The Rule of Law Through Lawlessness:
Vigilante Activity in 1860s Walla Walla County
By Rob Spencer
“Vigilantism and Walla Walla”
The tradition of vigilante justice runs deep in American consciousness. It is glorified in books and movies as the leading character ‘takes the law into his own hands’ in order to overturn the injustice of the villain. The conviction that justice must prevail is a time honored value and legacy in the United States where all citizens have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” when justice was not being sufficiently served, some people felt justified in enforcing the law themselves. In 1860s Walla Walla, Washington Territory, vigilantism made an appearance as an effort to maintain order and expedite justice.
Vigilantism emerged from unresolved conflict between people of the land and transients looking to make quick and easy money near the mines. C.W. Harper wrote, “From the earliest times there were two American frontiers—the agricultural frontier and the mining frontier.” (1) The farming community tended to be law-abiding, hard working citizens. They depended upon the land for their support and understood the value of honesty and integrity. On the other hand, those of the mining community were of a different mindset. These people were looking to make their fortune quickly. They sought adventure and temptation. The kinds of people that the mines attracted were rough, and a train of societal ills like prostitution and gambling followed close behind. If an individual wanted to disappear from society for any reason, the West and the mines were good places to go because one could make a living and still live in relative anonymity. As communities grew in the West along with the discovery of more gold, these groups ran into each other more often. The coarser group was not above breaking the laws for their betterment. The result was that bands of horse and cattle thieves roamed the mountains, gold counterfeiters passed off their products, and people were sometimes found dead in the streets.
With the tremendous migration of people going westward, and many of those being individuals of questionable character, legal issues began to come forward. Much of the West at that time were organized territories as opposed to states, and the government often had difficulty providing and staffing the legal system in the most proficient manner. This being the case, lawlessness was not uncommon. C.W. Harper wrote, “When continued injustice and lawlessness dictated, or when the regular courts were too slow, too weak or too corrupt, the vigilance committee was formed.” (2). According to Harper, the first Vigilance Committee was formed in San Francisco in response to a gang of criminal men who had no problem carrying out their illegal activities in the open. The people were frightened and there was not a strong enough legal system in place to check these criminals. A committee of two hundred citizens formed to decide what to do about the situation. “In the absence of jails, tribunals punished by banishment, whipping, or hanging. The frontiersman accepted vigilante responsibilities.” (3) They went on the aggressive and hung four criminals and banished thirty. The group members were saluted as heroes, and when crime in the area lessened substantially, the Vigilance Committee disbanded. The idea of vigilante justice caught on in the other territories where they, too, were experiencing problems maintaining order.
Walla Walla in the 1860s had its share of social problems. Being the largest city in Eastern Washington Territory, it drew many different types of people. With the discovery of gold nearby, miners poured into the area as well. Nearby was a military base. Its presence brought an interesting dynamic to the make up of the community. The United States at the time was immersed in the Civil War, and many of the citizens in Walla Walla came to escape those conditions. Several of them sympathized with the South and viewed the fort as a symbol for the Federal Government, causing occasional fights between soldiers and citizens in Walla Walla. W.D. Lyman gives a couple of accounts to demonstrate the tension existing there at the time. In one account, soldiers are asked to leave a theater because they are disturbing the other patrons. In the process of removing them, one of them is shot and killed, yet no arrests are made. The next morning a large group of soldiers march into town and surround the sheriff’s office and demand justice for the fallen soldier, but eventually leave. In another story, a drunken man has an altercation on the street with a soldier and throws a rock at the serviceman and bloodies him, yet no arrests were made. Later that evening a number of armed soldiers marched into town and took possession of the jail to demand the man’s arrest. They do not leave until an officer from the fort comes and orders them back. (4). These incidents caused by conflicting opinions about the Civil War highlight the volatile conditions within the community and provide a backdrop for vigilante activity in Walla Walla.
The area in and around Walla Walla had organized gangs of thieves and counterfeiters. The Walla Walla Statesman reported that a Vigilance Committee had been formed to deal with the horse thieves and gold dust counterfeiters in Payette County. They succeeded in confiscating the materials used to counterfeit gold. They also managed to capture five men suspected of being part of the organized band of thieves. (5). By spring, the vigilante spirit had spread to Walla Walla. The Statesman reported that a man by the name of “Dutch Lewie” came into town to see the sheriff. He stated that the previous night he had been taken “from his bed at the hour of midnight” by a vigilante group and pressed for names of individuals belonging to a horse-thieving ring. When he failed to give them the information that they wanted, they hung him. The hanging failed, however, and “Lewie” swore out an affidavit that led to the arrest of five men. Four of them were eventually released and only one was officially charged with “assault with the intent to do bodily injury.” (6).
Just two weeks later, victims of vigilante justice were discovered. It appears that many reports of hanging men had been delivered to the authorities indicating that vigilante activity had been rampant. While investigating these reports, the authorities were only able to verify four different accounts. One individual discovered hanging from a tree was a man named MacKenzie. According to the article, he was about twenty-four and had a “sandy complexion”. He was taken down and brought into town to the county coroner, named Horton, and then taken to the cemetery and buried. After Mr. MacKenzie was identified, and after a little investigation, it was discovered that he was accused as a cattle thief by a Mr. Jeffries. This same Mr. Jeffries took out a legal advertisement in the Statesman only a week earlier informing Mr. MacKenzie and the general public of the charges and also of the court date. Though the article does not specify how the paper knew this, it reported that Mr. MacKenzie was caught with the cattle in question on the previous Tuesday and hung the same night.
