Dave Updyke – First Sheriff of Ada County
Boise City, 1864. Arn Hincelin painting.
[h/t South Fork Companion]
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How Ada County’s first sheriff became a disgraced organized crime leader
 The Idaho territorial sesquicentennial celebration is now properly underway, with ceremonies involving an Abe Lincoln stand-in and more – much of it centered around Boise, which was one of the few stable communities then existing in the new territory.
The bash may be widely taken as an honorific to what happened back then. It should be better taken as recognition of how far Idaho has come since 1863 …. Celebrations of history have a tendency toward whitewash, and that may be liberally applied this year.
Consider pioneer Sheriff David C. Updyke. Ada County (then including what are now Canyon and Payette counties as well) was one of Idaho’s first, established in December 1864. Boiseans looking for law enforcement quickly chose Updyke, electing him early in 1865 as their first sheriff to lead that effort. He was an energetic man, open to confrontation and experienced with using his firearms.
Just what a barely-settled new county needed. Or so they thought.
Updyke was a native of New York, where he got into enough varied trouble as to be strongly advised to take his act elsewhere – far away elsewhere. He moved to California, hearing tales of gold, but too late for the mining rush there, and unhappily settled for work as a stage driver.
When he heard about the first strike in the Boise River Valley (in what wasn’t yet known as Idaho), he raced there to find his fortune. He found just enough metallic scraps to invest in a couple of new businesses in the start-up town of Boise, but Updyke’s thirst for more was still acute.
Enter another group of newcomers from settlements in the north and in Montana, who had been closely allied with the infamous Henry Plummer, the region’s earliest example of an organized crime boss who was briefly an Idahoan but in Montana entered law enforcement and enriched himself and a circle of friends in the process. These friends of Plummer told Updyke they’d stake him and get him the sheriff’s job, provided he used it as Plummer had.
That is how Ada County’s first sheriff became an organized crime ringleader. His most notable crimes included a series of big-money stage robberies using inside information from the stage operators. But there was also plenty of general murder and extortion as well.
Ada County was growing fast enough to short-circuit all that. A band of vigilantes based at Payette and led by William McConnell (decades later an Idaho governor), confronted Updyke and nearly killed him. In August 1865, only five months after Updyke was first elected, the Ada County commissioners were persuaded to hold another election for sheriff.
Updyke was ousted. Soon after, he was on the run, and the following winter another group of vigilantes tracked him to the mining town of Rocky Bar and hanged him.
Nowadays, Idaho has 44 sheriffs at a time, and none in living memory have much resembled David Updyke. Celebrate that.
source: Randy Stapilus, 2013, Idaho Press-Tribune
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Boise Payette Valley 1864
(click image for larger size)
map source: Access Genealogy
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Big Dave Updyke – Crooked Sheriff of Ada County, Idaho
David C. Updyke was born in the vicinity of Cayuga Lake, New York, about 1830. Said to have been raised in an upstanding family that boasted some of the leading citizens of New York, Updyke was a black sheep.
In 1855, he went to California where he was employed for two years by the California Stage Company as a stage driver. Three years later, he sailed to British Columbia to look for another kind of work, but finding nothing there that suited him, he soon returned to California spending two years in Yuba County, then two years in Virginia City, Nevada.
By 1862, word was spreading of the rich gold finds in Idaho and Updyke went first to Florence, then Warren, and by the fall he was in Boise County where he worked a valuable claim on Ophir Mountain.
By 1864, he had saved more than $1,500 dollars and went to Boise City where he bought a livery stable in the center of town. Though Updyke had committed no known crimes up until this point, he had begun to consort with a number of criminals. Before long, the livery stable became the rendezvous site for some of the Old West’s most reckless bands of robbers and road agents.
However, this did not stop David Updyke from being elected Sheriff of Ada County in March, 1864. Though many of his cohorts were ruffians, they were a strong power in the Democratic party and Updyke won the election by a small margin.
Before long, Updyke was suspected of aiding in the circulation of stolen gold dust, as well as participating in a stage robbery near Boise City in 1864. So many rough characters began to hang about Updyke’s stable that many of the citizens began to refer to them as “Updyke’s Gang.” However, he and/or his outlaw friends covered their tracks so well, nothing could be proven.
Soon after his election, he avowed to break up a vigilante organization of about thirty men, which had been formed in the Payette River settlement, some thirty miles from Boise City. This enraged many of the law-abiding citizens who felt the vigilante committees were their only protection from thieving and murdering road agents in the area.
But Updyke cared little about what those law-abiding citizens thought and somehow obtained all the names of the men in the vigilante group, procuring warrants for their arrests. While the proceedings and warrants were all perfectly within the law, Updyke and his “posse” secretly planned to shoot the vigilante leaders and maintain that they had resisted arrest.
The plan was that 15 to 20 armed men would leave Boise City, meet up with more road agents at Horse Shoe Bend, and then proceed with their warrants to the Payette River settlement. However, word leaked to the citizens of Boise City of the plan and they secretly dispatched a messenger to the Payette Vigilantes.
As Updyke’s “posse” left Boise City about 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon to carry out the arrests, the thirty members of the vigilante group were assembling in self-protection. When Updyke and his men reached Horse Shoe Bend, they failed to connect with the country road agents and went on without them.
