Inside Scoop

Justice Comes to the Wild West!

In the 1850’s, right at the peak of the California Gold Rush, hundreds of thousands of men travelled across land and sea to get their hands on some of the gold that had been discovered. For every honest cowboy, however, there were many more thieves, crooks and swindlers.

San Francisco, California was at the heart of all this activity. The town went from being a small settlement of just 200 people to a huge, booming city of 36,000 in only a couple years! Crime was everywhere: the newly-built banks were held up almost every week, stage coaches and covered wagons were robbed by the likes of Jesse James and other notorious outlaws, and mining camps were raided for gold and silver. In addition to these crimes, horse theft was rampant, and since there was no justice system in place, many of these criminals were not punished for their crimes.
With the police force almost non-existent, locals began to take matters into their own hands by appointing their own local sheriffs, and putting together Vigilante Committees.

A Vigilante Committee was an organized group of men from town who carried out the duties of a police force, a judge and a jury all put together. They rounded up criminals, horse thieves and bank robbers, and either put them in jail, or forced them to leave town permanently.
The first Vigilante Committee was formed in the spring of 1851, in California. A local business owner named Sam Brannan joined with other local businessmen to form the committee. It was designed to protect the people and property of San Francisco. The first Vigilante Committee was a very formal organization with a constitution and list of laws signed by about 200 men, including politicians and local citizens. Each member had a medallion that he carried identifying him as a member of the Vigilante Committee; the medallion also had that member’s number, much like a badge number.
In other towns, the banks hired their own private security force. Wells Fargo & Company had a crew of detectives, men like James B. Hume, famous capturing bank robber “Black Bart.” Bart’s nickname was the “gentleman robber” thanks to his wonderful manners and the fact that he left a poem behind at every robbery.

Law-enforcement legends were born in showdowns on the frontier, like Sheriff Pat Garrett who chased gunman Billy the Kid for 6 whole months before nabbing him in New Mexico. Deputy Marshall Wyatt Earp earned his fame by stopping dozens of outlaws during crime-busting expeditions into the desert on horseback.

Eventually, sheriffs, deputies and federal marshals tamed many of the wild towns of the West, making it safe for average folk to live and work on the frontier.