging to any individual resident or traveler passing through that section. Provided, that after the capture was made, the posse effecting it should administer such condign punishment as in their judgment the circumstances merited – always bearing in mind that farmers were not prepared to hold prisoners.
A pronunciamento in accordance with these resolutions was promulgated, and in a few days news of the action which had been taken was widely disseminated, causing a meeting to be called in the “Block House” in the lower Payette Valley. The “Block House,” so called because it was built of hewed logs, was two stories high, the upper story being in one room, or hall, made a suitable place to hold public gatherings; in fact, it was then the only suitable place in the valley.
When the meeting assembled, it was called to order. The chairman, Henry Paddock, of the “Hay-press Ranch,” stated that the object of the meeting was to devise and consider plans for the better protection of life and property – not alone that of the settlers, but those who traveled through the valley on the public highway. He enumerated the robberies that had occurred within the year and told of the futile efforts made to suppress lawlessness. He related the histories of other countries where the lawless and vicious classes had succeeded in gaining control of the sheriff’s office, who, after his election, permitted similar conditions to exist until the people, driven by desperation, organized vigilance committees and proceeded to punish offenders according to their deserts. Citing San Francisco as an example, and referring to the action recently taken by the settlers living above Horseshoe Bend.
After a long discussion in which the consensus of opinion favored the plan of organizing some kind of a committee of safety, it was finally deemed best to adjourn the meeting for a week, in order that a conference might be had with those who, as before stated, had already taken matters into their own hands.
Accordingly a committee was appointed and instructed to visit all the residents in that region with a view to forming an organization that would include all the law-abiding settlers in the Payette Valley – from Brainard Creek to the Snake.
The committee carried out the instructions given to them so faithfully that on the second day after receiving them the people came together and were invited to co-operate in a movement having for its object the suppression of crime in the form of horse-stealing, murders, robberies, etc. As a result of the meeting, a committee consisting of two men was sent to meet the men who had already taken action, as explained above. One of the two men chosen to act as a representative in this matter was he who recovered the horse in Boise, and who had also taken an active part in the Grand Ronde affair.
When the adjourned meeting at the Block House was again called to order, the gathering consisted of nearly every man in the valley living below the Berner ranch. There were probably a score of absentees, a few of whom had families that they could not leave, and the others were so notoriously connected with the lawless organization that they did not have the audacity to attend – although they were aware that such a meeting was to be held.
The man who had presided at the former meeting was named chairman, and after a secretary had been chosen the chairman announced that the meeting had been called for the purpose of organizing a committee of safety, or vigilance committee, and asked all present who had suggestions to make, to arise. Accordingly, several short speeches were made by men who had suffered losses, which were explained by the speakers.
These discussions disclosed that the losses suffered by farmers and others were undoubtedly caused by residents of the valley, it having been conclusively shown that within a distance of fifty miles the occupants of no less than four ranches had no visible means of support other than that afforded by their dealings in horses and mules, and it was shown that their transactions in this line were conducted by preference in the night. These ranches each supported from two to five men, or about a dozen men all told, yet their organization was so perfect and their energy so untiring that up to the time this meeting was called they had kept the entire southern part of Idaho, outside the towns, terrorized.
A motion having been made and adopted to this effect, a committee of three was appointed by the chair to draft a constitution and by-laws, and a recess was taken to enable the committeemen to prepare their report.
The name finally chosen for the organization was the “Payette Vigilance Committee.” Its existence was to be continued until the industries of horse-stealing, highway robbery and the passing of “bogus” gold dust were suppressed.
All accused persons were entitled to a trial by jury, composed of seven members, a majority of whom were permitted to render a verdict – which was final. Three forms of punishment were adopted, as follows:
1st. Banishment, in which case twenty-four hours were allowed for preparation.
2nd. Horse-whipping, to be publicly administered.
3rd. Capital punishment.
The meeting which perfected the foregoing organization was composed of earnest, determined men, most of whom attended because they realized that a crisis had been reached. They were not lawbreakers, nor had they any intention of interfering with the execution of the laws; but as no effort was being made by those whose duties it was to enforce the law – the sheriff and his deputies – there seemed but one course open, and that they adopted. This was the first organization of its kind in south Idaho, and it met its requirements to the entire satisfaction of its promoters.
