The story of the controversial events that took place at Bannack City, Montana, during its brief existence as a center of gold mining east of the Rockies is also the story of Henry Plummer. Yet an accurate and unbiased account of these events and his life has not before been written. Over a year after Sheriff Plummer was hanged, editor Thomas Dimsdale of the Montana Post, who did not live in Bannack and had not witnessed what took place there, wrote a series of articles about the unusual occurrence of a community hanging its own sheriff and later collected them into a book. During the intervening one hundred twenty years since the publication of Dimsdale's book, Henry Plummer's story has been retold many times with little change or added insight. Because Dimsdale's primary concern in telling the story was with morality rather than reality, accuracy and fairness were both of rather low priority to him, and, as a few scholars of Montana history have already pointed out, his account therefore cannot be considered a reliable source.
In brief summary of the familiar story, on a Sunday afternoon in May 1863, the miners of Bannack set in motion a series of history-making incidents by electing themselves a judge, sheriff, and coroner. The new sheriff, a likeable young man, but with the reputation of having been a desperado, received the largest majority of votes by far. A few days after the election, he made a long trip north to marry a young woman waiting there for him and then brought her back to Bannack. But after only two and one-half months of marriage, the bride, Electa, left to visit relatives, explaining that her husband would join her later. Electa's departure so soon after the wedding caused some talk, but otherwise was not particularly damaging to the sheriff's continuing popularity.
The town over which Sheriff Plummer presided was a part of the recently created Territory of Idaho and had sprung up nearly overnight after a group of Colorado miners, on their way to the badly overcrowded gold fields around Lewiston, discovered large quantities of loose gold along a creek bank. Unaware that Lewis and Clark had given this tributary of the Beaverhead River the name Willard's Creek, the miners called the stream the Grasshopper, in honor of the flurry of insects that whirred into flight at their every step. By late fall of 1862, the richness of the Bannack gold had been recognized, and as word spread, a rush to the Grasshopper diggings began. Though the miners had taken steps to bring order by electing their own law officers, President Abraham Lincoln also sent to the territory Chief Justice Sydney Edgerton, a former congressman from the state of Ohio, who brought along his nephew, a young lawyer named Wilbur Sanders, to serve as his secretary.
It was only natural that there would be a certain amount of friction between the newcomers, whose authority rested only on paper, and those already actively engaged in administering justice in the eastern Idaho gold camps, men selected for their experience and the respect they had earned from the miners. Despite the inroads of civilization Plummer was making in the booming mining districts, Edgerton and Sanders did not trust the miners' sheriff. They had heard rumors that Plummer had previously been a desperado and held him responsible for a rash of robberies and murders committed along the trails. In December of the same year Plummer was elected, Wilbur Sanders organized a group of citizens who were bent on conducting a speedier and less expensive form of justice. Without holding a public trial, they hanged two suspected criminals and then announced that one of the men just hanged had accused the sheriff of leading a double life -- acting as a lawman while actually directing a gang of robbers. Surprising Plummer at home, they walked him, along with two of his deputies, to the town gallows. Though Plummer asked to speak to his sister-in-law, Martha Vail, with whom he was boarding, his request was denied. The three law officers were hanged.
Some Bannack residents were not convinced their sheriff had actually been an outlaw, but Thomas Dimsdale's newspaper articles assured them that Henry Plummer was indeed guilty as charged and praised the men who had hanged him. Accepting Dimsdale's account, and that of Nathaniel Langford, which followed many years later, historians of the West unanimously stereotyped Plummer as a notorious bandit masquerading as a lawman, a brilliant organizer of a band of roughs responsible for countless robberies and over one hundred murders. Unbelievable as it may seem, the verdict announced by a group of self-appointed men operating outside traditional forms of justice has never been seriously questioned. To date the decision reached by this unauthorized body after secret proceedings that did not even include an examination of the accused has been accepted as unequivocal fact, none of the historians taking into account a heritage of justice by which a person is considered innocent until proven guilty by fair trial.
