There are good reasons for this difference. The first is the entirely dissimilar character of the populations; and the second, the possession of vast sums of money by uneducated and unprincipled people, in all places where the precious metals may be obtained at the cost of the labor necessary to exhume them from the strata in which they lie concealed.
In an agricultural country, the life of the pioneer settler is always one of hard labor, of considerable privation, and of more or less isolation; while the people who seek to clear the farm in the wild forest, or who break up the virgin soil of the prairies are usually of the steady and hard-working classes, needing little assistance from courts of justice to enable them to maintain rights which are seldom invaded; and whose differences, in the early days of the country are, for the most part, so slight as to be scarcely worth the cost of a litigation more complicated than a friendly and, usually, gratuitous arbitration submitted to the judgment of the most respected among the citizens.
In a marked contrast to the peaceful life of the tiller of the soil, and to the placid monotony of his pursuits are the turbulent activity, the constant excitement, and the perpetual temptations to which the dweller in a mining camp is subject, both during his sojourn in the gulches, or, if he be given to prospecting, in his frequent and unpremeditated change of location, commonly called a "stampede." There can scarcely be conceived a greater or more apparent difference than exists between the staid and sedate inhabitants of rural districts, and the motley group of miners, professional men and merchants, thickly interspersed with sharpers, refugees, and a full selection from the dangerous classes that swagger, armed to the teeth, through the diggings and infest the roads leading to the newly discovered gulches, where lies the object of their worship - Gold.
Fortunately the change to a better state of things is rapid, and none who now walk the streets of Virginia would believe that, within two years of this date, the great question to be decided was, which was the stronger, right or might?
And here it must be stated, that the remarks which truth compels us to make, concerning the classes of individuals which furnish the law defying element of mining camps, are in no wise applicable to the majority of the people, who, while exhibiting the characteristic energy of the American race in the pursuit of wealth, yet maintain, under every disadvantage, an essential morality, which is the more creditable since it must be sincere, in order to withstand the temptations to which it is constantly exposed. "Oh, cursed thirst of gold," said the ancient, and no man has even an inkling of the truth and force of the sentiment, till he has lived where gold and silver are as much the objects of desire, and of daily and laborious exertion, as glory and promotion are to the young soldier. Were it not for the preponderance of this conservative body of citizens, every camp in remote and recently discovered mineral regions would be a field of blood; and where this is not so, the fact is proof irresistible that the good is in sufficient force to control the evil, and eventually to bring order out of chaos.
Let the reader suppose that the police of New York were withdrawn for twelve months, and then let them picture the wild saturnalia which would take the place of the order that reigns there now. If, then, it is so hard to restrain the dangerous classes of old and settled communities, what must be the difficulty of the task, when, tenfold in number, fearless in character, generally well armed, and supplied with money to an extent unknown among their equals in the east, such men find themselves removed from the restraints of civilized. society, and beyond the control of the authority which there enforces obedience to the law?
Were it not for the sterling stuff of which the mass of miners is made, their love of fair play, and their prompt and decisive action in emergencies, this history could never have been written, for desperadoes of every nation would have made this country a scene of bloodshed and a sink of iniquity such as was never before witnessed.
Together with so much that is evil, nowhere is there so much that is sternly opposed to dishonesty and violence as in the mountains; and though careless of externals and style, to a degree elsewhere unknown, the intrinsic value of manly uprightness is nowhere so clearly exhibited and so well appreciated as in the Eldorado of the west. Middling people do not live in these regions. A man or a woman becomes better or worse by a trip towards the Pacific. The keen eye of the experienced miner detects the imposter at a glance, and compels his entire isolation, or his association with the class to which he rightfully belongs.
Thousands of weak-minded people return, after a stay in the mountains, varying in duration from a single day to a year, leaving the field where only the strong of heart are fit to battle with difficulty, and to win the golden crown which is the reward of persevering toil and unbending firmness. There is no man more fit to serve his country in any capacity requiring courage, integrity, and self-reliance, than an "honest miner," who has been tried and found to be true by a jury of mountaineers.
The universal license that is, at first, a necessity of position in such places, adds greatly to the number of crimes, and to the facilities for their perpetration. Saloons, where poisonous liquors are vended to all comers, and consumed in quantities sufficient to drive excitable men to madness and to the commission of homicide, on the slightest provocation, are to be found in amazing numbers, and the villainous compounds there sold, under the generic name of whiskey, are more familiarly distinguished by the cognomens of ''tangle-leg," "Forty-rod," "Lightning," " Tarantula-juice," etc., terms only too truly describing their acknowledged qualities.