Within a few months the night-riders had all disappeared, doubtless having found other climates more congenial, and within one year the reputation of Payette valley was restored to what it is today, no stable need be locked. This reformation was not brought about, however, without strenuous and persistent effort. It must not be thought that those daring and desperate men who had for an ally the sheriff of the county, would at once surrender the prestige they had gained.
The first action taken by the vigilance committee after perfecting its organization was to empanel a jury, by whom testimony was taken, relating to the operations of a band of counterfeiters, who made a specialty of “bogus” gold dust, it having been shown that an extensive organization existed, with headquarters for Idaho at Placerville and with agents in various places, and especially in the valley settlements. …
The inquiry made by the jury led to the disclosure that a man named Conklin who made his headquarters with the Pickett Corral Gang, was the local, or Payette agent of the bogus dust syndicate and it was ordered that he be given twenty-four hours to leave the country.
A committee of one was appointed to serve on him a written notice to that effect. Accordingly, on the following day, an escort of five men were detailed to accompany him. It was arranged that they should assemble at 12 o’clock noon at a road house located where the town of Emmett now stands, and from there proceed in a body to Pickett Corral, where it was expected they would find the individual sought. After the adjournment the man who was to serve the notice proceeded to the rendezvous, arriving there at 2 o’clock a. m.
After a few attempts he succeeded in arousing the sleepy landlord, who assigned him to a well-furnished room containing a comfortable feather-bed. Retiring immediately, he was soon wrapped in a sound, refreshing sleep. The next morning after breakfast he entered the lounging room, where he found several of the Pickett Corral gang, one of the number being the bogus gold dust operator upon whom he was authorized to serve notice to leave the country.
They had probably come down to the roadhouse, which was on the main traveled route to Placerville, in order to obtain news, if possible, of the decision reached at the meeting held the previous night at the Block House. Their leader having arrived, they held a protracted out-door discussion among themselves. Finally, one of the men left the others and entered the room where the representative of the vigilance committee was standing, and asked him to accompany him outside. He at once complied with the request, slipping his two Colt’s revolvers forward on the belt, where they could be quickly reached, he walked out into the midst of the party of desperadoes, which now consisted of four men. They all started towards a small corral, and he went with them.
Nothing was said until they were inside the enclosure. This had been built by digging a two-foot trench around the area it was designed to enclose; logs of about twelve inches in diameter and eight feet long were set closely together on their ends therein. The interview that followed was a stormy one. The move to get him out of sight of the house was understood by the committee’s agent – another murder was to be committed, and no witnesses were to be present, save the friends and associates of the murderer – but they had signally failed to correctly “size up” their prospective victim, who, upon entering the enclosure, immediately backed into a corner against the logs facing his enemies, and said “Well, show your colors; I am no immigrant, I will make the biggest funeral ever held in this valley. I know you; I understand what this means. You are here to murder me, but I don’t think you can do it.” The men were dumbfounded; they did not expect such a reception, and knowing that a movement on their part to draw a weapon meant death to at least one, and possibly to all, they hesitated to open the fracas and finally weakened. …
After normal conditions were restored and the tension somewhat relaxed, he concluded not to wait for the escort, which was to accompany him to Pickett Corral to serve notice of banishment on the bogus dust man, but inasmuch as that individual was present, he concluded to deliver it to him at once, which he proceeded to do, and as the accused refused to receive the written notice, he read it to him. Another stormy scene resulted but no casualties resulted. Thus was ended a dangerous and annoying traffic in less than twenty-four hours after its existence had been considered by the self-appointed judges. No costs were incurred, no imprisonment followed. The agency simply suspended its operations in that line. The agent did what he was told to do, arranged his affairs within the time given him and disappeared from the scene of his former activities.
As was anticipated by the originators, the news of the organization of a vigilance committee and its prompt action in suppressing the traffic in bogus gold dust created consternation in some quarters and indignation in others; among the latter were the owners of the Washoe ferry, on Snake river, near its confluence with the Payette.
