Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wounded Knee Massacre: More on The Ghost Dance (Natdia)

Ghost Dance Painting. Image courtesy of Legends of America.

The importance of The Ghost Dance in the history of the Native American Indians cannot be over-stated. The Ghost Dance was more than a dance, it was a spiritual movement that brought hope to the Native American Indians at the most desperate moment in the history of their existence--the late 1800s. It began with a dream of the return to a beloved way of life and the disappearance of the invaders that had destroyed that way of life. It ended on December 29, 1890 with the deaths of more than 200 Sioux men women and children, as well as the death of any hope that remained.

The Ghost Dance performed by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency. This painting was made by Frederick Remington based on sketches he made while witnessing the Ghost Dance. 

There were many signs that this moment was coming, many dreams and movements leading up to Wounded Knee, but it was The Ghost Dance that brought the crisis to its peak. An odd name, when you think about it, words that could have various meanings--a dance to bring the ghosts of ancestors back to their people, or a dance that transformed great warriors and skilled caretakers of their mother, Earth, into mere memories.  

Prophetic Visions and Movements Prior to The Ghost Dance 

The Ghost Dance was not the only "movement" viewed as rebellions by the white government. In fact, there were many prophetic visions that sparked movements prior to the final crisis at Wounded Knee, and these movements were often seen as rebellions by the white government. Whether or not they were rebellions is debatable, but they most certainly represented the seriousness of the conflicts between the beliefs of the various tribes and the life the white government was forcing upon them, a life of farming.

These visions generally had a similar theme. For instance, one 18th century Seneca medicine man had a prophetic vision that warned of the complete eradication of the Native American Indian if they followed the ways of the white man. The Medicine Man was named Handsome Lake and he suffered from the disease of alcoholism. When he was in his trance he would have experienced withdrawal, and alcohol withdrawal is deadly. He had a near-death experience and his vision during this time attracted thousands of followers who continue to believe in his prophesies to this day, according to The Spirit World. 

Another Wanapum shaman led a group called "Dreamers" who had a belief that I personally relate to as it is similar to my own. The shamen, Smohalla, who lived in the mid 19th century, taught his followers to resist anything they considered harmful to nature.

However, Smohalla also considered farming harmful to nature, and it's possible that they type of farming the white men practiced was harmful--many farming practices used today are still harmful to the land. When confronted by government agents about the logic behind his teachings Smohalla replied, "You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die, she will not take me to her bosom to rest." To the Wanapum, the earth was their mother, just as the Canyon de Chelly was mother to the Navajo.

Wodziwob and the Railroad

According to The Spirit World, in 1869 a Paiute medicine man named Wodziwob, or Grey Hair, had a vision that started one of the largest movements among the Native American Indians. In Wodziwob's vision the recently-completed transcontinental railroad brought back the deceased ancestors in a miracle that would mark the revival of the Native American people.

Union Pacific steam engine. Photo taken near Eaton, Colorado by Darla Sue Dollman.
Wodziwob told the Paiute should prepare for this miracle by reviving a traditional Round Dance symbolizing the sun's journey through the sky. The Round Dance was referred to by many observers as a "religious frenzy," Wodziwob's movement lost its great popularity when the train filled with deceased ancestors failed to arrive and instead, the Paiute reservation was struck with severe drought, which destroyed the Paiute's hopes and Wodziwob's credibility. 

For the next two decades the lives of most tribal Native American Indians living on reservations rapidly declined. To make matters worse, the success of the railroads attracted the same wave of white settlers, gamblers, prostitutes, and business owners that the discovery of gold would bring to small towns. As they traveled through the West on trains, the white men slaughtered what few buffalo were left. Some trains would make short stops so travelers could randomly shoot buffalo from the train windows, watching the majestic animals slowly fall to the ground and die.

The United States Government continued to provoke the situation by breaking treaties and promises, reducing land holdings--not a few hundred acres, but millions of acres previously approved by Congress--food allotments, promised clothing and supplies. According to the Story of the Great American West, the years 1889 and 1890 were the most painful yet for all of the various tribes now living on small reservations that were stricken with drought. The lack of food supplements from the government led to starvation and disease, particularly among the children. It was a time of great despair among people desperate for hope.