Two more men were found hanging near Wallula. Their names were Isaac Reed and William Wills. The paper reported that these two were tried for horse stealing and convicted by the Vigilance Committee. They were then brought to the Walla Walla River and hung there. The Statesman reports further that prior to the hangings, both men confessed their guilt. They also confessed to being part of a band of cattle and horse thieves that were working the area. Apparently there was a fight among the members of the band and the band broke up. These two men left the main group and were apprehended with fifteen stolen horses in their possession. Both of these men were about twenty-four years old as well.
The last individual hanging in the area was a Negro man nicknamed “Slim Jim”. He was found hanging from a tree within a mile of town. He was well known in the town as a common thief as there were several crimes and petty larcenies attributed to him. Another infamous event that he was accused of participating in was a jailbreak of two convicts in the local jail. “Slim Jim” somehow was able to sneak in some tools to these men that facilitated their escape. He had served jail time before, according to the Statesman, in the Oregon Territorial Penitentiary, and the summer before he was hanged, he was accused of killing another black man somewhere in the Boise basin. It seems that near where the authorities found “Slim Jim’s” body, they also found a horse that he had stolen tied to the underbrush in a nearby creek. (7).
The Walla Walla Statesman reported the discovery of Dave Updike and Jake Dixon in 1866. Cards were pinned on their bodies with the following messages:
DAVE UPDIKE- Accessory after the fact of the Port Neuf stage robbery. Accessory and accomplice to the robbery of the stage near Boise City, in 1864. Chief conspirator in burning property on the Overland Stage Line. Guilty of aiding and assisting West Jenkens, the murderer, and other criminals to escape, while you were sheriff of Ada county. Accessory and accomplice to the murder of Raymond. Threatening the lives and property of an already outraged and suffering community. Justice has overtaken you. XXX
JAKE DIXON- Horse thief, counterfeiter, and road agent generally. A Dupe and tool of Dave Updike. XXX
All the living accomplices in the above crimes are well known through Updike’s confession, and surely will be attended to. The roll is being called. XXX (8).
Threats made to other criminals by the vigilantes in this way proved to be effective in either discouraging further crime or of encouraging them to leave the surrounding community. Lyman notes that when a felon “skeedaddles”, “…it gives a suggestion that there is a point beyond which endurance ceases to be a virtue, and that the farther these worthies ‘skeedaddle,’ the less chance there will be of their being found some morning dangling at a rope’s end.” (9). Many times the target would be warned to get out of the area before the Vigilance Committee arrived. They were then left to decide whether or not to go. If they decided to stay, they ran the risk of being tried and convicted by the vigilantes. (10).
The vigilante activity in Walla Walla had mixed responses. The Statesman wholeheartedly supported the action. In the same article that reported the deaths of Updike and Dixon, the paper stated , “The Idaho World condemns the course of the vigilantes in the severest terms, whilst the Statesman just as decidedly approves of all that has been done. In the moral as well as in the natural world, storms are sometimes necessary to purify the atmosphere and after the storm that now prevails in Idaho subsides, we doubt not the people of that section will enjoy a season of quiet.” (11). Not everyone in Walla Walla agreed with this course of action. A man who habitually got drunk found himself in a bar bragging about being part of a Vigilance Committee and of participating in their exploits. Several patrons present accosted the man and tried to get him to tell them who the other members of the committee were. The man stated that he did not know and so he was placed in the “privy” until the booze wore off. (11). When the Vigilance Committee penned a letter to the editor of the Statesman threatening all citizens that they would administer justice to any lawbreaker (12), a “Law Abiding Citizen” wrote into the paper to condemn the action. The Citizen wrote, “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.” The Citizen continues by saying that the members of the Committee should be brought to justice themselves and that the Statesman should not accommodate the vigilantes by printing their letters. (14).
Lyman concludes his discussion of vigilantes by stating that with the end of the Civil War and with increased farms in the area, the era of the vigilante quietly faded away. (15). Whether this is the reason or increased pressure from the anti-vigilantes, the Vigilance Committee did seem to disappear. Though it can be argued that the vigilantes were themselves the law breakers, they did manage to promote a more stable environment by discouraging criminals from victimizing Walla Walla citizens. The means of doing this, however, was outside of the recognized law. Vigilantes also ran the risk of executing the wrong individual or of abusing power by eliminating economic or political competition. Nevertheless, the vigilante activity gives the modern reader an interesting look into Walla Walla history.
1. Harper, C.W. “Committees Of Vigilance And Vigilante Justice,” Journal of the West, 1978 17(1): 3-8 6p.
2. Harper, pg. 3.
3. Harper, pg. 3.
4. Lyman, W.D. Old Walla Walla County. Vol. 1. The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co. Chicago. (1918). Pg. 130-131
5. “Vigilantes,” Walla Walla Statesman, January 20, 1865, pg. 3.
6. “Vigilantes,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 7, 1865, pg. 3.
7. “Hung by the Vigilance Committee,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 21, 1865, pg. 3.
8. “More of the Vigilantes-Updike and Dixon Hung,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 27, 1866, pg. 3.
9. Lyman, pg. 133.
10. Lyman, pg. 134.
11. “More of the Vigilantes-Updike and Dixon Hung,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 27, 1866, pg. 3.
12. “Anti-Vigilantes,” Walla Walla Statesman, April 7, 1865, pg. 3.
13. “Vigilance Committee Notice,” Walla Walla Statesman, June 15, 1866, pg. 3.
14. “Vigilance Committee Notice Reviewed,” Walla Walla Statesman, June 29, 1866, pg. 1.
15. Lyman, pg. 135.