When the “posse” arrived at Payette River, they were surprised to find themselves outnumbered two to one. Forced to negotiate with the vigilantes, Updyke complied with their demands. The vigilantes agreed to go to Boise City to answer the warrants but they would not allow Updyke or his men to disarm them. After arriving in Boise City and obtaining an attorney, the complaints against the vigilantes were dismissed and they were discharged.
Afterwards, the humiliated vigilantes were obviously very bitter towards Updyke and began to closely watch his every move. The public soon began to believe the “Updyke Gang” was behind nearly every theft, murder and robbery that occurred anywhere in the area.
The next murderous outrage, in which the “Updyke Gang” was concerned, was the stage robbery in Portneuf Canyon, where four of its passengers were killed.
On July 26, 1865, Updyke, along with three other outlaws robbed a gold laden stagecoach of some $86,000 in gold. In the melee, four of the stage passengers were killed, and the stage driver and another passenger were wounded.
The vigilante committee immediately went after the three other outlaws but David Updyke was a different story. Having been duly elected as Ada County Sheriff, the vigilantes were more cautious and waited until the opportune time to punish him for his suspected wrongdoings. On September 28, 1865, the Payette River Vigilance Committee arrested him on a charge of defrauding the revenue and failing to arrest a hard case outlaw named West Jenkins.
However, Updyke made bail and knowing the reputation of the Vigilance Committee, he immediately left town, fleeing to Boise City where he had more influence. However, the citizens there too, were fed up with the criminal elements and began to form groups for the purpose cleaning up the county. By the next spring, Updyke feared for his own safety and accompanied by another outlaw by the name of John Dixon, the two departed Boise on the Rocky Bar Road on April 12, 1866. Unaware that a vigilante party was following them, the two overnighted at an abandoned cabin some thirty miles out of town.
During the night, the vigilantes captured the unsuspecting pair and lead them some ten miles farther down the road to Sirup Creek. The next morning as the vigilantes prepared to hang the men, they questioned Updyke about the whereabouts of the stolen cache. The crooked sheriff only glared at them in contempt, refusing to respond. The vigilantes then hanged both men under a shed between two vacant cabins. Updyke had only $50.00 on his person at the time of his death.
On April 14th, the bodies were found with a note pinned to Updyke’s chest accusing him of being “an aider of murderers and thieves.” The next day an anonymous note appeared in Boise that further explained the committee’s actions. “Dave Updyke: Accessory after the fact to the Portneuf stage robbery, accessory and accomplice to the robbery of the stage near Boise City in 1864, chief conspirator in burning property on the overland stage line, guilty of aiding and assisting escape of West Jenkins, and the murderer of others while sheriff, and threatening the lives and property of an already outraged and long suffering community.”
The gold taken in the July, 1865 has never been found and many think it is buried somewhere in the City of Rocks.
source: Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, updated November 2017.
Portneuf Canyon, Idaho Stage Robbery
Stagecoach Robbery, and Murder, in Portneuf Canyon
Portneuf Canyon, ca 1872. National Archives.
Southern Idaho 1864
(click image for larger size, then click “+” to zoom in)
Title: “Southern Idaho”
Date Drawn: 1864
Cartographer: George Woodman
Collection: “An Atlas of Idaho Territory 1863-1890” – Merle W. Wells
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In the Old West, Lust for Wealth Could Be Deadly
But if You’re Interested, There’s $4 Million in Hidden Gold in Southern Idaho
In April 1866, Dave Updyke and John Dixon were hanged by vigilantes under a shed between two abandoned cabins near Sirup Creek in Ada County, Idaho, evidence that Idaho was just as wild as other parts of the Old West – and that being brought up by good parents in a good neighborhood, doesn’t always mean ending up as a good neighbor.
David C. Updyke was the county’s first sheriff.
As an example to others, they pinned a note on his body calling him “an aider of murderers and thieves.”
He was born about 1830 near Cayuga Lake in upstate New York and “raised in an upstanding family that boasted some of the leading citizens of New York,” but was considered the family black sheep.
The West was growing and easterners were headed that way in droves – hoping for a new life and prosperity.
Idaho was a raucous territory in the 1860 – especially after Captain E.D. Pierce led 10 prospectors illegally into the Nez Perce Reservation looking for gold. A month later Wilber Bassett in the group struck gold along Canal Gulch and word spread instantly, igniting the biggest migration in American history. Two years later, gold-rich Boise Basin exploded with 10,000 prospectors flooding in.
One of them was Updyke. He’d been working in California since 1855 as a driver for California Stage Company before looking for other work in British Columbia. Then he returned to California for two years, and then worked in Nevada for two.
When he heard about the Idaho bonanza in 1862, he joined the rush – first to Florence and then Warren. In Boise County, he hit pay-dirt, finding gold on Ophir Mountain. Then the dark side of David Updyke began to emerge – he fell in with bad company.
Having saved $1,500 from his gold mining, he bought a livery stable in the center of Boise City and it became a hangout for unsavory types – one source called them “some of the Old West’s most reckless bands of robbers and road agents.” Locals called them “Updyke’s Gang.”
It didn’t take long for the gang to legitimize their criminal ways – in 1864, they took control of the Boise Democratic Party and elected Updyke as Ada County’s first sheriff. Then the occasional crimes against people and property suddenly become commonplace – farms were plundered and stage coaches held up.
Updyke’s rogues defrauded town businesses by passing gold dust that was actually lead shavings covered with a thin layer of gold, and his bag men would scour the city collecting “taxes” from local businesses, while refusing to investigate when his political pals were accused of crimes.
