Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Unsolved Mystery of Sheriff Plummer’s Gold

Sheriff Henry Plummer insisted he hadn’t robbed any stagecoaches, that is until a hanging seemed imminent. That's when the sheriff changed his tune, promising to return with his weight in stolen gold if the vigilantes gave him a horse and two hours. History buffs still wonder whether he was guilty or an innocent man desperate to save his own life.

Sheriff Plummer was a man of means. Whether the sheriff gained his fortune entirely by honest means remains open to speculation. He did own a gold claim, but a convicted road agent had named him as leader of the "Innocents," a notorious outlaw band. 

A posthumous trial sponsored by Twin Bridges Public Schools and held in the Virginia City, Montana, courthouse on May 7, 1993 resulted in a six-six vote. The judge declared a mistrial. Plummer would have walked, never again to be tried on the same charges. That's not what happened on January 10, 1864. Plummer's pleas fell on deaf ears, and he swung at the wrong end of a rope.

Sheriff Henry Plummer, Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

Lost Gold

Plummer took the location of his ill-gotten gold, if it existed, to the grave. The search for it began right after his death and continues today, centuries later. Although some claimed to find the cache, no evidence exists that anyone ever did.

The Innocents, also known as the Plummer Gang, reportedly waylaid stagecoaches traveling between Bannack City and Virginia City, about 25 miles away. 
At its peak, the Innocents, headquartered about 12 from Virginia City at Rattlesnake Ranch, consisted of about 100 road agents. Some claim that the gang committed other crimes, including over 100 murders, while others refute this idea.
Stagecoach, Library of Congress; Public Domain

Vigilante Justice

The Bannack goldrush began in 1862 and swelled to 3,000 prospectors by 1863. Dance halls and saloons went up at a faster pace than churches. Rotgut whiskey had a terrible effect on the miners, and the rate of crime and theft doubled. This state of affairs repeated across the West, leading settlers to call upon Washington DC for law and order. However, the Civil War raging in the East distracted politicians from the lawless frontier. Frustrated with the lack of response, townsfolk took matters into their own hands. The Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch, headquartered in Virginia City, sprang into being.

The Vigilantes of Montana; or, Popular justice in the Rocky mountains; being a correct and impartial narrative of the chase, trial, capture, and execution of Henry Plummer's road agent band, together with accounts of the lives and crimes of many of the robbers and desperadoes, the whole being interspersed with sketches of life in the mining camps of the 'Far west.' by Thomas Dimsdale (1886) became the first book published in Montana. Dimsdale, a newspaper publisher, compiled his book from a newspaper series he authored for the Montana Post in 1865. Dimsdale provides a timeline for the activities of the vigilance committee as it doled out
 “mountain justice.” That usually meant a spur-of-the-moment trial followed by banishment or hanging.

The vigilantes made their first arrest in December 1863 near the Rattlesnake Ranch on the Ruby River and headed back to Virginia city with “Erastus Red” Yeager and George Brown, a pair of suspected outlaws, in tow. Along the way, Yeager confessed to his part in the Innocents gang and provided the vigilantes with a list of names. Yeager named Sheriff Henry Plummer as the leader. Yeager may have hoped to escape death by cooperating with the posse, which makes some wonder about the varacity of his list. We'll probably never know the truth. At any rate, it didn't save him. After a speedy trial, Yeager and Brown were hanged from a cottonwood tree.
Bannack, Montana; by Mr Hicks46, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next several months, the vigilantes lynched twenty men on Yeager’s list, including Sheriff Plummer, and shot another dead in Bannack. It is unknown how many they banished from the territory, on pain of death. Alexander Toponce, a freight hauler and merchant who served Bannack at the time, mentioned the vigilantes in his autobiography: Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce (1923):”I don't think they made any mistake in hanging anybody. The only mistake they made was about fifty percent of those whom they merely banished should have been hung instead, as quite a number of these men were finally hung.”

Some of the men on Yeager’s list left town voluntarily, as might well be imagined. A corresponding drop in stagecoach robberies and crime in general seems to bear out Toponce's conclusions.

More Lost Gold

It wasn’t uncommon for outlaws to bury stolen gold in Montana. Since most of the Innocents died without divulging the locations of their loot, historians believe that lost gold peppers the landscape between Bannack and Virginia City. 

Final Thoughts

I've driven the road between Virginia City and Bannack. It's not hard to picture outlaws riding out to rob stagecoaches in the flat valley cut by the Ruby River. With mountains blued by distance rising in the background, the place has an other-worldly feeling. Bannack, with still stands, is protected as a state park. When I visited, you could walk into the buildings, which still contained the paraphanelia of living. Part of the town isn't there anymore, but I walked that direction to get the lay of the land--part of my research for the books I knew I would write.

Thomas Dimsdale’s Vigilantes of Montana contains his eyewitness account of Sheriff Plummer’s lynching, a resource I used when describing this scene for Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold book 1). Although a work of fiction, Hills of Nevermore portrays real historical figures and events, including those involving Sheriff Plummer. The novel pits a widow with a dark secret against an Irish circuit preacher trying to leave his own past behind. Both need to make peace with themselves and God. Their romance plays out against Montana’s goldrush, a troubled time in America. The six-book Montana Gold series, explores faith, love, and courage in the Wild West.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt fell in love with literature at an early age when her father read chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes in several genres. Romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy appear in all her novels.

Learn more about Janalyn Voigt.

Discover Montana Gold

Hills of Nevermore: A young widow hides her shameful secret from a blue-eyed circuit preacher.

Cheyenne Sunrise: A disillusioned young woman is forced to entrust herself to a half-Cheyenne guide.

Stagecoach to Liberty: To escape captivity, a young woman must trust a mysterious stranger.

The Forever Sky: Can a young widow with no faith in love reconcile with the man who broke her heart?

The Promise Tree: A preacher’s daughter knows she shouldn't encourage a troublemaker, no matter she promised him.

The Whispering Wind: Phoebe can have her pick of suitors but never the man she wants.

Learn More.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I love hearing about the research you do before you write.