The ferry was owned by two brothers who had gained an unenviable reputation by harboring desperate characters who were known to be engaged in unlawful pursuits, one or more of whom were at the ferry almost continuously. The ferry-house which they occupied was in Oregon, the river being the state line. It was a strong log structure with a dirt roof, about twenty feet in length by sixteen in width, and being in a locality that was open to attack by Indians, it was constructed and equipped to resist assault or withstand a siege should occasion arise. At one end it had a fireplace and chimney on the inside, a strong door at the other.
Instead of windows, small port-holes for rifle practice were cut in the walls. The owners and occupants of this miniature fortress at the time the news of the recent action taken by the committee, and its proclaimed intentions of taking more drastic measures in the future if it deemed such steps necessary, were not merely indignant, but were enraged, and feeling confident in their numbers, as well as in their location and the strength of their building, wrote an insulting letter, or proclamation, sending it not only to the president of the vigilance committee, but copies were also distributed at Boise City and in the mining towns throughout southern Idaho and eastern Oregon.
They derided their efforts and challenged them to attempt the capture of the fortress, declaring there were not enough vigilantes in Payette valley to capture them. The challenge was brought up for discussion at the next regular meeting, which convened a few days later, and as the crimes said to have been committed by some of the denizens of the ferry had already attracted wide attention, it was resolved to accept the invitation extended, and to settle the problem respecting their ability to capture the place. The result of the contest that was thought to be inevitable would determine the future status of the country for an indefinite period, so far as property rights were concerned.
A captain, with authority to appoint a lieutenant, and to call for volunteers, was appointed to lead the enterprise. A company of twenty men, including the captain and lieutenant, was immediately organized out of the members present at the meeting, and the “Hay-press Ranch” was chosen as the place of rendezvous from which to advance to the attack on the ferry, which was approximately twenty-five miles distant. The time for the meeting was set a few days before the contemplated attack, in order to give the volunteers an opportunity for preparation. When the time for departure arrived, there were no laggards. The roll being called, every man responded “present.” They were not only present in person, but were fully equipped with horses and arms, prepared to engage in what they expected would be a desperate enterprise.
The captain was given entire control and his plans were not known to even his lieutenant until the time arrived for their execution. The advance was ordered during the afternoon of a winter day, the ground being covered with snow to a depth of perhaps one foot; the sky was free from clouds, with the mercury hovering near the zero mark. The march was uninterrupted until nearly half the distance was covered, when a point was reached where a branch road diverged from the main line, which at that time crossed the Payette River at the Bluff Station, the branch being the road to Washoe Ferry, the objective point of the expedition.
Here a halt was made, and the captain, advancing to a hostelry near the junction, asked the proprietress if she could entertain sixteen men over night and give them their breakfast at four o’clock the following morning. Without awaiting her reply and smiling at her astonishment, he said, “Oh, I know you can, so I will leave them with you,” and turning to his lieutenant said, “I will leave you here with all the men but three, whom I will take with me” – naming them. I want you to breakfast at 4 a. m., and immediately afterwards start for the ferry with your men, gauging your movements so as to arrive on the bank of the river precisely at sunrise,” stating that he would go down the road with the men named, and during the night cross at Central Ferry, and then march back up the river on the Oregon side to the Washoe Ferry – arriving in time to co-operate with the main body.
The men selected fell into line, leaving the main body as directed, and followed their leader down the main or stage road to Central Ferry, where they arrived at eight o’clock p. m.
This ferry at that time was operated by a man named Epley, who had a woman employed as housekeeper who was a famous cook. The supper she prepared that night was long afterward a pleasant memory to those who partook of it; the horses were as well provided for as were the men, and after a rest of two hours, the captain called his men outside and told them that his plan was to capture the Washoe Ferry that night before the arrival of the lieutenant and his force. He called Epley, the Central ferryman, into the conference and inquired if he could transfer the party, including their horses, to the opposite bank of the river that night. Upon his expressing a willingness to make the attempt, despite the fact that the river was covered with floating, or anchor ice, the horses were saddled and the transfer made without accident.