Then they made a mistake that would set the wheels in motion that would topple the criminal operation – someone stole William J. McConnell’s horse and they found it in Updyke’s stable.
It cost McConnell two days in court to get his stolen property back and his legal fees were more than the horse was worth. That made the easy-going farmer mad.
When he was taunted by Updyke’s men after leaving court, he told them if they ever stole another one of his horses, he’d track them down and “there will be no lawsuit about it.” Days later, McConnell and two neighbors were missing five horses and four mules.
Two weeks later, McConnell and neighbors returned from a search with the stolen animals – but not the thieves. The Payette Vigilance Committee was born. The group comprised some 30 law-abiding citizens in the Payette Valley, located about 30 miles northwest of Boise.
The crime wave continued and citizens became increasingly enraged. The Vigilance Committee responded, but that immediately put a target on their backs as Updyke saw his monopoly on the use of power to enforce “law and order” being threatened.
They had to stop McConnell and company.
In his 1890 book* “Vigilante Days and Ways,” Nathaniel Pitt Langford wrote, “The robbers and murderers of the mining regions, so long defiant of the claims of peace and safety, were made to hold the gibbet in greater terror there than in any other portion of the country.”
In those days, he continued, “The early vigilantes were the best and most intelligent men in the mining regions. They saw and felt that, in the absence of all law, they must become a ‘law unto themselves,’ or submit to the bloody code of the banditti … Every man among them realized from the first the great delicacy and care necessary in the management of a society which assumed the right to condemn to death a fellow man.”
Sheriff Updyke somehow obtained a list of the vigilante group’s names, and led 15 to 20 armed men with arrest warrants to the Payette River settlement to round them up. They would be joined by more road agents along the way at Horse Shoe Bend. But their real plan was to kill them while “resisting arrest.”
Then two things went wrong – the Horse Shoe Bend rendezvous didn’t materialize so Updyke continued without them; and the vigilantes were tipped off, and when the gang arrived at Payette River, about thirty were waiting for them.
Outnumbered two-to-one, Updyke’s men agreed to vigilante demands that everyone return to Boise and take the matter court, with the vigilantes refusing to give up their guns. The charges against them were dropped, but the Updyke Gang continued to rampage.
Then on July 26, 1865, Updyke and three henchmen robbed a stagecoach in Portneuf Canyon between Virginia City, Mont., and Pocatello. The three were hot-tempered Willie Whittmore; outlaw Fred Williams pretending to be as a regular passenger; and Brockie Jack, who had recently busted out of jail in Oregon.
Boulders placed on the road stopped the stage and Brockie Jack shot the lead horses when driver Charlie Parks tried to drive around them. In the ensuing shootout, gambler Sam Martin shot off Whittmore’s left index finger. Then they wounded Charlie who fled into the woods along with Williams and Virginia City saloonkeeper James B, Brown.
Brockie Jack grabbed Whittmore’s rifle and approached the stage. Inside, he found Martin, a Mormon couple Andy Dittmar and his wife, and ex-Confederate soldier Jess Harper dead. Another passenger named L.F. Carpenter on his way to New Orleans pretended to be dead and survived the ordeal.
(Not all accounts of the Portneuf holdup agree on the details.)
Following the carnage, the bandits took off with $86,000 in gold (1865 value) and about $5,000 in cash. Parks and Brown then cut loose the dead horses and drove Carpenter and the bodies to town.
The public finally had enough of Updyke’s crime wave – and so had the Payette Vigilantes. They quickly tracked down the three outlaws but arresting the Ada County sheriff would take longer.
Willy Whittmore, was shot to death in Arizona resisting arrest while on a drinking binge. A week later, Colorado vigilantes caught and hanged Fred Williams. Both men were virtually penniless, with no trace of the gold.
Finally on Sept. 28, the Payette River Vigilance Committee arrested Sheriff Updyke and charged him with “defrauding the revenue and failing to arrest a hard-case outlaw named West Jenkins.”
He made bail, and then fled to Boise for protection among his pals.
The following spring, the renegade sheriff and fellow outlaw John Dixon left Boise and headed east towards Rocky Bar. The vigilantes were right behind them.
On April 13, they caught them at Sirup Creek. Updyke had only $50 – no gold.
The day after they hanged the two men, a notice appeared in Boise that said, “Dave Updyke: Accessory after the fact to the Portneuf stage robbery, accessory and accomplice to the robbery of the stage near Boise City in 1864, chief conspirator in burning property on the overland stage line, guilty of aiding and assisting escape of West Jenkins, and the murderer of others while sheriff, and threatening the lives and property of an already outraged and long suffering community.”
Brockie Jack disappeared and was never heard from again.
William McConnell became a U.S. senator and later was elected Idaho’s third governor. His daughter Mamie married future senator William E. Borah.
Somewhere near the City if Rocks, there’s still more than $4 million (today’s value) in buried gold waiting for someone to find it.
source: Syd Albright, September 18, 2016, CdA Press
Fred Williams’ role …
Dave Updyke and his outlaw cohorts carefully planned the Portneuf robbery. Camped out at Ross Fork Creek near Fort Hall, the men decided to send Fred Williams ahead to Virginia City, Montana to spy out gold shipments over the Portneuf Stage Route. When he found a scheduled stage that would be carrying gold, he would buy a ticket for himself as an ordinary passenger and tip off the rest of the gang.
