Old Missoula

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Sec A Page 4 Missoulian Centennial Vigilantes Nab Six Road Agents at Hell Gate

E-mail Print PDF


[My 2 cents. Since my intent was to present articles from the Missoulian Centennial Edition as they appeared originally, I have tried to avoid interjecting anything that would change them. Forgive me if I have footnoted a few obvious errors.  I basically do not view it as my place to correct or change these articles even as I find items that I believe incorrect or suspect. The large undertaking by the Missoulian in presenting these stories can only be commended. However, as the Missoulian writers could not be expected to remedy attitudes or shibboleths that were embedded in the tableau that passed then, and still does, as accurate local history, some errors were inevitable. History changes, especially as the lens through which we view it is reset over time. So it is with the Vigilantes of Montana. I have presented information about one of the Hell Gate victims in particular, Aleck or Alex Carter, in other places on my website. Whether or not he deserved killing we cannot know; however, the story below states that he was tried by a ‘Jury’. That is incorrect, if viewed with today’s criteria regarding what constitutes a jury. One form of frontier justice existent at that time was the miner’s court. In his book, Dimsdale has written that he was unable physically to mine, and subsequently became a teacher and editor. Perhaps if a miner’s court were empaneled at Hell Gate at this time, the number of vigilante victims might have been smaller - and so might have been Dimsdale’s narrative on popular Vigilante justice. The Missoulian story below is from Pg. 4, Sec. A of the Centennial Edition]

Vigilantes Nab Six Road Agents at Hell Gate

The Vigilantes emerged upon the Missoula area in 1864 to capture and execute six Hell Gate road agents.

The Vigilantes, a committee of men organized in Virginia City to enforce law, had disposed of all the robbers or road agents in the Virginia City area. Their next move was to cleanse the state of all other lawlessness caused by the followers of Henry Plummer. A party of 21 Vigilantes left Virginia City Jan. 15, 1864, under the command of a “citizen” to round up those highwaymen who had come into this territory.

Had 102 Victims

Members of the Plummer gang had “without any doubt” killed 102 men. It was suspected that they murdered and buried many more whose bodies were never discovered. The robbery operations of the gang were bold and frequent.

Montana had no law in those early days. The Vigilance Committee took the law as its responsibility. It was organized by George Ives on Dec. 21, 1863.[[1]] Action began Jan. 4, 1864 when the Vigilantes hanged Erastus (Red) Yeager and G. W. Brown outside of Virginia City.

Oath Taken

Citizens were made members of the committee by giving the following oath in total darkness standing in a circle with hands uplifted:

“We, the undersigned, uniting ourselves in a party for the purpose of arresting thieves and murderers, and recovering stolen property, do pledge ourselves upon our sacred honor, each to all others, and solemnly swear that we reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right and not desert each other or our standards of justice, so help me God, as witness our hand and seals this 23rd. day of December, A.D., 1863.

Skinner is Caught

In Hell Gate Cyrus Skinner was the first to be nabbed by the Vigilantes, according to an account published in the Montana Post by Thomas J. Dimsdale in 1864-65. Skinner was in his place of business, Skinner’s Saloon. He was standing at the door when he was ordered to “throw up his hands.”

Aleck Carter was the next. He was in a drunken stupor at Miller’s, the house next door. Upon being taken he made no objection, but later when he came to himself he asked for news. On being told of the hanging near Virginia City, he commented, “All right, not an innocent man hung yet.”

Tied for Questioning

Carter and Skinner were tied in front of the Worden and Higgins store to be questioned. It was at that time, according to the late Will Cave, that Johnny Cooper, a lieutenant of the gang, made a break. Nellie, Skinner’s woman, had been sent home with a guard because she was trying to interfere with the questioning of Skinner. The guard found Cooper lying wounded in the house. He had been shot in three places by Carter, whom he accused of stealing his pistol.

Caught and Hanged

He was on his way to the court when he bolted from his captors and jumped on his waiting horse. The Vigilantes took pot-shots, but missed. Cooper was caught and hanged later.

The fourth to be captured was Bob Zachary. The Vigilantes found him at the ranch of Baron Cornelius O’Keefe. Zachary was armed with a knife and pistol. When he was taken to Hell Gate, he was informed of the fate of his friends. This was vouched for by a repetition of the signs, grips, and passwords of the Vigilantes. Zachary turned pale and repeated the gang’s password, “I’m innocent.”

The fifth was George Shears, captured at the Van Dorn ranch. He gave himself up and led the Vigilantes to the corral. The evidence, stolen horses, was there to condemn him. He appeared indifferent to death and confessed immediately.

Whisky Bill Graves, the sixth, was captured by the “old man” of the Vigilantes, probably Capt. Williams. Whisky Bill apparently didn’t see the Vigilante party of three until he was covered with a revolver. Whisky Bill was described as notoriously guilty, but he offered no confession.

All Six Hanged

All six were hanged. Carter and Skinner were found guilty in a court. The vote was taken by the jurors stepping to opposite sides of the room. Their execution was Jan. 25 by torchlight shortly after midnight in Higgins’ corral. Ropes were tied to two poles planted leaning over the corral fence. Store boxes served as drops.

Shears was executed in the Van Dorn barn. His drop was a ladder. Whisky Bill although captured at Ft. Owen, was hanged elsewhere in consideration for the Indians who would have felt no desire to live near where a man had been hanged. His “drop” was a horse. One of the men was lifted up behind him. “Goodby, Bill,” said the front horseman as he spurred his horse. “Whisky Bill” was swept from his seat and his neck was broken in the shock. This was Jan. 26.

It was not until the 1870’s that another execution in this area occurred.[[2]]

[1] George Ives was not one of the organizers of the Vigilantes, rather he was one of their targets. He was the first one hanged by the Vigilantes. This occurred Dec. 21st, 1863. According to Dimsdale, Yeager and Brown were hanged next, on Jan. 4, 1864.

[2] After a local jury of 12 citizens found him guilty for killing another man, a man named Fogerty was hanged in the Bitter Root in 1865.

Last Updated on Sunday, 20 November 2016 21:16