Wovoka Revives The Ghost Dance

In 1889, the Paiute Shaman Wovoka also had a vision, a dream that his people would regain their former strength and power, but his dream would prove to be apocalyptic. As discussed before, Wovoka assured his followers that if they followed his instructions, wore the protective clothing and danced The Ghost Dance the buffalo would fill the plains, dead tribal members would return to their families, and the Native American Indians would live a blissful life free of the white men.

Paiute Ghost Dance. Courtesy of Legends of America.

Wovoka's timing was impeccable, and his revival of The Ghost Dance became a cult that moved across the West like a rogue wave. By 1890 it had reached the Sioux in South Dakota. They were desperate with drought and starvation and embraced the symbolism of The Ghost Dance, dancing to the point of exhaustion. They wore their shirts with magical symbols painted on them with the belief that the shirts were blessed and would repel any bullets shot at them, which naturally intimidated outside observers.

Ghost Dance of the Sioux, illustrated in the London News, 1900.

The adults left their chores, the children left the schools, and they all danced with a frenzy that caused great panic among many of the white people, including Indian Agent James McLaughlin who sent a desperate message to the military, stating: "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy...We need protection and we need it now." The government responded, sending troops.

According to Lakota Birgell Kills Straight on The Real West, "Dancing was a way of life. Even the wind in the trees--everything seemed to dance. There's songs all over. Everything begins with a song and a dance. It's a ritual."

"This is why The Ghost Dance was readily acceptable," he continues. "It wasn't an elaborate ceremony. People linked hands and danced a very simple step to the left. And that's basically all it was."

According to author Joseph Marshall, III: "They tried to dance themselves into a trance so they could communicate with their ancestors." Day and night, round and round they danced until they collapsed from exhaustion, then they would rest, rise, and dance again.

The Ghost Dance: Harmful or Harmless? 

There were some who viewed The Ghost Dance as harmless, as a dance of hope among a people filled with despair, seeking hope. Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy (love that name) sent his own dispatch to the U.S. Government recommending that the government refrain from interfering. "I should let the dance continue," he said.

"The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians," he continued. "If the Seventh Day Adventists prepare their ascension roves for the second coming of the Savior the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege?"

Why indeed? The West was flooding with people of every religion you could possibly imagine, so why stop the Native American Indians from worshiping as they pleased? Because they were Indians.

  • "The Final Clash at Wounded Knee." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
  • "The Ghost Dance." Native American Encyclopedia. Accessed October 9, 2013.
  • The Spirit World. Time Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: 1992.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wounded Knee: The Measuring Woman Attempts to Avert Disaster

Alice Fletcher meets with Chief Joseph at the Nez Perce Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, 1889. The man on one knee is James Stewart, her interpreter. The photograph is by Jane Gay, who wrote in her book With the Nez Perce that James Stewart only knelt on one knee when he was anxious. Although Alice Fletcher seemed calm and determined, her work was quite dangerous considering the tensions between the white men and Native American Indians at that time.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) was an American Ethnologist who studied and wrote about the culture of the Native American Indians. She was also one of many people who saw the crisis of Wounded Knee coming in the near future and tried to intervene, to do what she could to help the Native American Indians. She was a surprise to the people--small of stature and tireless in her work, but her efforts were greatly appreciated.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Alice Cunningham Fletcher came from a wealthy family in Havana, Cuba. Her father was a graduate of Dartmouth and successful attorney in New York who moved the family to Cuba for health reasons. According to the National Anthropological Archives, when Fletcher's father died, her mother, who was also educated in the best schools, moved her children back to Boston so they could continue their education in the United States.

After graduating from college, Alice Fletcher worked as an educator, but she was also active in organizations for the advancement of women. She also had a lecture tour where she discussed the history of human life and her belief that ancient history was best explored through archaeology and ethnography, or the "scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures."