On the fourth day of the trip, as the stage stopped for the night at Sodhouse Station, he sneaked out to Ross Fork Camp to tell the others that there were two large strongboxes of gold on the stage. Then he returned without anyone noticing he had gone.
Williams paid a price for his role. During the robbery, his arm was shattered in the shootout from bullets fired by accomplice Willie Whittmore.
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* “Vigilante days and ways: the pioneers of the Rockies: the makers and making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming” by Nathaniel Pitt Langford 1893
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map source: Access Genealogy
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“The first sheriff they elected in Ada county – the first Monday in March, 1865 – was Dave Opdyke”
[Note: McConnell calls the sheriff “Opdyke” in his book “Early History of Idaho”, 1913.]
In those days the nation was in the throes of civil war, and, though the infant territory sent no troops to battle for the flag, her mountain streams gave up their hoarded wealth when gold was needed most. Thus, all thoughtless of the good they did, her toiling miners, far removed from battle smoke and shrieking shell, did well their part. There is grim humor in the thought that during the darkest days of the rebellion, when to be a Union man in Boise Basin meant danger, sometimes death, yet the energies of Union men and Secessionists alike were directed to amassing gold, which was sent to the United States mints, and became the basis of credit which enabled the nation to maintain its integrity and carry on the war to a successful conclusion.
In those days partisan feeling ran high; political parties then, as now. Democrats and Republicans, maintained their organizations. But the issue on which they divided was not tariff nor free coinage of silver, but, simply Union versus Dis-union. While there were many Democrats in Idaho who were as loyal to the flag as any Republican, they were seldom in evidence, for they soon discovered that silence, on political questions, was conducive to longevity. There were also many civil, quiet southern gentlemen whose sympathies were with the Confederacy, but their conservatism and respect for law and order made them unpopular in party caucuses and conventions, which were largely controlled by the lawless element. It was noticeable in those days that the most violent and bitter Secessionists were not the southern men whose homes were being overrun and property confiscated by the Union armies, but northern copperheads, or barroom politicians.
E. D. Holbrook, who was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress in 1864 and again in 1866, was a fitting representative of the ruling class. Born in Elgin, Ohio, and educated in the public schools of that state, his political preferment was based on his violent hatred of the American flag, and his desire to perpetually enslave the African race. He was an able lawyer, a fluent and logical speaker, and had he lived even a quarter of a century later, would doubtless have been a valuable citizen, but as conditions were then, his influence did much to foster lawlessness.
His highly strung nervous system could not endure the many kinds of stimulants sold by his constituents; he simply went wrong, like many others, from the same or similar cause, and finally, posing as a gun-fighter, his life went out in blood – Charlie Douglas, a gambler and one-time friend, being a quicker or better shot.
There was no railroad across the continent in those days, and no telegraph lines in Idaho. Hence news of events transpiring in the outside world was slow in reaching us. Our main dependence was the Sacramento Union, a daily newspaper published in Sacramento, California, and usually it did not reach us until about two weeks after its publication. When we consider that almost every American citizen in the mining camps had friends or relatives in some one of the armies in the field, engaged in the fearful contest then being waged, it can be understood how anxiously the stage bringing these papers was awaited – and how quickly they were sold for a dollar each.
There was never copies enough to supply the demand, and groups would form around the fortunate ones and listen with bated breath, while he read the story of, mayhap, the Battle of the Wilderness, of Gettysburg, or Lookout Mountain. It was noticeable, on such occasions, that, if the narrative was of a rebel victory, the air was at once rent with cheers for Jeff Davis, and the barrooms were soon filled with jubilant men, clamoring for “booze,” and predicting the speedy recognition of the Southern Confederacy by foreign nations.
On the contrary, if the Union army was victorious, the cheers were for Abe Lincoln, or some favorite Union general; then they usually gravitated, like the others, to some saloon and teased their opponents by sandwiching in between drinks, such songs as “We’ll Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I Sing.”
On such occasions the partisans of the cause that had suffered defeat were usually discreet enough to keep out of sight of the roisterers; but not infrequently hostilities were precipitated, the results of which were communicated to the patrons of the eating houses the following morning by the waiters, in the stereotyped phrase, “A man for breakfast this morning,” or men, as the case might be, naming the place or places, almost invariably a saloon.
It was understood in early mining days that a camp was not fully equipped until a graveyard was started, and the number of sodless mounds that it contained within a given time was considered an index of the life of the place. It is a strange analogy that life should mean death. Yet it was true. For the life or the liveliness of such places was guaged by the number of saloons, dance halls, etc., and their number determined the amount of liquor sold and that was, almost invariably, what regulated the growth of the cemeteries. In older countries the process is generally slow, but in mining camps, especially in war-times, strong drink such as was sold over the bars aroused the passions of men and led to violence, often death.
Idaho City easily led the other camps in the number of interments. Much has been said and written of the formulas used in the manufacture of a large part of the whiskey sold in mining towns and at the road-houses leading thereto, which, if true, may account for some of the violence it engendered. …
… They were all fine specimens of physical manhood, good horsemen and companionable fellows, ready to relieve an unfortunate by sharing a blanket, or dividing with him, what might be their last dollar. Hence they soon acquired well merited popularity among men of of their class, which enabled them to manipulate the first Democratic nominating convention in Ada County, and secure the election of their choice for sheriff, a nomination on the Democratic ticket being equivalent to an election in those days. At that time few men came to Idaho to engage in politics, hence the number who participated in the primaries and the nominating convention was usually small. Aside from the few who had personal ends to gain, those who voted at the primaries did so in a desultory manner – accepting and depositing the ballots prepared for them by the agents of the night-riders.
