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.
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.
This is a transcript from the video series The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy.
The outcome was not good if they caught up with you in the dead of night!
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.
By Patrick N Allitt, PHD- Emory University
The Stagecoach came from Sacramento, Reno, & Carson City to Virginia City daily, with stops at Gold Hill & Silver City.
Sometimes hangin' wasn't enough!
This history page is not intended to celebrate the noose or hangings at all, it is here to demonstrate the measures citizens went to enforce the law when "law enforcers" weren't able to, or refused to enforce the law.
"for as many have sinned without the law, shall perish without the law."
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.
(for those easily offended, you can't change history by erasing it or pretending it didn't happen. Most that found themselves at the end of a rope in the 1800's were white immigrants or westerners that stepped outside of the law.)
The Perfect Setting for The Birth Of A Historical Town
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.
In June of 1859, one of the most significant mining discoveries in American history was made in the Virginia Range of Nevada. The discovery of gold in the area drew people in from across the country.
"You are free to choose, but your choice is not free from consequences"
A once-bustling mining town in the late 1800s, Virginia City,Nevada was heralded as the most important settlement between Denver, Colorado, and S Saan Francisco, California, in the time of its heydays.
One of Nevada’s oldest settlements started when two miners by the names of Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Reilly discovered gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859. Soon, another miner named Henry Comstock stumbled upon their find and claimed it was on his property. The gullible McLaughlin and O’Reilly believed him, which assured Henry a place in history when the giant Comstock Lode was named.where they are.
However, the Comstock Lode would not be known for gold but rather for its immensely rich silver deposits. Though silver had initially been discovered in 1857 in Nevada by brothers Ethan and Hosea Grosh, they died before recording their claims. Though the miners rushed in after discovering gold, they could not get to it because of the heavy blue-gray clay that clung to picks and shovels. However, when someone had the good sense to assay the sticky mud, it was found to be worth $2,000 a ton – a very nice amount in those days.
Word of the discovery spread like wildfire and lured California gold miners in a reverse migration back over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Within no time, a ramshackle town of tents and shacks was born. When a miner named James Finney, who was more often called “Old Virginny” from his birthplace, dropped a bottle of whiskey on the ground, he christened the newly founded tent-and-dugout town “Old Virginny Town” in honor of himself. It was later changed to Virginia City. By 1862, the population had soared to some 4,000 and would continue to increase over the next decade and a half.
Grubby prospectors became instant millionaires. Famous men like William Ralston and George Crocker found the Bank of California; Leland Stanford, George Hearst, John Mackay, and William Flood made their fortunes in Comstock mining. Soon mansions, imported furniture and fashions from Europe, and the finest in food, drink, and entertainment were commonplace. Virginia City quickly rivaled San Francisco in size and excess.
All the new wealth caught the eye of President Abraham Lincoln, who needed gold and silver to pay Civil War expenses, and on March 2, 1861, Nevada became a territory. Statehood came just three years later, on October 31, 1864, even though it did not contain enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood.
In Virginia City, Samuel Clemens, then a reporter on the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper, first used his famous pen name of Mark Twain. He went to work for the newspaper in the summer of 1862 at the age of 26. A year later, he began signing the name “Mark Twain” to his columns.
Engineers made amazing breakthroughs to facilitate the silver removal. New honey-combed, square-set timbers became the industry standard to shore up mine shafts.
Water pipes were stretched from the Lake Tahoe Basin to provide over 2 million gallons of fresh mountain water daily. A four-mile-long tunnel was blasted from solid rock by Adolph Sutro to drain over 10 million gallons of boiling, rancid water per day from the lower levels of the mines.
For the miners working the Comstock Lode, it was extremely dangerous as they faced cave-ins, fires, and underground flooding. The water temperature and deeper levels would rise to more than 100 degrees, and often when miners penetrated through rock, steam and scalding water would pour into the tunnel.
In 1869 William Sharon and William Ralston built the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to haul ore from the Virginia City mines to the ore mills along the Carson River in the valley below and east of Carson City. Known as “the crookedest railroad in the world” due to its dizzying descent of 1,600 feet in 13 miles, the railroad would then return with wood and supplies to Virginia City
By the 1870s, over $230 million had been produced by the mines, and Virginia City continued to grow. At the peak of its glory around 1876, Virginia City was a boisterous town with many businesses operating 24 hours a day.
At that time, the boomtown sported some 30,000 residents, 150 saloons, at least five police precincts, a thriving red-light district, three churches, hotels, restaurants, ten different fire departments, its own water, electric, and gas systems, and numerous other businesses. The thriving community also provided various types of entertainment, including Shakespeare plays and dances at Piper’s Opera House, which continues to stand, as well as opium dens, dog fights, and more than 20 theaters and music halls. Its International Hotel was six stories high and boasted the West’s first elevator, called the “rising room.”
But like other mining boom towns, Virginia City would eventually begin to decline, beginning in 1877. From the time it was first established through its decline, Virginia City suffered five widespread fires, the worst of which was dubbed the “Great Fire of 1875,” which burned nearly 75% of the town and caused some 12 million dollars in damages. But the residents persevered, and the town was rebuilt in about 18 months.
The Comstock Lode was thoroughly mined by 1898, and the city once again took a sharp decline. From 1859 to 1919, more than 700 million dollars in gold and silver were taken from the mines of the Comstock Lode, which mines’ were excavated to as much as 3200 feet. By 1920, there were just a few small operations in business, and by 1930, only about 500 people lived in the community.
Today, the historic community is a National Historic Landmark, designated as such in 1961. It now boasts about 1,000 residents, and though a shadow of its former self, it draws more than two million visitors per year. Numerous historic buildings continue to stand, including Piper’s Opera House, which still entertains customers today, and the Fourth Ward School, built in 1876, is utilized as a museum. Numerous mansions also continue to stand, which provides visitors with the sophisticated and lush lifestyle of these long-ago residents. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad runs again from Virginia City to Gold Hill. The landmark is the largest federally designated Historical District in America maintained in its original condition. “C” Street, the main business street, is lined with the 1860s and 1870s buildings housing specialty shops, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, and casinos.
As a federally designated National Historic District, it is illegal to dig for artifacts, remove any found items from the community, or mistreat any property.
Virginia City is located about 23 miles south of Reno, Nevada
Virginia City Silent Riders
Virginia City, Nevada, United States of America
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