Fletcher attracted the attention of Frederick Ward Putnam, Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He was impressed by her knowledge, as well as her determination and invited her to study with him. At first she was reluctant--in spite of her determined spirit she still believed she was not qualified for such a distinction, but she soon realized the magnificent opportunity Putnam's invitation promised to further her education, so she agreed. It was Putnam who encouraged Fletcher to study the remains of the Indian civilization in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher. Photo taken in 1893.

Putnam also encouraged her to join the Archaeological Institute of America. These were great accomplishments for a woman in the 1800s, but not enough for Alice Fletcher. During her explorations she learned too much about what was happening to the Native American Indians and she knew she could not turn away from the atrocities she witnessed.

Proving the Critics Wrong

She was an unmarried woman of 43 at the time and I think her decision to travel and study among the Native American Indians at her age and without military protection of any kind surprised everyone. She was discussed in many scientific circles--few people believed she would succeed in her goals.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher. Photo taken in 1892 for Popular Science Monthly.

Nevertheless, on September 16, 1881, Fletcher left with her companions--Susette La Flesche, an Omaha Indian, and Thomas Henry Tibbles, a journalist--to begin her studies and prove her critics wrong. 

She first traveled to the Nebraska Territories in 1881. She lived in the camps among the Omaha, Winnebago, Poncas, and Nez Perce. According to Story of the Great American West, she would tell the people as she entered their camps, "I came to learn...your ways, your songs, and to see if I can help you in any way."

Fletcher documented the history of the people, their culture, language, and religion as she visited the various tribes. More importantly, she documented what was happening between the Indian Agents and the Native American Indians, and the fact that they were not receiving their allotments of food, supplies, and clothing. What she discovered appalled her. She was angered by the amount of corruption in the Indian Agent system and the lack of government oversight.

Alice Fletcher Visits Washington

In 1883, Alice Fletcher decided she'd seen enough government corruption and she left for Washington, D.C. to talk to politicians about the mistreatment of the Native American Indians and ask for assistance. She worked on a bill that allowed the Omaha people to claim title to their own land and helped promote it's passage through Congress. She returned to Nebraska, and from 1883 to 1885 worked as a government agent. She personally supervised the parceling out of 76,000 acres of land to the Indians.

This same year, Fletcher was appointed Special Agent to the U.S. to allot lands to the Miwok tribes. The following year, in 1884, she was sent to the World Cotton Centennial to present and exhibit on the progress of civilization among the Native American Indians. In 1886 she extended her explorations to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to investigate the education of tribal people. When the Dawes Severalty Act was passed in 1887, Fletcher was again appointed Special Agent in the allotment of lands, this time to the Winnebago and the Nez Perce.

The Measuring Woman

In 1889, Fletcher was once again in Idaho working with the Nez Perce, directing surveys of allotted lands to the people. She worked for 22 months straight in challenging conditions described as "blazing heat and bitter cold." She impressed the Native American Indians so deeply with her tireless efforts to help them that they referred to her as The Measuring Woman, the woman who measured everything, making sure the people received what they were promised.
A Grievous Error?

Although clearly her heart was in the right place, according to the National Anthropological Archives many believed Fletcher's land allotments and other benevolent works were a grievous error due to her attitude, perhaps because she encouraged the Indians to argue for what they were promised, which turned out to be a dangerous move. Or maybe because she also encouraged them to try to educate themselves in the ways of the white people, claiming this would make them more productive as Americans, which they may have found insulting.

The article "Camping with the Sioux" implies that Fletcher may have also realized the error in her attitude. I did not get this impression in my studies. I suspect she simply realized that there was too much prejudice against Native American Indians at that time and her efforts were useless.

After Wounded Knee, Fletcher confined her work to ethnography. She returned to Harvard's Peabody Museum where she held a fellowship for the next 25 years. Her studies of the Native American Indians still influence American archaeologists to this day.

  • "Camping with the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher." National Anthropological Archives. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed October 13, 2013.
  • Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association. New York: 1977.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wounded Knee: Wovoka and the Ghost Dance

Wovoka, (1856-1932), who was also known as Jack Wilson. Wovoka was the Northern Paiute religious leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement that is believed to have added to the fear and mistrust that led to the Wounded Knee massacre. 