The absence of good female society, in any due proportion to the numbers of the opposite sex, is likewise an evil of great magnitude; for men become rough, stern and cruel, to a surprising degree, under such a state of things.
In every frequent street, public gambling houses with open doors and loud music, are resorted to, in broad daylight, by hundreds -it might almost be said -of all tribes and tongues, furnishing another fruitful source of "difficulties," which are commonly decided on the spot, by an appeal to brute force, the stab of a knife, or the discharge of a revolver. Women of easy virtue are to be seen promenading through the camp, habited in the gayest and most costly apparel, and receiving fabulous sums for their purchased favors. In fact, all the temptations to vice are present in full display, with money in abundance to secure the gratification of the desire for novelty and excitement, which is the ruling passion of the mountaineer.
One "institution," offering a shadowy and dangerous substitute for more legitimate female association, deserves a more peculiar notice. This is the "Hurdy-Gurdy"* house. As soon as the men have left off work, these places are opened, and dancing commences. Let the reader picture to himself a large room, furnished with a bar at one end -where champagne at $12 (in gold) per bottle, and ''drinks" at twenty-five to fifty cents, are wholesaled (correctly speaking) -and divided, at the end of this bar, by a railing running from side to side. The outer enclosure is densely crowded (and, on particular occasions, the inner one also) with men in every variety of garb that can be seen on the continent. Beyond the barrier sit the dancing women, called "hurdy-gurdies,'' sometimes dressed in uniform, but, more generally, habited according to the dictates of individual caprice, in the finest clothes that money can buy, and which are fashioned in the most attractive styles that fancy can suggest. On one side is a raised orchestra. The music suddenly strikes up, and the summons, ''Take your partners for the next dance," is promptly answered by some of the male spectators, who paying a dollar in gold for a ticket, approach the ladies' bench, and - in style polite, or otherwise, according to antecedents - invite one of the ladies to dance.
The number being complete, the parties take their places, as in any other dancing establishment, and pause for the performance of the introductory notes of the air.
Let us describe a first class dancer --"sure of a partner every time" - and her companion. There she stands at the head of the set. She is of middle height, of rather full and rounded form; her complexion as pure as alabaster, a pair of dangerous looking hazel eyes, a slightly Roman nose, and a small and prettily formed mouth. Her auburn hair is neatly banded and gathered in a tasteful, ornamented net, with a roll and. gold tassels at the side. How sedate she looks during the first figure, never smiling till the termination of "promenade, eight," when she shows her little white hands in fixing her handsome brooch in its place, and settling her glistening earrings. See how nicely her scarlet dress, with its broad black band round the skirt, and its black edging, sets off her dainty figure. No wonder that a wild mountaineer would be willing to pay - not one dollar, but all that he has in his purse for a dance and an approving smile from so beautiful a woman.
*There were thirteen dance houses in Central City. Today a stranger would never know there had ever been a town.
Her cavalier stands six feet in his boots, which come to the knee, and are garnished with a pair of Spanish spurs, with rowels and bells like young water wheels. His buckskin leggings are fringed at the seams, and gathered at the waist with a U. S.
belt, from which hangs his loaded revolver and his sheath knife.
His neck is bare, muscular and embrowned by exposure, as is also his bearded face, whose sombre hue is relieved by a pair at piercing dark eyes. His long black hair hangs down beneath his wide felt hat, and, in the corner of his mouth is a cigar, which rolls like the lever of an eccentric, as he chews the end in his mouth. After an amazingly grave salute, "all hands round" is shouted by the prompter, and off bounds the buckskin hero, rising and falling to the rhythm of the dance, with a clumsy agility and a growing enthusiasm, testifying his huge delight. His fair partner, with practised foot and easy grace, keeps time to the music like a clock, and rounds to her place as smoothly and gracefully as a swan. As the dance progresses, he of the buckskins gets excited, and nothing but long practice prevents his partner from being swept off her feet, at the conclusion of the miner's delight, "set your partners," or "gents to the right." An Irish tune or a hornpipe generally finishes the set, and then the thunder of heel and toe, and some amazing demivoltes are brought to an end by the aforesaid "gents to the right," and ''promenade to the bar," which last closes the dance. After a treat, the barkeeper mechanically raps his blower as a hint to "weigh out," the ladies sit down, and with scarely an interval, a waltz, polka, shottische, mazurka, varsovinne, or another quadrille commences.
