Vigilantes of Montana: Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains
by Thomas J. Dimsdale
The Vigilantes of Montana, or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains, offers itself as “being a correct and impartial narrative of the chase, capture, trial and execution of Henry Plummer’s Road Agent Band, together with accounts of the lives and crimes of many of the robbers and desperados, the whole being interspersed with sketches of life in the mining camps of the ‘Far West.'”
The California Gold Rush really was a bonanza. Between 1849 and 1855 the gold miners gathered more than $400 million dollars; once adjusted, it is a sum today reaching into the trillions. It was a social phenomenon marked by the carnivalesque. In his work Roughing It (1872) Mark Twain’s protagonist remarks as his brother heads West, “Pretty soon he would be hundreds and hundreds of miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, an antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and may be get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero…And by and by he would become very rich, and return home by sea, and be able to talk as calmly about San Francisco and ocean, and ‘the isthmus’ as if it was nothing of any consequence to have seen those marvels face to face.”
Go they did to the Land of Golden Dreams, in the largest internal migration in American history, and the adventures and tragedies have created a large and memorable literature. The Vigilantes of Montana focuses on how criminal justice was metered out during this era.