Vigilantes are individuals who take the law into their own hands. Vigilante movements have often been viewed in a positive light, and apologists suggest that vigilance committees were necessary because duly constituted legal authorities failed to maintain order and punish alleged criminals. This assumption has never been proven or adequately explored.
Vigilantes, often called stranglers, slickers, white caps, night riders, lynch mobs, and a variety of other names, usually worked as a group at night (sometimes hooded) to assure anonymity, to bolster their courage, to reduce their personal accountability, and to avoid prosecution. They formed committees, and in order to solicit legitimacy for their actions they issued proclamations that suggested that they had to act to "preserve" law and order. Usually vigilantism occurred when a group of citizens believed that the law either was not working or was too slow in prosecuting alleged criminals. Under such conditions local members of the community took action to remedy the situation.
San Francisco vigilante movements in 1851 and 1856 were probably the best-known examples of such extralegal activity. Their methods included organization of community leaders, focus on a particular "problem" in society, the quick apprehension of alleged criminals, and a "speedy trial" followed by punishment such as flogging or, more commonly, death by hanging. Vigilantism spread quickly across the West. Vigilantes who were little better than lynch mobs took retribution against anyone considered to be a threat to Great Plains society. Although the Canadian Plains seldom experienced such violent activities, several examples of vigilante activity took place from 1867 to 1897 in the Kootenay River region in British Columbia that borders western Montana.
Walter van Tilburg Clark in The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) correctly perceived that this distinctly American form of violence appealed to the local community and that the people involved in the activity assumed that their actions were necessary for their community's welfare. Clark also provided the components for the lynch mob action: an alleged crime and criminal, a mob leader, an inflammatory speech, liberal use of alcohol, a rope, and, finally, a tree in town or in a nearby cottonwood grove.
Whether the victim was Sheriff Henry Plummer in Bannack, Montana, Cattle Kate in Wyoming, Frank Blackhawk (Standing Rock Sioux) in Williamsport, North Dakota, William Brown in Omaha, Nebraska, or some nameless Indian, Chinese, or Hispanic victim on a lonely country road, Great Plains vigilantism or lynch mob action was swift and usually fatal. Richard Maxwell Brown provides the following nineteenth-century statistics for vigilante killings in Great Plains states: Texas, 140; Montana, 101; Wyoming, 31; Colorado, 23; Nebraska, 21; Kansas, 18; South Dakota, 10; Oklahoma, 2; and North Dakota, 0. For comparative purposes, California, the birthplace of western vigilantism, had 109 victims. However, these statistics are misleading, since they do not include lynch mob killings.
Some historians claim that vigilantism is not the same as lynching, but David A. Johnson suggests that the distinction between organized vigilance committees and ephemeral lynch parties is a blurred one. Johnson also notes that in the 1850s the term mob was seldom used to describe vigilantism, but a decade later mob or lynch mob had become the predominant terms to describe this type of violence. If one adds lynch mob victims to vigilante killings, the resulting Great Plains totals would be Texas, 475; Montana, 122; Oklahoma, 98; Wyoming, 65; Colorado, 41; Nebraska, 38; Kansas, 40; South Dakota, 23; and North Dakota, 10. Again by comparison, in California vigilantes and mobs lynched at least 380 victims.
Regardless of how one chooses to define "vigilante," it remains a word that stigmatizes those who took the law into their own hands. Historically, it has been convenient to modify what has been called the "shared memory" of a local community in order to "fit the facts," such as in the mysterious hanging of Barrett Scott, a convicted embezzler, on January 19, 1895, at an abandoned farmhouse in northern Nebraska and the attempt to avoid detection by dropping the body in the Niobrara River. Unfortunately for local taxpayers, Scott was not given time to return the money. A jury failed to convict any of the identified vigilantes, who presumably returned to their community "vindicated" by their deadly actions.
See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Frontier Violence.
Clare V. McKanna Jr. San Diego State University
Brown, Richard Maxwell. Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Hewitt, James W. "The Fatal Fall of Barrett Scott: Vigilantes on the Niobrara." Great Plains Quarterly 12 (1992): 107–20.
Johnson, David A. "Vigilance and the Law: The Moral Authority of Popular Justice in the Far West." American Quarterly 33 (1981): 558–86.