The distance to be traversed between the ferry landing and their objective point, was only about three miles, and although there was no moon, the starlight was sufficient to permit of good progress along the river bank. Hence they were but a short time in sighting the ferry house, which gave out no glimmer of light. A halt was called and the riders approached as near to one another as practicable, whereupon the captain asked all the men whether they knew the owners or the occupants of the ferry house; and one of them answering in the negative, he told him to approach the house alone, after the others had ridden along the road leading to the ferry to a point opposite the house. He was to dismount, and to divert suspicion, the others were to ride a few rods ahead, as if to approach the ferry landing.
The man chosen to arouse the inmates was to call to them that there was a party with him, desiring to be ferried across, so that they might pursue their way as far as possible that night. He was also to say that they had traveled up the river from Old’s Ferry, on the Central Ferry road, but owing to anchor ice, the ferryman there had refused to cross the river, hence their appearance at that time. He was to state that they were willing to pay double ferriage on account of the ice, and was instructed to say further that he was nearly frozen. If the door was opened to him, he was at once to approach the fireplace and stir up the embers, throwing onto them any kindling or light material convenient, and as soon as it flared up, or blazed, to look sharply, for the posse would immediately charge.
The plan worked as smoothly as if it had been rehearsed. There were six men in the house, all in bed asleep. One of them when awakened, arose and after lighting a candle and partially dressing himself, proceeded to open the door, which was fastened by passing a chain through an auger-hole in the door and around the jamb, the ends being fastened with a padlock. As soon as the door was open the supposed traveler went stamping the length of the room to the fire-place, his heavy Mexican spurs ringing over the earthen floor. By this time the entire party had dismounted and were stamping along the frozen road between the house and ferry, as if endeavoring to restore circulation while waiting for the ferryman. The spurs had, however, been removed from every heel, and all was in readiness for the signal which was momentarily expected.
They had but a short wait, as the fireplace was a bed of coals, which upon being stirred, and having a handful of dry willows added, at once flashed up like powder, and in an instant the door was filled with barrels of shotguns covering the inmates. Resistance would have been suicidal, hence none was made, and so without a shot being fired or a blow struck, the capture was effected. Of the six men in the house, only one had arisen and he was not armed. …
After taking possession of all the arms and securing the horses in a shed, where hay and grain were found, dispositions were made to spend the remainder of the night. At sunrise, as had been prearranged, the lieutenant arrived with his troop and their surprise at finding the captain and his small posse in possession of the place was no doubt as great as that of the men they had so easily taken.
Two of the prisoners were found to be strangers looking for a place to locate a ranch, and were unconscious of the character of the house in which they had secured a night’s lodging. …. Upon being told that they were free and given their arms, huge dragoon revolvers, they at once took their back track for their homes in the Willamette Valley, having no longer a desire to own land on Snake river.
After the foregoing departure, a jury was selected to try the other men. The trial was not a long drawn out affair like those of modern times, yet it was conducted with decorum and a degree of fairness seldom surpassed in legally conducted courts of justice.
Technical rules of evidence were not permitted to interfere with the ascertainment of all information bearing on the case. It was disclosed during the hearing that Stewart Bros, were the sole owners of the ferry, together with its appurtenances, and had been since its establishment – a period of approximately two years.
That during this time, while not keeping a roadhouse or hostelry, they had at various times received into their household, for indefinite periods, men of ill-repute who were supposed to be engaged in unlawful pursuits. One instance was shown, relative to a character known as “Black Charley,” who was a guest at the ferry for several months during the summer of 1864 …
Black Charlie did not return to his former haunts and the circumstances of his disappearance was known to only a few until the vigilance committee’s jury unearthed the facts. Although no sufficient evidence was submitted to connect the Stewart brothers with the supposed crime, it was shown that they were cognizant of the character and the intent of Black Charlie and that, doubtless, had influence with the jury.
It was also shown by conclusive testimony that while the owners of the ferry had no cattle of their own and never purchased any, they always had fresh beef to sell to travelers, as well as for their own use. One of the men captured with the brothers was also known to be an undesirable citizen. The other of the four remaining was considered of no importance.