Leading up to the discussion on the Wounded Knee Massacre it seems there is so much preliminary information that should be discussed in order to fully understand what occurred on that day, so many seemingly minor incidents, major issues, people, places, all mixed together to create a situation that led to the horrific events of December 29, 1890. 

Of the many people involved in the incidents leading up to that fateful day, Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, plays one of the most intriguing roles, for it was Wovoka who introduced the people to the Ghost Dance in the spirit of reviving their hope for a better future, and yet, it was Wovoka's belief that anything that brought a better future to his people should come about through non-violent acts. 

Depiction of the Sioux Ghost Dance by the Philadelphia Publishers Union, 1891.

Wovoka was born in Nevada, possibly in or near Carson City, around 1856. It is believed that his father was the famous religious leader Tavibo, also known as Numu-Taibo. Wovoka's religious teachings were similar to, or based on, the same teachings of his father. Wovoka also had training as a medicine man, a Native American Indian spiritual healer.  

Wovoka's father died when Wovoka was a young teen, around 14 years old. It was then that David Wilson, a nearby rancher, took Wovoka into his home and continued his religious instruction, this time teaching Wovoka the beliefs of the European American Christians. Wovoka worked on Wilson's ranch during the day, and at night, Wilson and his wife, Abigail, taught Wovoka Christian theology and read to him from the Bible. Wovoka was given the name of Jack Wilson.

Wovoka Gains a Reputation as a Healer and Magician

As he grew older, Wovoka became a popular and respected medicine man. It is also believed, however, that he knew many magic tricks, but it is difficult to say whether or not this would have affected his reputation in any way, or how it would affect his reputation. It depends on how "magic" was perceived by his followers. 

Wovoka was known to have performed a popular Old West trick known as the bullet catch, which made it appear as if he survived being shot with a shotgun. This may have influenced the Lakota in believing their "ghost shirts," worn during the Ghost Dance, were capable of stopping bullets. He was known for many "tricks" though, including levitation, and influencing the weather, which was another common trick used in the Old West as pioneers and Native American Indians both depended on the weather for survival of their crops and livestock. 

The Prophecy

On January 1, 1989, during a solar eclipse, Wovoka claimed he saw a vision that the Paiute dead were resurrected and the white men disappeared from the land. According to the book Great American West, Wovoka told visiting tribal representatives that he had this vision during a seizure, and he believed he visited the Great Spirit in Heaven during this seizure, which would make sense to Wovoka who was raised to believe in a mixture of both Native American and Christian spirituality. 

During this vision, he said, he was told that the buffalo would once again fill the plains (if only this were true!) and their dead tribesmen would return to their families to live a peaceful life. Wovoka claimed he was told this would only come to pass if his followers performed the proper ritual dance, which became known as the Ghost Dance due to its association with the resurrection of the dead. 

The Cult of the Ghost Dance

The Native American Indians at this point were desperate, and Wovoka's vision offered them hope. Word of his vision spread quickly among many tribes, but most notably the Lakota in the Dakotas. 

Unfortunately, the Indian Agents, Federal Officials, and Army personnel, as well as the local residents viewed the Ghost Dance as a threat. To them, if Wokova preached that the Ghost Dance would stop bullets, then he must also be encouraging an uprising. This is believed to have been a large factor in what occurred at Wounded Knee. 

Kiowa Ghost Dance Shirt. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

Guilt and Responsibility 

I believe it would be wrong to blame Wokova for the violent reaction to the dance since he made it very clear that he believed in non-violence. It was the mystery involved in the dance that frightened the white men, and the speed with which the cult spread across the country. 

Two Miniconjou leaders--Short Bull and Kicking Bear--also emphasized the elimination of the whites when they spread the word of Wovoka's vision, which certainly didn't help, but I wouldn't blame them, either. As I said before, the Wounded Knee Massacre was a horrific tragedy, and all tragedies have many factors leading up to the final event.  

