The western frontier was often a dangerous and lawless place. When justice needed to be served, there wasn't always a Sheriff and Judge available...or willing.. Instead, there were honorable and righteous men and women who stepped in to dispatch swift justice. These groups were known as Vigilance Committees and they existed across the west.
Law & order was scarce on the frontier, citizens often formed these "Vigilance Committees" to keep an eye on the community, to deal with problems and crime. When a problem arose, the Silent Riders would mount up and discreetly spread the word to other members that help was needed. Using this approach, members could remain largely anonymous to the general public and not cause a panic. Here are examples of Virginia City Old West Crime.
In the silver & gold camps, hundreds of men lived and worked side by side, fearing that the gold they found might be stolen. When they discovered a thief they often created ad hoc courts, heard the evidence, and dealt summarily with the offender. The punishment was usually flogging or banishment, but if the offense was more serious, the offender was hanged. Thus began an era of vigilante justice in the American West.
Even so, the mining camps moved as quickly as they could to formalize legal institutions, create courts, and elect sheriffs. Travelers who were impressed by the presence of guns were also impressed by how men from back East had brought with them the civic and democratic traditions of their homes.
At the camps and in the port city of San Francisco, whose population was also growing at breathtaking speed, vigilante justice was also popular at first. Newspaper editors supported it as the necessary response to what would otherwise be chaos and brute force. They also appreciated the fact that it saved the nascent community a lot of money and time.
The speed and ferocity of vigilante punishments were designed to have the strongest possible deterrent effect. For example, an Englishman named James Stuart traveled from Australia —which was then the site of a large British penal colony— to the gold rush camps of California. He was suspected of a series of thefts, and then of killing a merchant in 1851. The San Francisco Vigilance Committee seized him; it was organized by Sam Brannan, a Mormon businessman and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Hundreds of supporters of the committee poured into the streets as news spread of Stuart’s arrest.
The local sheriff, lacking manpower to take the accused villain away from the vigilantes, made a feeble and ineffective protest before Stuart was marched down to the harbor and hanged in public. California’s governor approved of the action. When an indignant judge impaneled a grand jury to indict the ring leaders, it refused to do so; several of its members belonged to the Vigilance Committee.
This is a transcript from the video series The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy.
A few weeks later the Committee attacked the city jail, seized two other men, and hanged them both, despite the authorities’ attempts to protect them. The committee abolished itself after three months out of deference to due process, but reconvened in 1856 and undertook four more lynchings, again with a high degree of popular and press support, public demonstrations, and pseudo-military regalia.
The states and territories of the plains and mountain West showed comparable patterns of vigilante justice. While miners feared that the gold dust they were painstakingly accumulating might be stolen, cattlemen had to be vigilant against the threat of horse and cattle thieves. Theodore Roosevelt expressed a fairly common opinion when he wrote that in the early days of these ventures, that vigilante justice and even vendettas, were defensible.
“As soon as the communities become settled and begin to grow with any rapidity the American instinct for law asserts itself; but in the early stages each individual is obliged to be a law unto himself and to guard his rights with a strong hand.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
In 1863, Bannack, a remote community in Montana territory, was plagued by a gang of hijackers who attacked gold convoys and stagecoaches, seizing property and killing travelers. The citizens of Bannack, and those of the nearby settlement of Alder Gulch, created a vigilance committee of their own, only to discover that the criminal mastermind was their own sheriff, Henry Plummer. Henry Plummer was an odd, many-sided character, extremely hot-tempered, who over the years had shot and killed several men in barroom brawls.
You will find many, if not all Silent Riders wearing this iconic noose on their clothes as a pin or a pendant, this is certainly not an insensitive gesture, but a symbol of Wild West Vigilant Law.
Sometimes hangin' wasn't enough!
Q: What exactly is vigilante justice?
Vigilante Justice, sometimes called frontier justice, is the enactment of retribution by a person or group of people who claim they have been wronged yet lack of authority to enact justice.
Q: Why did vigilantes appear in the American mining towns?
Vigilantes took the law into their own hands as most of the American Mining Towns were in remote areas out of reach of the law of the land.
Q: Was vigilantism illegal in the American west?
Vigilantism was often tolerated in the mining towns of the American West, but when government was involved, they could be tried for their actual offenses, not merely vigilantism itself at the time.
Q: How did vigilantism help the miners of the American west?
The Vigilantes of the American wild west usually formed as a committee. They would enact justice in the place of an absentee government. It was rare to have the solitary Hollywood hero as the numbers were against them.
Preserving the past, Into the future
The posse and gallows are long gone now, but the memories of a not too distant past remain. The Silent Riders are an all volunteer living history group, passionately dedicated to promoting the history of Virginia City and the Comstock, to ours and future generations.
What We Do
The Silent Riders fulfill our mission of promoting the Comstock by attending community events, working with local businesses, and sharing our history on the streets & boardwalks of Historic Virginia City. Most days you'll find us in and around town, speaking with visitors as we stroll the town. We're easy to spot! Just look for Victorian era and Old West attire, the Silent Rider badge, the flowing Red Ribbon Challenge Coin or the signature symbol of frontier justice: The hangman's rope. As stewards of the past, we love to share Virginia City's unique and unexpected history. As ambassadors to the future, we love to pose for photos and make your time with us memorable.
Who We Are
The Silent Riders of old came from all backgrounds and walks of life, much the way our group is today. You'll find Victorian Gentleman, Gunfighters, Cowboys, Socialites, Lawmen, and Merchants in our group. Some members even choose to be Living Historians by portraying legendary figures who actually lived & worked on the Comstock. This is not Cosplay, Steampunk or Cowboy dress up time, Many members are ex Military, Police Force, Fire and other armed services. If ever needed, The Silent Riders are at hand and at the ready. We are Virginia City! Who could have imagined the Silent Riders would grow to be what it is today?
Photography By Melody Hoover Photography and other contributors including :Shellie McMasters, Beth Ann Gable Matheus, Sherri McGee, Nick Agorastos , Cherie Palmer Garrison, Beth Breton Stephen Richards