Juries such as made this investigation, were vested with more power than that reposed in the county and district juries of our civil courts. They not only passed upon the guilt and innocence of the accused, but they also determined the severity of the sentence. The verdict of the jury in the foregoing case was acquittal for one of the men, banishment within twenty-four hours for another, while the brothers were to suffer the extreme penalty, which was inflicted at twelve o’clock meridian the following day, at or near the Junction House on the stage road, where a gallows was to be erected.
In the interim before the sentence was executed, the prisoners were to be taken to Coggin’s, at Bluff Station Ferry on the Payette, to be held until the hour set for their final fare well. They were accordingly permitted to saddle their horses, then accompanied by their captors, the entire troop crossed the river and proceeded to the point designated, where they arrived late in the afternoon. …
The verdict of the jury did not meet the approval of the captain of the vigilantes, so beckoning Alex to follow him, he walked away from the others, down to the bank of the river, and when he had reached a point out of hearing from the house, he waited for him to approach. He then said, “Alex, I am going to let you and Charlie go, or at least I am going to try to do so. These men would hang me as soon as they would you, if they thought I was untrue to them, but I will take the chance. I am going to do so, not because I think you are innocent, for I know you are guilty, but I do not think your crime justifies such severe punishment. I will endeavor to give you your freedom under the promise which I expect you to make, that you will leave this country and try to lead good and honorable lives, and I want you to distinctly understand that if you succeed in effecting your escape, that you must not return at any time in the future with the intention of getting even with the members of the vigilance committee.”
Alex at this point, for the first time since his arrest, evidenced any feeling; his eyes now filled with tears and in a broken voice he admitted they had done wrong, claiming they had been used as cat’s-paws by bad, designing men, and promised implicit obedience to all the captain asked.
The following night, about ten o’clock, the prisoners were assigned a bed in a log building used as a store room. It had a door opening to the street which was kept locked, and another door opening into another room in which a guard, consisting of two men, was stationed, the night being divided into two watches. …
But alas, the ingenuity of the guard was ineffectual. When day dawned and the guard awoke, they found a vacant bed in the prison chamber, and the prisoners had flown. It was found that the outer door had been unlocked by some person who had a key, and the tracks of the escaping men were plainly visible in the snow.
A consultation was held and the conclusion reached that pursuit of the fugitives should be instituted immediately after the horses and men had breakfasted. Accordingly, two hours later, all were in readiness and as the tracks of the fleeing men led in the direction of Snake river, it was concluded that they were aiming for the ferry where their capture had been effected, with the purpose of crossing Snake river and escaping into Oregon. The pursuers, therefore, divided into two parties, one of which, headed by the captain, went by the Central ferry, following the same route traveled by himself and party the night the capture was made, and the other party headed by Lieutenant Paddock followed the tracks of the fugitives. …
When the party that had persistently followed their tracks, arrived at the ferry, the objects of their pursuit had disappeared over the hills to the westward. The captain and the men who had gone with him via Central Ferry, arrived soon after the others, and greatly to his discomfiture, found that one of the men belonging to the trailing-party had gone on alone after the fugitives, believing that others would follow as soon as the ranking officer arrived. When he arrived the captain was not disappointed to find that the escapes had already left, for he expected such a result, and it had been his intention to call the men together at the ferry and say to them that he believed the real object of the committee, the ridding of the country of a lot of bad men, had been effectually accomplished.
The men who escaped were thoroughly frightened, and if permitted to do so, would no doubt keep on going until out of reach. They and all others of their kind would, in the future, have a wholesome dread of the Payette Vigilantes.
But the departure of the lone pursuer disarranged his former plans, since he could not permit one lone man to follow three, who, no doubt, were rendered desperate by their recent experience. So he at once rode out in front of the men and expressed his determination to take their trail and recapture the prisoners.
Calling for volunteers, he rode rapidly away, while out of all who were present only three men followed his lead, thus showing that nearly all of the company held the same opinions as those the captain had intended to express.
