Nothing draws a crowd like discovering gold. That is what happened in the Territory of Montana in 1862 and 1863. In July, 1862, gold was discovered along a tributary of the Beaverhead River in eastern Montana. This led to the formation of the town of Bannack. In May of 1863, another gold strike came along on a nearby tributary creek named Adder Gulch. The towns of Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana, were formed as a result.
Unfortunately, the miners could only transport their wealth to Salt Lake City or San Francisco by using horses, wagons, or stagecoaches on a limited number of trails leading out of Montana. Predictably, this led to a lot of robberies along these trails. The robbers, or “road agents” were soon out in full force. It is estimated that as many as 102 travelers were killed by road agents in the fall of 1863 in the area around Adder Gulch.
In response, travelers began to arm themselves. In December, 1863, a three-wagon train carrying $80,000 in gold dust was approached by two road agents named George Ives and “Dutch John” Wagner. They were intent on robbing the train, of course, but found their intended victims to be well armed. Outnumbered, Ives and Wagner were able to escape by claiming they were looking for lost horses.
By the end of 1863, a committee named the “Vigilante Committee of Adder Gulch” was formed. Among the prominent members of the committee were Wilber Sanders, who would later become the first U.S. Senator from Montana, and John Bozeman, known of course for the Bozeman Trail. This committee hanged at least 20 road agents in the next six weeks! Most notable among those executed was Henry Plummer, sheriff of Bannack! He was believed to be the leader of the road agents.
As with other areas in the west, law came to the territory and eventually stopped the robberies and vigilante justice. In the summer of 1864, Hezekiah L. Hosmer was appointed the first Chief Justice of Montana. He immediately served notice that all vigilante justice would be considered a criminal act in the future. Things began to settle down in Montana shortly afterwards. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the gold strikes were pretty much played out by late 1865!