I do not know if Wovoka felt responsible for what happened at Wounded Knee, but I feel certain he felt remorse, and though I hope he did not feel guilty, I suppose it is possible that he felt a certain amount of guilt for his involvement in inspiring the people to act in a way that ultimately brought their deaths. I do not believe he was responsible. Wovoka had a dream, and many leaders share their dreams with their people in times of trouble. 

Wovoka did not die at the Wounded Knee Massacre. He died on September 20, 1932 and is buried in the Paiute Cemetery in Schurz, Nevada. 

  • Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
  • Trafzer, Clifford E. American Indian prophets: religious leaders and revitalization movement. Sierra Oaks Publishing Company. Indiana:1986.

"Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee" and Stephen Vincent Benet

Most of the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre were buried in a mass grave. 

The Wounded Knee Massacre is a painful subject that I first studied in my early teens when my mother brought the book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee home from college and I was introduced to the horrible atrocities committed against the Native American Indians. 

Big Foot, leader of the Sioux Nation, lies frozen in the snow where he died on December 29, 1980, in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Oddly, the original photo caption reads that he was "captured" on this date, but he was clearly murdered along with the women and children in his camp.

The title of the book, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, has become associated with the Wounded Knee Massacre in such a way that many people believe the phrase was actually written to describe the event, and in many ways it does describe the event, but that's not why it was written. 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Sometimes words and events connect in odd and unexpected ways. The book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee was written in 1970 by Dee Brown, a librarian with numerous books already published in his name, but nothing with the artistry shown in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. The book details the events of the Wounded Knee Massacre with brutal honest. 

Brown's other books sold, but not well, and his publisher originally ordered a small run of 10,000 copies. Benet's publisher obviously had no way of knowing that this book would touch the heart and soul of all Americans who picked it up--for once they picked it up and started to read, they could not, as the phrase goes, put it down.

The story, which I will expand on in another post, began long before December 29, 1890, but that is the day when 500 U.S. Seventh Cavalry troopers--the same regiment that served General Custer--gunned down more than 200 Lakota, mostly elderly men, women and children, at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was originally referred to by the army as a "battle," but as you will read in a few days, there was no battle. There was no war. When the news slowly trickled out to Americans and they learned of what happened, the event became more appropriately known as a massacre. 

Photo of Stephen Vincent Benet taken while he was attending Yale College in 1919.

A Line in a Poem Becomes More Than the Poem Itself

However, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is more than the title of a book, it is also a quote from the poem "American Names" by Stephen Vincent Benet. The poem was first published in the Yale Review in October of 1927. The meaning of the poem does fit well with the intention of the book. The poem is an expression of Benet's love for certain places in America and their place names.

“I have fallen in love with American names, 
The sharp names that never get fat, 
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims, 
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat, 
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.”

I have a bit of an obsession with quotes, and I often see this poem on quotation pages on the internet, but the quote from the poem is generally the final verse, which mentions Wounded Knee. The phrase includes one line that has taken on a different meaning than the poem, and now overshadows the poem, becoming far more powerful than the poem itself:
“I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse. I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea. 
You may bury my body in Sussex grass, 
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy. 
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass. 
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

It was a popular poem. Benet was a popular poet. However, it is interesting to me how, gradually, that line from the poem became associated with the events of Wounded Knee. It was not the book, it was the words, the deeply painful metaphorical meaning in those words: "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee." 

These words captured the emotions that Americans felt when they gradually, through the years, began to realize the full horror of the event, the tremendous, painful loss, a wound that for some, will never heal. 

  • Benet, Stephen Vincent. "American Names." Accessed October 3, 2013.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Black Elk on Wounded Knee

Black Elk

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...”

Buffalo in Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Vigilante Justice in the American Old West

John Heith, hung from a telegraph pole by a lynch mob on February 22, 1884, in Tombstone, Arizona.

I apologize for two morbid posts in a row, but I'm still working my way through the Wild West alphabet and we are now on V for vigilanties! This may seem like a morbid topic, but keep in mind that we are discussing the "wild" West, not the organized, settled, "civilized" West, but a place where people constantly fought for survival--and very few survived the vigilantes. 