Alter following the road taken by the Stewarts for a few miles, the captain’s party overtook the lone rider who had preceded them, and the pursuing force, now consisting of five men, began the pursuit with renewed vigor. … owing to the distance gained by the fleeing men, before their pursuers left the ferry, it was almost night before the latter came within sight of the camp that had been made by the escapes, and then the view was not of the camp proper, but of the smoke from the fire they had kindled, and of the saddle and pack horses they had turned loose on the hills adjacent, where the bunch grass had grown in profusion the summer previous, much of which was still above the snow. …
From the general appearance of things, it was evident to the captain that the intent of the men in camp were to remain there during the night, at least; it being imperative that the horses should have rest and time to feed, and the men were undoubtedly much exhausted after two such strenuous nights and days as they had endured. The captain therefore made a detour to the left, and keeping within the hills out of sight of the camp, passed around it and on down to Old’s ferry. Here he crossed both the men and horses on the ice, the boat being frozen in, and they arrived at the comfortable hostelry kept by the proprietor’s family, almost as badly in need of rest as the men in camp above in the willows.
The following morning smoke was still ascending from the camp in the willows, which was in plain view up the river from Old’s, showing that the pursued were still there. After breakfast the men who had passed the night at Old’s ferry ordered their horses and mounting, rode out to the middle of the river on the ice, where, after halting the men, the captain said to them that it was his opinion that a body of men might do, and sometimes did do things that every individual in the party, in his own secret conscience, believed was not right. He simply goes ahead with the crowd and says nothing, for fear that he might be accused of weakening, but for his part he believed moral courage was equally as commendable as physical courage. Hence he desired to state before proceeding further, that it was his opinion that if they could retake the men whom they had followed so far, and disarm them, paying them for their weapons, which would give them some money with which to pay their expenses down the road, it would be better than to kill them where they are. “We can kill them, for we are the stronger party, and are fully as well armed as they, but both as your captain and as an individual, I will not stand for it, and right here and now I want the opinion of every member of this party.”
Upon which each one gave his views as desired, and of the four men accompanying him, only one differed with the ideas he had expressed … The majority being of the same opinion as the captain, he told them it was not probable that they could advance in a body and retake their late prisoners without precipitating a conflict. But he believed one man might approach their camp and make known the terms of their proposed surrender without so much probability of resistance. And as he was responsible for the suggestion, he volunteered to act as envoy, to which proposal consent was given, with the proviso that the whole party should be allowed to accompany him to within pistol shot of a point in the road opposite the camp-fire where the conference would probably take place. …
The captain kept on until opposite the fire, then halting, he called, “Boys,” twice. No answer was made, so pausing a moment, he called “Alex.” At this Charlie rose with a double barreled shot-gun and was leveling it to shoot, when Alex caught his arm in time to prevent the discharge. The captain then said, “Come out and deliver up your arms, there is no use in trying to resist.” To which Alex replied, “I will give them up to you.” The captain responded “All right.” He then brought all their guns and pistols out and delivered them up.
An appraisement was made at once of the weapons, and their value was paid in cash to the owners; who soon after saddled their horses and left for Powder River Valley, while the vigilantes proceeded up the river to their respective homes, where, upon reciting the incidents related, they were met with the general acclaim: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Stewart brothers were the last of the Mohicans. The Payette Vigilantes never met in force again. … Within three months of its organization the committee transformed the Payette Valley, with its hitherto unsavory reputation, into a community of peaceful homes, where life and property were as safe as in any of the older states or territories in the Union. …
The action of the vigilance committee (1) in driving into banishment the local agent of the bogus gold dust syndicate, and (2) in capturing the stronghold at Washoe Ferry, and thereby scattering its inmates, attracted wide attention, and was the paramount topic of conversation among gamblers, horse-thieves, and stage-robbers for weeks thereafter. It was finally concluded by them that a crisis had arrived, and that unless the vigilance committee was put out of business, their vocations must be abandoned. …
A recital of the events which transpired in Boise and Payette valleys, during the period covered by this narrative, makes it difficult to comprehend that, with the exception of a very small per cent of the whole, the residents were as good men and women as could be found in any state in the Union; yet such was the case. In fact, the average man was better, for the reason that there were no drones among the better class of people; all were workers at some useful employment.
excerpted from pages 180-253, Chapters 11, 12, 13 “Early History of Idaho” by William John McConnell, 1913
[Note: The forgoing left out a lot of marvelous details and other stories, I strongly recommend reading the full 3 chapters (including a story of the Boise Vigilance Committee) at the following link:]
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When gold was first discovered in the Boise Basin in 1862 and hoards of fortune seekers poured into that section from all sides, dependable means of crossing the rivers became imperative. Very soon the Washoe Ferry was established on the Old Oregon Trail, crossing the Snake River a short distance below the mouth of the Malheur River, where it served as am important link in transportation for over forty years.