All varieties of costume, physique and demeanor can be noticed among the dancers - from the gayest colors and "loudest" styles of dress and manner, to the snugly fitted black silk, and plain white collar, which sets off the neat figure of the blueyed, modest looking Anglo-Saxon. Yonder, beside the tall and tastily clad German brunette you see the short curls, rounded tournure and smiling face of an Irish girl; indeed, representatives of almost every dancing nation of white folks may be seen on the floor of the Hurdy Gurdy house. The earnings of the dancers are very different in amount. That dancer in the low-necked dress, with the scarlet "waist," a great favorite and a really good dancer, counted fifty tickets into her lap before "The last dance, gentlemen," followed by "Only this one before the girls go home," which wound up the performance. Twenty-six dollars is a great deal of money to earn in such a fashion; but fifty sets of quadrilles and four waltzes, two of them for the love of the thing, is very hard work.
As a rule, however, the professional "hurdies" are Teutons, and, though first-rate dancers, they are, with some few exceptions, the reverse of good looking.
The dance which is most attended, is one in which ladies to whom pleasure is dearer than fame, represent the female element, and, as may be supposed, the evil only commences at the Dance House. It is not uncommon to see one of these sirens* with an "outfit" worth from seven to eight hundred dollars, and many of them invest with merchants and bankers thousands of dollars in gold, the rewards and presents they receive, especially the more highly favored ones, being more in a week than a well-educated girl would earn in two years in an Eastern city.
In the Dance House you can see Judges, the Legislative corps, and every one but the Minister. He never ventures further than to engage in conversation with a friend at the door, and while intently watching the performance, lectures on the evil of such places with considerable force; but his attention is evidently more fixed upon the dancers than on his lecture. Sometimes may be seen gray-haired men dancing, their wives sitting at home in blissful ignorance of the proceeding. There never was a dance house running, for any length of time, in the first days of a mining town, in which "shooting scrapes" do not occur; equal proportions of jealousy, whiskey and revenge being the stimulants thereto. Billiard saloons are everywhere visible, with a bar attached, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent there. As might be anticipated, it is impossible to prevent quarrels in these places, at all times, and, in the mountains, whatever weapon is handiest - foot, fist, knife, revolver, or derringer - it is usually used. The authentic, and indeed, literally exact accounts which follow in the course of this narrative will show that the remarks. we have made on the state of society in a new mining country, before a controlling power asserts its sway, are in no degree exaggerated, but fall short of the reality, as all description must.
* These women, if they understood their business, seldom or never, became intoxicated, as it was a sure way of losing money and prestige.
One marked feature of social intercourse, and (after indulgence in strong drink) the most fruitful source of quarrel and bloodshed is the all-pervading custom of using strong language on every occasion. Men will say more than they mean and the unwritten code of the miners, based on a wrong view of what constitutes manhood, teaches them to resent by force what should. be answered by silent contempt. Another powerful incentive to wrong-doing is the absolute nullity of the civil law in such cases. No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community, "Not Guilty" is almost certain to be the verdict of the jury, despite the efforts of the Judge and prosecutor. If the offender is a moneyed man, as well as a popular citizen, the trial is only a farce - grave and prolonged, it is true, but capable of only one termination - a verdict of acquittal. In after days, when police magistrates in cities can deal with crime, they do so promptly. Costs are absolutely frightful, and fines tremendous. An assault provoked by drunkenness frequently costs a man as much as thrashing forty different policemen would do, in New York. A trifling "tight" is worth from $20 to $50 in dust, all expenses told, and so on. One grand jury that we wot of presented that it would be better to leave the punishment of offenders to the Vigilantes, who always acted impartially, and who would not permit the escape of proved criminals on technical and absurd grounds - than to have justice defeated, as in. a certain case named. The date of that document is not ancient, and though, of course, refused and destroyed, it was the deliberate opinion, on oath, of the Grand Inquest, embodying the sentiment of thousands of good citizens in the community.
Finally, swift and terrible retribution is the only preventive of crime, while society is organizing in the far West. The long delay of justice, the wearisome proceedings, the remembrance of old friendships, etc., create a sympathy for the offender, so strong as to cause a hatred of the avenging law, instead of inspiring a horror of the crime. There is something in the excitement of continued stampedes that makes men of quick temperaments, uncontrollably impulsive. In the moment of passion, they would slay all around them; but let the blood cool, and they would share their last dollar with the men whose life they sought a day or two before.