If some of those sturdy, honest farmers who crossed the plains from Missouri to settle in Boise or Payette valleys, and who rode, sometimes many miles, to take part in an election, had been told of the manner in which the political machine was run in Ada and Boise counties in those days, they would have doubted the statement if made by their own fathers.
The tickets were all voted, whether Republican or Democratic, under the then territorial form of government, and carried no political significance other than they gave expression as to whether we were in favor of maintaining the Union. The real issue was not political – only in the sense applying to whether the lives and the property of the people within our borders should be protected. Yet, honest men, as was said, sometimes rode many miles to vote what they believed was the same ticket their fathers voted during the days of Andrew Jackson.
These voters wanted to do what they believed was right. They believed they did right, hence they were right, and their hearts were in the right place. Unfortunately, the first sheriff they elected in Ada county – the first Monday in March, 1865 – was Dave Opdyke, who subsequently resigned his position for cause, and was afterward hanged, as was another sheriff in Bannock, in what is now Montana. The laws of men may be repealed or suspended, but the laws of God are eternally operative. It has been truly written “Those who live by the sword, die by it.”
… It was a notorious fact that while many murders were committed in Boise County during the five years when its population was the greatest, not one of the men who committed them suffered the extreme penalty of the law.
… After the first stampede to the Basin was ended the business of the horse ranchers was practically at an end. Hence the professional horse-thieves were compelled to cover a wider field to make their operations profitable. … The favorite place of concealment during such emergencies was the ranch across the river from Boise – now South Boise. …
Sometimes relentless persons would continue the chase into the city, and visiting the sheriff’s office, would appeal to that officer for assistance, which was invariably promised.
Whereupon, the weary riders would ask him and his deputies to take a drink, an invitation which would be considerately accepted, and the party would at once adjourn to the sheriff’s own saloon, and in this social and friendly manner the incident would close.
There is no record of more than one stolen horse being recovered by the owner during the three first years of the mining furore, and the incidents to that event, though attracting little attention at the time, were to be of widespread influence in the near future.
The following synopsis will convey an idea of the peculiar conditions which existed in our frontier at that time, which was during the month of August, 1864:
A man who was engaged in truck-gardening on one of the tributaries of the Payette river, after delivering a cargo of vegetables to the hotels and restaurants in Centerville, proceeded with his pack train down Grimes’ Creek and camped for the night. Although the Basin was then nearly all covered with a growth of fine timber, at the place chosen for his camp there was a large spot of open ground covered with good grass. He had but one packer, or assistant, with him, and after supper, before retiring, they caught and picketed their favorite saddlehorse within a short distance of where they spread their blankets.
Fatigued as they were, and anticipating no danger to themselves or animals, they retired early, and were soon in a sound slumber, from which they awakened in the morning to find that in the night some one had slipped into the camp and stolen the picketed horse. Search was made during the following day which disclosed that two men, who were in Centerville during the previous day, and were noticed admiring the missing animal while it was standing hitched in the street, had disappeared, and a party coming into Boise over the Shaffer Creek road had passed them during the forenoon and upon inquiry, were told that they were headed for Boise Valley.
The pack-train was at once started for the home ranch, arriving there in the night after the farm hands had gone to bed. Arousing them, fresh horses were saddled, and accompanied by one man, the owner started for Boise City, where they arrived at eight o’clock the following morning, having rested themselves and their horses two hours on the trail between Dry Creek and Crane’s Gulch.
A search of the feed corrals and livery stables was immediately made, with the result that, while no trace of the stolen horse was discovered, another one was found in the livery and feed stable which was owned by Opdyke, who was later elected sheriff. The animal, a mare, had been stolen about two months before. She was claimed by a restaurant keeper named Gilkie, who said she had been given to him by John Kelly, the violinist. Everyone knowing Kelly knew he never stole a horse, as he was too lazy, too big and fat to go out on the range and catch one.
They refused to surrender the property, so the owner was obliged to secure the services of a lawyer to recover his horse. Fortunately, A. G. Cook, an attorney whom he had known in Lafayette, Oregon, had located in Boise a short time before, and he kindly volunteered to take the case and make no charge. He and John Deisenroth, a blacksmith owning a shop in town, qualified as bondsmen for the required amount; but notwithstanding the validity of the surety, which was unquestioned, the justice of the peace before whom the case was brought, required the complainant to weigh out gold dust enough to pay the estimated costs before he would issue the writ, the result being that it cost the owner seventy dollars, including a back stable bill which he was obliged to pay to recover the animal which everyone, including the justice and the sheriff, knew was his before any evidence was offered.
This was the culmination of what might have been forseen – 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.