The first reference to this ferry which I have found is in McConnell’s “Early History of Idaho” where he says, “A company of volunteers under the leadership of Jeff Standifer, during the early months of 1863, crossed the Snake river at Washoe Ferry to levy reprisals on a band of Paiute Indians, who, having raided the lower Boise and Payette Valleys, had returned with their plunder to the Malheur Valley.”
The original owners and operators of the ferry were the young Stewart brothers, who had come from Canada. Because of exposure to attack from Indians, the isolated ferry-house, located on the Oregon side of the river, was really a fort, constructed and equipped to resist assault or withstand a siege, should occasion arise.
But the hostile Indians were not the only danger the early settlers had to face. Lawlessness among the whites was an even greater menace, the sheriff himself often being in league with the bandits. Not until the local Vigilantes were organized under the leadership of Col. McConnell, was law and order established. One of the boldest gangs of bandits won the friendship of the lonely boys at the ferry and, making the impregnable ferry-house their headquarters, issued proclamations of defiance to the Vigilantes. The account of the ruse by which their captures was effected by three men without loss of life is a thrilling story well worth reading.
… the Stewart boys were allowed to escape with their lives. This was in 1865, and once safe in the Powder River section of Oregon, they sold their interest in the ferry to William Packard who operated it until 1872 when he sold it to William Emerson, who later sold it to George Brinnon. When the railroad bridge was built in 1884, Captain Payne, from Illinois, who bought the ferry from Brinnon at that time, moved it six miles up the river to a point just north of Ontario, Oregon, where it continued to serve the public until the building of the first wagon bridge in 1906 brought its usefulness to an end.
There were a number of owners after the ferry was moved, among them being Ted Butler, Lew Morton, Frank Draper, William Mink, and John Bivens. The late N. A. Jacobsen, pioneer and prominent citizen of Payette, who ran the ferry a short time while the owner went away to be married, told of the interest the Indians showed in the boat. Once two of them swam across with a heard of horses, then swam back again in order to ride across on the ferry.
Traces of the original location of the ferry can still be seen, according to reports, and Dorian Chapter hopes to mark the spot.
Vigilante law and lynching continued for a generation
When John C. Clark was taken from his jail cell at Fort Boise and lynched by vigilantes on April 6, 1866, the Idaho World blasted the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman and its editor, James S. Reynolds, for “running with the vigilantes. It is a Vigilante organ. They suit its style. Hang everyone who differs from you, and do it before the moon is up. What is law and order to one who has systematically scoffed at all laws, human and divine, during the past three years?”
When Reynolds responded with a complaint about the World’s use of “intemperate language,” Editor H.C. Street fired off this blast: “The Vigilante organ accuses us of using ‘intemperate language’ about that illustrious body of patriots. Intemperate! INTEMPERATE! Well Sir, what sort of language would you have us use, when a whole community is put in terror by a band of midnight murderers straggling about the country, waylaying defenseless men, committing deeds outraging the laws of both God and man? What sort of language is fit for men who in times of peace array themselves in open rebellion against the laws of the country, and by brute force pale the faces of a whole community?”
The most notable victim of Ada County’s vigilantes was ex-sheriff David C. Updyke. Soon after Ada County came into existence in 1865 he had been nominated for sheriff on the Democratic ticket and elected by a wide margin over two other candidates, one a Republican and the other an independent. At the time, Democrats won every election by a landslide. That Updyke had a personal following was illustrated again on Feb. 26, 1866, when he was elected captain of the Ada County Volunteers, a group organized and funded by Boise City merchants to go after Indians that had been attacking freight wagons, stealing horses and disrupting the flow of merchandise to their stores. When the volunteers disbanded, a group of them were soon suspected of committing a wide range of crimes under Dave Updyke’s leadership.
