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The Rule of Law Through Lawlessness:
Vigilante Activity in 1860s Walla Walla County

By Rob Spencer

There are popular images that consistently come to mind when the topic of the American West is discussed. Whether it is the iconic cowboy with his trusty six-shooter, the “savage” Indian, or Pioneers and Bison, the myth of the Old West still permeates American culture. Many Americans often refer to this period as the “Wild West.” This designation implies an atmosphere of adventure and apprehension, a notion that “anything goes” in the West with little security or stability. There were, however, legitimate forms of government established in the West to maintain order. Despite this, there have been instances in the history of the West that have given credibility to the idea that it was indeed a dangerous place. One such frontier occurrence was the vigilante activity that sought a more rapid enforcement of justice for lawbreakers outside of the recognized legal system. Some people viewed vigilantes as a societal necessity in discouraging criminals from breaking the law. Others viewed them as thugs and backcountry murderers. In Walla Walla, Washington Territory, conditions were very similar in the 1860s to other western communities. Although Walla Walla had a functioning legal system, a vigilance committee was formed that executed its own justice upon alleged lawbreakers. A look into the vigilante activity in Walla Walla is important because it demonstrates more clearly how the territorial citizens understood and approached Frontier Justice in their generation.


Vigilantism and the Press: the Treatment of Vigilante Activity in the Walla Walla Statesman.” This essay is a short overview of what the Walla Walla Statesman reported about vigilante activity between 1864-1866. Included are various accounts of victims of vigilantism, as well as common crimes that were likely to get the attention of a vigilance committee.

"Vigilantism and Walla Walla." This essay discusses some of the reasons behind the development of Vigilance Committees in the West and looks specifically at vigilante activity in Walla Walla, Washington Territory in the 1860s. It highlights some of the effects and results of vigilantism in the area and cites examples of vigilante justice that were reported in the Walla Walla Statesman newspaper at the height of vigilante activity there.


Overview: These documents consist primarily of articles taken from the Walla Walla Statesman newspaper during the height of vigilante activity in the 1860s. The articles provide valuable insights into the public’s response to vigilantism in the community, as well as details into the extralegal activities themselves. Highlighted also is the Statesman’s sympathetic view toward vigilantism in the area. Readers will quickly discover that the responses to these illegal actions were mixed. Included with the newspaper articles are transcriptions from the Frontier Justice records of Walla Walla County dealing with the failed hanging of “Dutch Lewie.” These records provide a look into the legal response to Walla Walla vigilantism.

"Accused by the Hanged" Frontier Justice Records, Walla Walla County, April 3, 1865, Case #WAL-201- Fred Schwartz accuses four men of trying to hang him. This is the affidavit he swore out to the Justice of the Peace.

Vigilantes,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 7, 1865, page 3-A man comes into town claiming that he had survived a vigilante attack on his property and swears an affidavit to have them arrested.

Anti-Vigilantes,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 7, 1865, page 3- A drunken man is attacked for claiming to belong to the Vigilance Committee. He is pressured into revealing who the other members of the committee are but is released the next day.

Hung by the Vigilance Committee,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 21, 1865, page 3- Four men were found hanging near the Walla Walla area. Their names and their alleged crimes are outlined.

More of the Vigilantes- Updike and Dixon Hung,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 77, 1866, page 3- Two men are hung as criminals. Cards are attached to the bodies to identify the men and their alleged crimes. The Statesman officially endorses vigilantism.

Vigilance Committee Notice,” Walla Walla Statesman, June 15, 1866, page 3-The Vigilance Committee writes to the editor to declare that it has improved its by-laws and will execute “justice” upon any it perceives as lawbreakers.

"Vigilance Committee Notice Reviewed," Walla Walla Statesmane, June 29, 1866, page 1- A “concerned citizen” expresses concern over the Statesman’s decision to print a threatening letter from the vigilantes. The citizen states that it is wrong to support vigilantism and that by printing the notice Walla Walla promoted a poor image of itself as an unsafe community.