Turkey Vulture sitting in a tree in Hurricane, Utah. Turkey Vultures are often shown circling over the victims of vigilante justice in Western films, which is rather amusing in a morbid way because turkey vultures only eat vegetarian carrion, such as deer, rabbits, etc., and would avoid carnivorous humans, but I have to admit, he does look rather intimidating! Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

As we discussed in the last post, there was limited resources for medical assistance or assistance with burials in the American Old West. The same applies with the law. Many small towns used vigilante justice to keep the peace, and many viewed the vigilante system as effective justice. According to Paul Trachtman's The Gunfighters, one newspaper editor in 1878 posted an editorial about vigilante justice in the Texas Panhandle, stating "There are no county officials in Potter County in the Panhandle of Texas. Better yet, there are no state officers to interfere with the unalloyed liberty which the inhabitants of that county enjoy. When any horse thieves or bad characters make their appearance they are strung up to the cottonwoods."   

Hanging Tree n Wicksburg, Arizona, outside Vulture City, which was once a small mining town and is now a ghost town. Wherever there was gold, there was violence, and often vigilante justice to protect the interests of the miners. Photo by Tony the Marine.

Many small towns in the West were started because gold, silver, or other valuable minerals were located nearby, and as soon as the word "gold" appeared in the newspapers of nearby towns, the area was filled with thieves, card sharks (or sharps), pickpockets and various other scoundrels. Since the makeshift tent tavern was also one of the first businesses established during the birth of a town there tended to be quiet a few drunk men wandering the dirt roads. In towns without lawmen the cowboys often carried guns, and drunk cowboys and guns is a bad mix. 

So there was crime, but without a sheriff, the townsfolk had to find ways to take care of the criminals on their own. Unlike the image portrayed in shows such as Gunsmoke, sometimes there was great distance between small towns and one marshal covered a hundred mile radius. When the townspeople took the law into their own hands, so to speak, this was called vigilantism, a nasty, haphazard, deadly business that often ended with the wrong man--or woman--swinging from a rope hastily wrapped around the branch of a tree. 

In Wild West Tech's episode "Vigilante Tech," actor David Carradine points out that "the Old West's version of Homeland Security left a scar on the legacy of the West," and I believe this is true. It was violent, brutal, and I believe it is one of the reasons why people from other countries view the years of the American Old West as brutally violent.

"Protection" Means Many Things to Different People

The word "vigilante" is Spanish for "watchmen." Vigilantes often believe they are guardians of the morals of the community, that their actions are moral and represent the sense of morality the town wishes to have, even though their actions were (and still are) violent. Sound complicated? Well, it is. As Frederick Allen explains in "Vigilantes," "Where there was no government in place, vigilantes were a necessary evil. Where there was a government in place, they were an evil." 

Sometimes towns and cities formed so quickly there wasn't time to create a government before the criminals became a problem. According to "Vigilante Tech," in the early 1800s the population of some cities, such as San Francisco, doubled every month. San Francisco was over-run with gangs in the 1850s, and had less than 100 police officers. 

One of the gangs consisted of former soldiers who helped capture San Francisco from Mexico in 1846. Many of these men were actually recruited from gangs in New York. This gang was known as The Hounds, but they were also hired vigilantes, used to protect property or exact revenge. Sometimes there was a thin line between justice and crime in the Old West.

Another San Francisco gang was the Sydney Ducks. These men were ex-convicts who escaped British prison ships headed for Australia. The Sydney Ducks were particularly violent and known for their use of a weapon used in vigilante attacks, a silent weapon known as the garrote, a rope with knots used to strangle victims. The knot prevented the victim from crying out. The rope was quietly slipped over the victims head then twisted from behind. 

The Garroted Manpainting by Francisco Goya, 1780.

The garrote originated in Spain and was used for execution by the Spaniards for centuries. This weapon continued in use, as far as I could tell from my research, into the 20th century. It was a particularly gruesome and cruel form of death, but its use does inspire a question about vigilante justice: If someone sincerely believed they were wronged, why would they want a silent or secretive justice? Why not tell everyone they deserved justice? As I said before, there was a thin line between justice and crime.