The owner of the horse entered the courtroom of that Boise City justice, little more than a boy in years and experience, but he came out when the case was decided and he had paid the costs, amounting to nearly the full value of the animal, a grim-visaged man. With no word to anyone, except to thank the two men who had gone on his bond, he and his helper led their horses down the street and stopped in front of the stable where a group of tin-horn gamblers and horse-thieves had preceded them from the court-room, announcing that he would like to make a speech to them before leaving. One of their number told him to “fire ahead” – meaning for him to begin – which he did, stating that he was an American citizen, that he recognized “no chiefs,” and that he could catch any man who ever marked those prairies and that the next one who stole a horse from him would be “his Indian” – there would be no law-suit. Waiting a few moments for a reply and none coming, he mounted his saddle-horse and rode away, leading the recovered animal. …
… The county of Ada having been organized, and Opdyke appointed to the sheriff’s office, they [the tin-horn gamblers and horse-thieves] appealed to him for protection [from the Payette Vigilance Committee]. A consultation was held and the situation was thoroughly canvassed. It was here determined that the permanency and effectiveness of the committee depended entirely on a few men, who were both the organizers and the leaders. Foremost among this number, they placed the captain who had led the recent movement against the Washoe Ferry gang.
It was decided that an effective method of suppressing the uprising of citizens on the Payette would be to legally remove one or more of the leaders, the captain having been chosen for the first victim of their experiment.
Warrants were issued for the arrests of all those settlers living in the Payette Valley who were supposed to belong to the vigilance committee. A large number of deputy sheriffs were sworn in to make the arrests ; some of them were good men, and actually believed that the Vigilantes, as they were called, were a bloodthirsty lot of cut-throats. It was not intended that these deputies should have any part in the execution of the real purpose of those who conceived the plan, which was to strike terror into the hearts of the rank and file of the committee by killing a few of its leaders. Accordingly, the Pickett Corral contingent was appointed special deputies to arrest the captain, who was known to be at his home above Horseshoe Bend.
It was proposed that the Pickett Corral officers should separate from the other deputies at the point where the stage road to Boise City diverged from the Placerville road, the place of divergence being near where is now the city of Emmett, and only a short distance from their own headquarters, Pickett Corral, the plan being for them to remain at the stage-station until the following night, when they were to proceed up the river to make the arrest. Arriving late at night, they were to arouse the captain and his men after the plan adopted by them in gaining entrance at Washoe Ferry. No quarter was to be given to either the captain or those with him. Since no witnesses were to be left alive to tell a tale differing from that planned to be told by the posse, who were to say that resistance having been offered, it was necessary for them to resort to the use of their shot-guns.
The departure from such a small place as Boise was, at that time, of so large a force of men, mounted and armed, could not fail to excite considerable comment among the population, and soon all kinds of rumors were afloat. Such an extraordinary procedure as the sheriff’s appointment of deputies belonging to an organization so well and unfavorably known as the Pickett Corral band caused grave apprehension.
His object was suspected by a party of men who had assembled at the sutler store soon after the departure of the sheriff’s troop. It was remarked by one of the number present that it was a pity that such a disreputable lot of scoundrels should be dignified by the name of deputy sheriffs and permitted to advance upon any man’s house in the night, without warning; that if the captain of the vigilantes knew they were coming it might be quite different.
George W. Hunt, who in after years became distinguished as a railroad builder, was present in the store at the time, and at once announced his willingness to attempt the passage of the trail across the foothills to Horseshoe Bend, if he could secure a horse. Quartermaster Hughes, who was stationed at Boise Barracks, being present, immediately responded that he had the best saddle horse in the territory at that time, and he would cheerfully place him at Mr. Hunt’s disposal. It was soon settled that the attempt should be made, and within an hour the daring rider headed his mount for the unbroken snow on the hill trail, bent on an errand of mercy, without hope of reward, other than the consciousness of being, perhaps, instrumental in saving human life.
Only those who have faced the terrible sameness of snow-covered hills, without human habitation, for eighteen miles, can realize the dangers the rider encountered that day. In many places a slip of the horse’s feet would have meant precipitation into a gulch, with perhaps broken limbs, without hope of rescue. The horse proved all his owner claimed and the terrible journey was made without accident, in time to give the warning the rider carried.
Upon being informed of the intended visit, the captain sent a messenger to a neighboring ranch with the news and asking the early presence of two men prepared to take a ride. The messenger was absent less than an hour when he returned with the information that the men required would follow him as soon as horses could be fed and saddled. During the interim, while awaiting their arrival, preparations were made for departure and in less than two hours from the time the news reached the ranch, a party of four mounted men rode away – the captain observing that it would be a pity to impose on such a distinguished party of deputy sheriffs by requiring them to ride so far to serve papers in such inclement weather, that it would be proper to meet them at least half way.
They accordingly proceeded down the river, expecting at any moment they would appear, but a hitch had occurred in the original plan, the special deputies being held until the arrests were made in the lower valley, which caused a delay of twenty-four hours. Consequently the man whom they were detailed to arrest and his friends rode the entire distance before the posse was prepared to start and as they approached the Junction House, seeing a row of guns ranged against the side of the house under the front porch, they realized that the crisis had arrived.
The house was but a few feet back from the main road along which they were riding, and there being no windows on that side, the inmates had no warning of their approach until they were immediately in front of the door, when one of the deputies jerked it open and reached for his gun. The movement, however, was anticipated, and the sharp command “drop it,” had hardly passed the leader’s lips when the hand and arm were withdrawn and the door was as violently closed as it had been opened. No other words were uttered, nothing was said about the warrants or arrests and the horsemen proceeded on their way to the next house, where it was learned that the sheriff’s party had returned to Boise with a large number of prisoners, supposed members of the vigilance committee. The special deputies who were supposed to do the deadly work were so crestfallen at their failure that they were ashamed to report to headquarters, and to avoid being gibed, crossed the river to the ranch of an acquaintance and went on a protracted debauch.
