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



Transcribed by Rob Spencer

Source: Walla Walla Statesman, June 29, 1866, page 1

Subject: An anti-vigilante response to a printed vigilante declaration.

Synopsis: 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.


Vigilance Committee Notice Reviewed.
Walla Walla, June 21, 1866.

Ed. Statesman:--Your paper has, to my knowledge, very respectable circulation in the State of Iowa and in the northern part of Missouri. In addition thereto, many friends here send copies to persons who are induced thereby to immigrate to our valley. I have now in my mind the names of a number of persons from the States, respected citizens of this valley, who have been induced to come here solely from a perusal of the facts and local items published in the STATESMAN. My object in writing this communication is to enquire whether (your paper being an acknowledged advocate of the interests of this valley) the publication of such articles as the notice of last week, entitled “Vigilance Committee Notice” has a tendency to invite ___(?) ___(?)___(?)___(?) make this valley their place of destination on leaving the States or elsewhere. A person reading that notice would naturally suppose that we had in this country no courts or officers of justice, and that we were dependent upon an association of individuals composed of all classes of men, for the protection of our lives and property; and who, I would ask, would willingly risk his life and property to the arbitration of men who meet at the hour of midnight, and upon the unsworn testimony of one or more individuals assailing the character of a citizen—perhaps as in one or two cases which I might mention—actuated by the desire to get rid of the persons whom they are testifying against in order that they might jump his land claim, and have the fearful question as to whether he should live, or be torn from his family and strangled to death, determined by a bare majority vote, the witness, or rather , informer, himself, contrary to all usages of judicial tribunals, voting. I had hoped that after the many mistakes that the so-styled vigilance committee had made—one or more of them causing the death of innocent persons—and the return of Judge Wyche to his labors that the organization would be disbanded, and if those persons really desired the punishment of criminals, that they would make themselves efficient by appearing before the grand juries and securing indictments, and holding themselves, as law-abiding citizens, in readiness to act as petit jurors, to try such criminals, and see, if guilty, that they did not escape punishment. But it appears that there is to be a continuation of the atrocities of last summer, without the excuse of want of courts, and it is for the law-abiding citizens of this county, to say whether they will tolerate the continuance of an organization in their midst, which has a tendency to prevent the settlement of our valley, and the introduction of capital to develop its resources.

There is no difference what ever in the treason that seeks to overthrow a government, and that which tramples the laws of a commonwealth under foot. John Brown attempted to set at defiance the laws of Virginia, and a Virginia jury said he was guilty of treason, and his life paid the penalty. Jefferson Davis undertook to set at defiance the laws of the United States, and the civilized world has pronounced him a traitor worthy of death. The vigilance committee of Walla Walla County, under the leadership of one who perhaps as richly merits the same fate, are now trampling under foot, disregarding and attempting to overthrow the laws of Washington Territory and of the United States and are guilty of treason as was either John Brown or Jefferson Davis, though of course, their treason does not go to the same extent; but the principle is the same. It is the duty of the Prosecuting Attorney to prevent every person assisting in forming unlawful combinations, and it remains to be seen whether he will perform his duty, and thus by the conviction of the leaders of the movement, free our county from the stain of a standing vigilance organization—a count subjected to the expense of three terms of court a year, and presided over by a Judge of eminent ability, and well known to be unfriendly to the perpetrators of crime. I hope, Mr. Editor, that your columns will not, hereafter, be disgraced with any more notices of vigilance committees, and that the person who penned that notice will be held to answer before the next term of our District Court.