The Idaho World reported on April 26, 1866, under the headline “Vigilante Operations and Schemes. – The body of D.C. Updyke, late Sheriff of Ada County, and late Captain of the Ada County Volunteers, was found hanging to a tree on the Rocky Bar road. … A paper was attached to the body of Updyke accusing him of being cognizant of the Port Neuf robbery, of bogus gold dust operations, horse stealing, etc., asserting also that he had confessed his crimes and given the names of his accomplices, and winding up with the words ‘the roll is being called.’ ”
On May 12, 1866, the World asked what had happened to the several thousand dollars in greenbacks Updyke had on his person when he was “murdered,” plus a watch, a breast pin and a diamond ring. “Where are they? It is possible that that immaculate committee has such an ‘itching palm’ that it could not keep its hands off a dead man? We advise the Administrator to make a search about the Statesman office for the stolen articles.”
In addition to the organized bands of vigilantes of Boise and Payette Valleys in the 1860s, Idaho lynch mobs continued to take the law into their own hands as late as May 1903, when the Idaho Statesman reported, “LYNCHING BEE AT MILNER.” One of two men who had stolen horses from the Milner Dam construction camp was hunted down and hanged by a mob of about 200 men. His partner drowned in the Snake River while trying to escape.
North Idaho had its share of lynchings as well. In 1869, “Shumway Jim,” a renegade Indian accused of several earlier murders, was hanged in Idaho County for the murder of a French prospector. Later that year, Peter Walters was taken from the jail at Lewiston and hanged by 13 men from Camas Prairie. He had shot and killed a man named Joseph Yates. Three other men would be taken from the poorly defended jail at Lewiston and lynched, the last in 1893.
source: Arthur Hart, Idaho Statesman July 4, 2015, Part 2
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Idaho Vigilante Stories
[A. J. McFarland] tells the story that before Bill McConnell became governor of the state he took a band of cattle into the Boise basin, at which time the country was full of outlaws. McConnell was warned that he would be held up when he returned. This, however, was a joke being played upon him by the vigilance committee unknown to McConnell. When he returned, the supposed outlaws were stationed along the road, where Emmett now stands. He drew his double-barreled shotgun when he espied them and rode right through. Turning in his saddle to keep, them in range and calling, “Hello boys,” he passed and not one attempted to molest him. The joke was on the vigilantes, for none of the “outlaws” cared to risk McConnell’s aim.
Mr. McFarland relates that about two miles below Falk there is a grave which holds the remains of one of the old outlaws, Casey Stone, who was killed with a butcher knife by Billy Maupin, the butcher. Mr. Maupin said Stone assaulted him and told him to pay him one hundred dollars or he would kill him. In some way, Maupin threw Stone off his guard, while pretending to pay him, and killed him before Stone could shoot. The neighbors nailed some boards together for a box, and put Stone in, hat, boots and gun, and complimented Maupin for his bravery. It was often thus that the law-abiding citizens had to take the law into their own hands for their safety and protection.
source: “History of Idaho, The Gem of the Mountains” by James Hawley, 1920, page 651
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William John McConnell
Birth: 18 Sep 1839 Commerce, Oakland County, Michigan
Death: 30 Mar 1925 (aged 85) Moscow, Latah County, Idaho
Burial: Moscow Cemetery Moscow, Latah County, Idaho
Republican politician from Idaho. He served in the US Senate from Idaho from 1890-1891 and as Governor of Idaho from 1892-1896. In 1897 he was appointed as Indian inspector by President McKinley and served until 1901. In 1909, President Taft appointed him as inspector of Immigration Services where he served until his death in 1925.
Bio by Tim Crutchfield
source: Find a Grave
Henry Plummer (Vigilantes part 1)
Orlando “Rube” Robbins (Vigilantes part 2)
Idaho Vigilance Committees (Vigilantes part 3)
Dave Updyke – First Sheriff of Ada County (Vigilantes part 4)
updated July 11, 2020