The prisoners taken to Boise were promptly arraigned and as promptly discharged, there being no evidence that they had violated any law, and before their arrival it was generally understood that their arrest was to be only an incident of the object to be accomplished. Thus ended a disgraceful fiasco, the expense of which was paid by the taxpayers of Ada County. …
… During the remainder of the year nothing occurred to disturb the tranquility that followed the foregoing events. But when spring arrived, and travel to and from the mines was resumed, the Paiute Indians, who occupied the country south and west of Owyhee, made several incursions into the Snake river, Boise and Payette valleys, murdering settlers, killing cattle, and driving off bands of horses. As the small force of infantry, which was then garrisoned at Boise Barracks, was unable to pursue and punish the invaders, a citizens’ meeting was called in Boise City to devise measures to meet the emergency.
At that meeting it was resolved to issue a call for volunteers and also an appeal to the business men and citizens generally, for contributions to equip a company. A resolution was also adopted, providing that the volunteers should elect their own captain and furthermore, the men who served as volunteers should, on their return from the field, be allowed to retain, as their own, in compensation for their services, the horses and equipment used while in service. After the adoption of the foregoing resolution and the appointment of the necessary committee, an adjournment was taken until eight o’clock the next evening, at which time the committee on volunteers reported the enrollment of sixty names. The committee on finance reported subscriptions amounting to forty-five hundred dollars.
After a thorough canvas of the subject, it was concluded that the money available would be sufficient to outfit and equip forty men, but as only small bands of Indians were usually engaged in the predatory raids, the foregoing number, it was thought, would be able to teach them a salutary lesson. The volunteers assembled the next day and chose Dave Opdyke as their captain, and he at once proceeded to select forty men out of the sixty enrolled. Saddle-horses, pack-animals and all the equipment of frontier warfare were speedily purchased, and four days after the first call for volunteers was issued, a troop of forty well mounted, well armed men crossed Boise river, en route, as was supposed, to the country occupied by the hostiles.
Two weeks after their departure a messenger arrived in Boise with dispatches from the officer in command, conveying the information that the company was camped on Snake river about forty miles from Boise City and that the officers and men were in excellent health. They had spent much time in gaining proficiency with fire-arms by shooting at a mark, and having removed the sage brush from a level piece of river bottom, had prepared a race track and were testing the speed of their saddle horses. They had, up to the time the messenger left, escaped being molested by the Indians and expected to return to Boise soon, as they thought the hostiles learning of their approach, had abandoned the territory and gone to Nevada.
That such a message was sent to the expectant citizens of Boise has been denied, but the fact remains that they spent most of the time during their absence in camp, as stated, and returned without having seen an Indian. Of course, as per agreement, the horses and equipment furnished by the citizens, had become the property of the returned volunteers and the war-worn veterans immediately disbanded.
A few days subsequent, a disagreement arose between one of the returned men and a farmer, concerning the ownership of a horse – the arbitrament of which was submitted to a justice of the peace. During the taking of testimony which followed, several of the men were examined under oath, all but one telling the same story.
The one whose evidence differed radically from the others, was enrolled on the rosters of the company as Raymond, and was only eighteen years old, and while he was in size almost a full grown man, yet he was only a laughing boy, but recently from a home where his big blue eyes and curly locks were, no doubt, a mother’s pride. He was a boy in whose defense any man not a coward would have fought, no matter what the odds.
After the hearing was concluded the principals and witnesses in the case, leaving the court-room, congregated on the street to discuss the trial and several of those who had testified opposite to young Raymond gathered about him and accused him of swearing falsely; finally one of the number slapped him on the face, whereupon Raymond backed against the wall of a building and drawing his revolver, stood in a position of defense.
One of his accusers exclaimed “Shoot, d__n you, shoot,” to which he replied: “No, I don’t want to shoot, but I am a boy unable to fight men and do not intend to be beaten.” After which announcement, a tinhorn gambler named Johnny Clark, who had gone out with the volunteers, drew a revolver and shot Raymond down. A surgeon, Ephriam Smith, who had approached the scene of the shooting in time to hear the conversation and witness the tragedy, made a hasty examination of the wounded boy, and realizing that he had but a few moments to live, turned to the crowd and said, “Gentlemen, this is a d__d outrage.”
Whereupon Opdyke, who was present, taking the doctor by the arm led him aside and warned him to keep still, as this, meaning the shooting of Raymond, was only a beginning. The young man, after the examination by the surgeon was completed, said to the bystanders, “I did not draw my gun on Johnny Clark, did I?” To which several replied, “No.” He then concluded, “I think it was a cowardly act for him to shoot me in this manner; I hate to be shot down like a dog for telling the truth.” These were the last words he uttered.
The murderer was at once arrested as a matter of form, and as a precaution to prevent the people from taking his punishment into their own hands, a preliminary examination was held during the evening of the same day, at which all the ex-volunteers, who were present, testified that the man who was shot had drawn his pistol first and that the shooting done by Clark was in self-defense.
However, the cry for vengeance was so pronounced that the court decided to hold the accused, thinking, no doubt, that many who witnessed the difficulty would soon leave the city and that also public sentiment would undergo a change, as it frequently does in such cases. To protect the prisoner from violence arrangements were made with Major Marshall, who was at that time commandant at Boise Barracks, to confine him in the military guard-house until the storm had blown over.
