Montana’s vigilante obsession obscures the truth

It’s time to face the facts about the hangmen who helped ‘settle’ Montana.

 

Every year for nearly a century, my hometown, Helena, Montana, has celebrated our state’s dark history of vigilante killings by closing schools and holding a parade. This month, we celebrated the pageant’s 95th anniversary. 

When I was growing up here in the 1980s and ‘90s, we looked forward to the Vigilante Day Parade with great anticipation. High school students got two days off from school to prepare. We drank beer and built elaborate “Old West” scenes on flatbed trucks. We dressed up as barkeeps, prostitutes, gunslingers and Indian warriors. Our parents and grandparents set up lawn chairs and cheered.

The raucous pre-game has since been tamed, and racist and sexist floats are less common now — though not completely abolished — following stronger administrative oversight. Still, this year’s parade featured at least one brothel and two hanging trees, complete with swinging nooses. 

This spectacle must seem odd to outsiders, but in Montana, many children are taught to honor our founding myth of vigilante justice. In public schools, students learn about a group of courageous community leaders who hanged a handful of known criminals in the mining boomtowns of Bannack and Virginia City, making the territory safe for settlement. 

The truth is more complicated. In 1862 and 1863, thousands of settlers moved into new mining camps in southwest Montana, where Shoshone, Salish, and Crow were already living. In January 1864, influential settlers formed a “vigilance committee” and hanged 21 men without due process in just six weeks. Five victims were strung from the crossbeam of an unfinished store on Virginia City’s main street, their bodies dangling between the timbers like a grotesque window display. 

Floats at Helena's Vigilante Day Parade reference the numbers 3-7-77. According to legend, vigilantes would paint the warning on the door of potential lynching victims.
Courtesy of Patricia Spencer

The committee did not disband after this initial purge of purported lawbreakers. It persisted even after federal courts were established in Montana. “Over a six-year period they killed a total of fifty men, many of whom were not guilty of capital crimes, some of whom were not guilty of crimes at all,” according to writer Frederick Allen’s authoritative history, A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes.

One such victim was Ah Chow, a Chinese immigrant and Helena resident who mortally wounded John R. Bitzer in 1870. Each man claimed the other had been the aggressor. A trial might have revealed the truth. Instead, vigilantes lynched Chow from Helena’s hanging tree, a short walk from where students paraded two models of such trees through downtown Helena earlier this month. 

This 150-year-old murder matters today because, as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote, “Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them.” We choose, generation after generation, to honor the vigilantes, and examples of their posthumous influence abound.

Many businesses use the vigilantes to tout their Montana roots, including Big Sky Brewing, whose logo includes the numbers 3-7-77. According to legend, vigilantes painted this code on the doors of potential victims to put them in mind of an early grave — 3 feet wide, 7 feet long and 77 inches deep. These numbers are also emblazoned on the shoulder patches of the Montana Highway Patrol and have appeared on the flight suits of the Montana Air National Guard. One version of the emblem, designed for the 186th Airlift Squadron Vigilantes, depicts a shotgun-toting pioneer in front of a hanging tree.

Many have argued that these modern references to a bloody chapter in Montana history are harmless homages to the Old West, but the official use and remarkable ubiquity of these references demand a deeper analysis. The vigilante brand has been carefully distilled as an expression of Montanans’ rugged independence and heroic self-reliance. But it also sells the idea that Montana was built by white pioneers who settled a wild place full of reckless people by any means necessary. It sells the idea that these settlers were the main characters on a vast Western stage. It sells the idea that the vigilante story is the Montana story. Of course, this enduring falsehood obscures the truth.

Most Montanans, myself included, never studied the Chinese laborers and business owners, people like Ah Chow, who represented about 10% of the state’s population in 1870. Many of us have rarely, if ever, considered how white settlement in Montana gold camps sparked a war along the Bozeman Trail between the United States and the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe nations, which led to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 — a legal agreement that was quickly broken by further white settlement.

Too often, these essential chapters of Montana history are crowded to the margins of our minds by the tall tales of the vigilantes and other stories of heroic white settlement. We’ve never had a good rationale for this narrative imbalance, and we cannot defend it. 

It is time for Montana to give up its founding myth of vigilantism, which perpetuates an incomplete and racist version of our past. Montanans need to remove official references to the vigilantes from government institutions and discourage their use as a commercial trademark or community icon. We need to re-brand the Vigilante Day Parade and completely eliminate racist and sexist floats. We need to tell the vigilante story accurately and reframe it as a tragic and complicated episode in the much larger and complex story of our state. Finally, we need to create space for the many other true stories that have gone untold for far too long.

After all, the history we celebrate today reinforces the values that will guide us tomorrow.

Gabriel Furshong lives in Helena, Montana, where he writes for Yes! magazine, The Nation and other publications.  

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