Cattle Ranchers, Sheepherders, and That Thin Line Between Justice and Crime

One example of that thin line was the battle between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. In the early to late 1800s it was believed that sheep destroyed the land for cattle grazing. Therefore, sheepherders were seen as destroying the investments of ranchers. 

Although this was later proved to be untrue, cattlemen believed sheepherders were literally stealing from them by allowing sheep to graze where cattle were raised. According to Paul Trachtman's The Gunfighters, ranchers often hired gunmen to kill sheepherders in what they considered to be vigilante justice. The ranchers believed they were protecting their assets. Ranchers, politicians, newspaper editors--there were many people whose circumstances, though they believed them to be right and fair, might require a more secretive form of vigilante justice. 

Sweet little calves like this one photographed in Utah in 2012 were often the cause of vigilante violence in the 1800s. Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

Who Were the Vigilantes?

Generally, those who hired vigilantes, or the vigilantes themselves, were the people in town who had the most to lose, which makes sense. If the town is over-run with thieves and rowdy drunks causing damage to buildings and property, and no one stops this behavior, the town won't last long--no one can make a profit to survive. The people settling in the American Old West learned this quickly and realized they had to do something to keep the peace in their towns, but they rarely had written laws in these small towns and keeping the peace wasn't always the goal of vigilante groups.

Vigilantes, whether acting in groups or alone, often acted quickly, asked no questions, believed nothing they were told, and left the dead man or men lying on the ground, hanging from a tree branch, and sometimes, propped up in open coffins for the rest of the townsfolk to view as a warning the way known criminals were often displayed in the Old West. It is said that some states, such as Texas, had a hanging tree in every town, but often vigilante justice came in the form of large mobs, such as in the case of Charles Cora and James Casey.

The lynching of Charles Cora and James Casey in San Francisco, 1856. 

Charles Cora and James Casey

There are many examples of vigilante hangings in history books, many stories passed down through generations, but the stories that stand out the most either involved egregious acts of injustice committed by vigilante groups, which could (and should) be considered acts of murder, or widely publicized acts of vigilantism. 

One such situation was the hanging of Charles Cora and James Casey in San Francisco in 1856. According to the Story of the Great American West, newspaper editor James King was gunned down in the street on May 14, 1856. It was rumored that the crime was committed by a rival newspaper editor and politician, James P. Casey. Casey's friends feared the vigilante groups that seemed more powerful than the politicians in San Francisco at that time, so they quickly rushed Casey to the local jail for his own protection, trying to ensure that he would at least receive a fair trial. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, Charles Cora, who killed a U.S. Marshal, was at the same jail where Casey's friends took Casey for his safety. The jailhouse turned out to be a very unsafe place! The streets were quickly filled with so-called "law-abiding" citizens demanding justice for the murder of James King, and as rumors often do, rumors flew through the crowds that Cora was responsible and under the protection of his friends at the local jail. 

A shocking 2,500 armed men formed a vigilante group called The Committee of Vigilance and stormed the jailhouse. They seized both Charles Cora and James Casey, quickly convicted the two men of murder in a mock trial and hanged the two men within the week. However, the vigilantes did not stop there. They were on a rampage, storming through the town, rounding up known criminals for quick trials and hangings. An estimated 500 to 800 criminals fled San Francisco to avoid the vigilante groups so quickly that only two other criminals--Joseph Hetherington and Philander Brace, were hung before the vigilantes disbanded a few months later. 

The actions of The Committee of Vigilance could be seen as unfair and unjust. However, there is one part of this story that begs a closer look--the fact that between 500 and 800 criminals fled the city to avoid mock trials and hanging. That's a lot of criminals! 

  • Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association. Canada: 1977.
  • Trachtman, Paul. The Gunfighters. The Old West. Time Life, Inc. Canada: 1974.
  • "Vigilante Tech." Wild West Tech. Greystone Television. First aired in 2004. Accessed on September 25, 2013. 

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...