But such forethought came too late. The straw had been added which was to break the camel’s back. The good people of Boise were aroused by the pistol-shot that caused the death of poor Raymond.
Word was industriously but secretly circulated during the following day among the business and professional men, announcing that a meeting would be held at a place named, the following night at nine o’clock sharp, for the purpose of considering the advisability of effecting an organization similar to the one which had accomplished such a salutary reformation in the Payette Valley.
The proposed meeting convened at the time and place designated and without delay it was unanimously resolved to organize a committee to be known as “The Boise City Vigilance Committee,” and they at once proceeded to adopt a constitution and by-laws similar to those of the Payette committee The organization was completed and officers elected at the first meeting, after which the case of the last murder, that committed by Clark, was taken up and discussed.
It being the unanimous opinion of those present that the murder was in cold blood and it being further agreed that, judging by the conduct of the officers and the perjured testimony of the witnesses at the preliminary hearing, it was the intent to give the prisoner his liberty at an early day, a resolution was therefore offered and unanimously adopted, to the effect that the crime committed by Clark entitled its perpetrator to the penalty of death and an executive committee was named to carry the decree into effect, with authority to call out the full membership, if necessary for the purpose.
The military guardhouse in which the prisoner was confined was a stone structure located on the lower side of the square, around which the officers* quarters, commissary buildings and barracks were erected. In one end of the building was a row of cells, with bunks for the inmates, the remainder of the building being used for a guard-house, where several men were continually stationed, ready to respond to any call from the sentinel, who continuously paced his beat in front.
As will be understood, the self-imposed task of the vigilance committee, that of taking from the guard-house the prisoner Clark, was not one easy of accomplishment, since capturing the guard might result in fatalities which must be eliminated.
A sergeant was continually present in charge of the men in the guard room, and as these non-commissioned officers were indignant in consequence of having to guard civilian prisoners, the executive committee experienced but little difficulty in persuading the officer, who was to be on duty the night chosen, to permit the removal of the prisoner, arrangements were made accordingly.
Some months previous, a company of Oregon volunteers, on their way to garrison Fort Hall, had left in the hospital at Boise barracks one of their number who was unable to march. He had recovered from his illness and was reported fit for duty on the afternoon prior to the proposed capture of the guard-house, and the sergeant not wishing to have a sentinel of his company captured on his post, placed the convalescent volunteer on duty at the time of the expected attack.
The volunteer was only about twenty years of age and his illness was caused by homesickness, as much as by malaria. He went on guard duty that night at twelve o’clock, unsuspicious of danger or surprise, and began his tramp within its limits, with mind far removed from Boise City and the Barracks. Only a short time after his watch began and while he was in the act of turning to retrace his steps on his lonely beat, several men darted around the corner of the guard-house and before he could make an alarm he was seized and thrown to the ground, where his captors proceeded to bind his limbs and gag him. They then entered the guard-room, where the inmates being asleep, they had no difficulty in taking possession; opening the cell where Clark was confined they brought him with them outside, locked the door, securing the sergeant and all his men, with the exception of the sentinel on the outside, and then took their way along the foot of the hill to the westward, taking their prisoner with them.
Soon after their departure the sentinel succeeded in releasing his hands, and obtaining possession of his musket, sent a bullet after his fleeing captors. The discharge attracted the attention of a sentinel on another beat, who gave an alarm and the entire garrison was soon aroused and under arms, when being deployed in skirmish line, they searched the neighborhood, but without result.
When morning dawned it was discovered that a triangle had been erected on the ground where the old Central school building was subsequently built and on it hung the lifeless body of the murderer.
The prompt and daring action taken by the committee caused great consternation among the so-called sporting class in Boise, and an exodus at once began. The execution of Clark was the only instance in which the organization intervened to punish an offender, although it was generally known that they did not disband for some time afterward and that knowledge doubtless had a salutary influence in preventing further crime.
Some time subsequent to the execution of Clark, Dave Opdyke was hanged on the Overland stage road by three employees of the stage company, and a young man who was, at the time, Clerk of the District Court, was persuaded to accompany them. The hanging was credited to the Boise City Vigilance Committee, owing to a card, or label, with the insignia of the vigilance committee, being attached to the body. However, the committee had no part in the act, and none of its members were present. The word was given out that the hanging grew out of the burning of the stage company’s hay, which occurred some time before, and was charged to Opdyke. Consequently the community felt as if another bad man was gone, and no regrets were expressed.
… The foregoing conditions arose, not from immorality on the part of the majority, but from a cause peculiar to new mining countries remote from centers of population. The people were sojourners, rather than citizens; they did not come to stay, only to accumulate enough money to make a comfortable start in the country whence they came – many had left property behind them, when starting west, to which they intended to return. None at that time expected to live to see the desert plains of Idaho transformed into verdant fields dotted with beautiful homes. Consequently, as they considered their residence here but temporary, they had no desire to exercise the rights of citizenship and but few attended the primaries or conventions. Thus, without thought of the harm they were doing themselves and others, they permitted a few dangerous men to gain the offices, with the results heretofore enumerated.
excerpted from pages 180-253, Chapters 11, 12, 13. “Early History of Idaho” by William John McConnell, 1913
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source: “Vigilante days and ways: the pioneers of the Rockies: the makers and making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming” by Nathaniel Pitt Langford 1893, Vol 1