Habits of thought rule communities more than laws, and. the settled opinion of a numerous class is, that calling a man liar, a thief, or a son of a b--h is provocation sufficient to justify instant slaying. Juries do not ordinarily bother themselves about the lengthy instructions they hear read by the court. They simply consider whether the deed is a crime against the Mountain Code; and if not, "not guilty" is the verdict, at once returned. Thieving, or any action which a miner calls mean, will surely be visited with condign punishment, at the hands of a Territorial jury. In such eases mercy there is none; but, in affairs of single combats, assaults, shootings, stabbing', and highway robberies, this civil law, with its positively awful expense and delay, is worse than useless.
One other main point requires to be noticed. Any person of experience will remember that the universal story of criminals, who have expiated their crimes on the scaffold, or who are pining away in the hardships of involuntary servitude - tells of habitual Sabbath breaking. This sin is so general in newly discovered diggings in the mountains that a remonstrance usually produced no more fruit than a few jocular oaths and a laugh. Religion is said to be "played out," and a professing Christian must keep straight, indeed, or he will be suspected of being a hypocritical member of a tribe, to whom it would be very disagreeable to talk about hemp.
Under these circumstances, it becomes an absolute necessity that good, law-loving, and order-sustaining men should unite for mutual protection, and for the salvation of the community. Being united, they must act in harmony; ' repress disorder; punish crime, and prevent outrage, or their organization would be a failure from the start, and society would collapse in the throes of anarchy. None but extreme penalties inflicted with promptitude are of any avail to quell the spirit of the desperadoes with whom they have to contend; considerable numbers are required to cope successfully with the gangs of murderers, desperadoes and robbers who infest mining countries, and who, though faithful to no other bond, yet all league willingly against the law. Secret they must be, in council and membership, or they will remain.
nearly useless for the detection of crime, in a country where equal facilities for the transmission of intelligence are at the command of the criminal and the judiciary; and an organization on this footing is a Vigilance Committee.
Such was the state of affairs, when five men in Virginia, and four in Bannack, initiated the movement which resulted in the formation of a tribunal, supported by an omnipresent executive, comprising within itself nearly every good man in the Territory, and pledged to render impartial justice to friend and foe, without regard to clime, creed, race or politics. In a few short weeks it was known that the voice of justice had spoken, in tones that might not be disregarded. The face of society was changed, as if by magic; for the Vigilantes, holding in one hand the invisible yet effectual shield of protection, and in the other, the swift descending and inevitable sword of retribution, struck from his, nerveless grasp the weapon of the assassin; commanded the brawler to cease from strife; warned the thief to steal no more; bade the good citizen take courage, and compelled the ruffians and marauder who had so long maintained the "reign of terror" in Montana, to fly the Territory, or meet the just rewards of their crimes. Need we say that they were at once obeyed? yet not before more than one hundred valuable lives had been pitilessly sacrificed and twenty-four miscreants had met a dog's doom as, the reward of their crimes.
To this hour, the whispered words, ''Virginia Vigilantes'' would blanch the cheek of the wildest and most redoubtable desperado, and necessitate an instant election between flight and certain doom.
The administration of the lex talionis by self-constituted authority is, undoubtedly, in civilized and settled communities, an outrage on mankind. It is there wholly unnecessary; but the sight of a few of the mangled corpses of beloved friends and valued citizens; the whistle of the desperado's bullet, and the plunder of the fruits of the patient toil of years spent in weary exile from home, in places where civil law is as powerless as a palsied arm, from sheer lack of ability to enforce its decrees - alter the basis of the reasoning, and reverse the conclusion. In the case of the Vigilantes of Montana, it must be also remembered that the Sheriff himself was the leader of the Road Agents, and his deputies were the prominent members of the band.
The question of the propriety of establishing a Vigilance Committee depends upon the answers which ought to be given to the following queries: Is it lawful for citizens to slay robbers or murderers, when they catch them; or ought they to wait for policemen, where there are none, or put them in penitentiaries not yet erected? Gladly, indeed, we feel sure, would the Vigilantes cease from their labor, and joyfully would they hail the advent of power, civil or military, to take their place; but till this is furnished by Government, society must be preserved from demoralization and anarchy; murder, arson and robbery must be prevented or punished, and road agents must die. Justice, and protection from wrong to person or property, are the birthright of every American citizen, and these must be furnished in the best and most effectual manner that circumstances render possible. Furnished, however, they must be by constitutional law, undoubtedly,'wherever practical and efficient provision can be made for its enforcement. But where justice is powerless as well as blind, the strong arm of the mountaineer must wield her sword; for ''self-preservation is the first law of nature."