Though Bannack was not part of a state at the time, it was in a territory of the United States to which the president had appointed a chief justice. As a matter of fact, Justice Edgerton lived only a few houses away from Plummer. In addition to this national government appointee, there was also a miners' court organized to insure justice for members of the district. But Plummer was brought before neither Edgerton nor the miners' court, nor before any tribunal for that matter, so we have no means of determining whether there was sufficient evidence against him to have convinced a jury other than by studying the accounts left and forming our own judgment. But when we attempt to do this, we discover that exactly half of the needed information is missing -- the defense.
In examining the evidence. Dimsdale and Langford presented, we encounter both inaccuracies and fabrications, but neither of these creates the major obstacle to sorting out the truth about what happened at Bannack in the winter of 1863-64. The greatest difficulty arises from the bias dominating the reporting, a bias that would have been exposed at a trial through cross-examination. These two main accounts, Dimsdale and Langford, are doubly biased, being written specifically as evidence for the defense of those who carried out the hanging of an elected law officer and additionally as evidence for the prosecution of Plummer. Since both accounts were written in retrospect of proving Plummer a man of bad character, every detail was accordingly reshaped to fit the prescribed mold. Plummer was not allowed to present a defense in response to the charges brought against him, and others accused of being involved were also hanged without public trial, thus leaving posterity no testimony in the actual words of the accused.
Despite the obvious handicap created by using the accounts dictated by his executioners, the following chapters are an attempt to, for the first time, tell the story of Henry Plummer with some degree of objectivity for the purpose of revealing what sort of man he was. To overcome the handicap, Dimsdale and Langford will be balanced with less prejudiced writers, eyewitnesses whenever possible. Most historians admit to knowing very little about Plummer. His widow faded into obscurity, leaving behind nothing more than several conflicting stories as to how she spent the remaining years of her life after her husband's death. In his biography, Dimsdale stated that his informants offered at least twenty different versions of Plummer's birthplace, none of which could be verified. In fact the only point of agreement on Plummer seems to be that of his guilt. But Plummer was far too complex a person for the simplistic approach taken by Dimsdale, who presents his subject as a mere symbol of evil. Plummer came West to fulfill a dream, bringing with him the qualities he needed to make it come true -- intelligence, decency, and dedication. Yet the twelve formative years he spent in the gold camp culture also influenced his character, leaving him a curious blend of his straitlaced New England heritage and the freewheeling frontier environment. His personality is usually described as magnetic, although his acquaintances have the irritating habit of failing to mention exactly what traits attracted them. During the years spent researching Plummer's life and times, we have concluded that none of those who wrote about him really knew him well, not only because of his natural reticence, but because they were not his intimate friends. Therefore our most satisfactory method of becoming acquainted with him has been to listen carefully each time he speaks. His combined words gradually build up the portrait of a fascinating man, and the direct quotations that have been preserved, despite inexactness and prejudice of the reporter, form a consistent personality pattern that is the basis of our biography.
Employing tools of both scholar and genealogist, we have engaged in a long struggle with the past, coaxing it to give up its secrets; but while continuing to rely on what others said about Plummer, we met with little success. It was only as we came to know him well enough to trust his word that we finally resolved the disputed issue of his birthplace and family lineage. Still, Henry Plummer is an elusive man, protective of his privacy, and we must admit that some of the surprises we have unearthed only add to uncertainty and confirm the mystery of the man himself.
Sufficient material is available, however, to indicate that both Henry and Electa Plummer possessed noteworthy character traits, and their naive hopefulness on meeting each other created a love tragedy as haunting as any in our literary heritage. The story of Plummer's experiences in Montana revolves around the lives of two families with rather opposite goals and values: the Edgertons, who came West to further a political career, and the Vails, the missionary family Plummer married into and with whom he lived while serving as sheriff of Bannack.
Because Dimsdale completed such an effective character assassination, the reader, even after discovering that accusations are based mainly on intuition, still cannot shake the damaging impression built by an overwhelming mass of accumulated derogatory details encountered throughout his book. The image of Plummer as the one man responsible for all crime committed in the mining districts east of the Rockies is so firmly ingrained it is nearly impossible for even the most impartial of readers to drop old suspicions and view him with an open mind. We will therefore start our story with Electa and attempt to take a fresh look at Henry Plummer through her eyes.