Bannack: Education, Religion, and Justice (Part 2 of 4)

Sunlight illuminates the Bannack Church. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Sunlight illuminates the Bannack Church. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

In mid-September 1863, after traveling for more than three months by wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, a small party of weary travelers reach Bannack. They were newly appointed Idaho Chief Justice Sidney Edgerton (future Montana Territorial Governor); his wife, Mary; their four children; Harriet and Wilbur Sanders (Edgerton’s nephew) and their two children; Lucia Darling (Edgerton’s niece); and Henry Tilden (another Edgerton nephew).

For the most part, the streets and shops of Bannack were considered unsafe or unfit for genteel women. Not many families dared to live in such an environment, but those who did were determined to see their children educated. In the summer of 1863, Mrs. Henry Zoller set up a “subscription school” in her home, charging parents $2 a week to teach their children. Unfortunately, Mrs. Zoller’s tutelage lasted only two months.

Of the fall of 1864, Lucia Darling wrote, “Bannack was tumultuous and rough, the headquarters of a band of highwaymen, and lawlessness and misrule seemed to be the prevailing spirit of the place. But into this little town had drifted many worthy people who unbendingly held firmly to their principles of right. There were few families there, and the parents were anxious to have their children in school.” So she improvised a school in her uncle Sidney Edgerton’s house; and as a record of its existence is available, it is considered as the first Montana public school. Twelve students attended the fall session. Schoolbooks were scarce, and the only texts available were what the families brought with them.

Up until 1874, most schooling was carried out in various homes, stores and a rustic cabin. Then the education community and the organization of Masons joined to construct a two-story building for $1,500. School was taught on the ground level, and the Masonic Order ensconced itself on the second floor. The school bell rang here for more than 70 years until 1951, when a dwindling student population forced closure.

The problem of having a place to hold regular meetings wasn’t restricted to the need for a school. Early clerics who came to town often were found to be lacking in their ability to engage the faithful. Religious services improved when the affable Reverend George Smith showed up. “I began preaching in an empty storeroom…and I had the most intelligent and wide-a-wake congregation I have ever ministered unto,” he later wrote.

Along with riches and business opportunities, there was also a darker side to the town’s early days. Bannack, like most of the mining camps, was a rough and sometimes dangerous place. Drunkenness, fights, robberies, killings and the like were often the order of the day.

After spending time in San Quentin Prison in 1859, the infamous Henry Plummer came to town in the winter of 1862. He was elected sheriff by the Miner’s Court on May 24, 1863. Immediately, Plummer organized 25 followers from his past into a gang named the Innocents, because they agreed to always plead their innocence in the unlikely event of their arrest. Under the protection of Plummer, this band of vicious thugs set out to terrorize Bannack and other gold camps. In eight months, it is estimated they “legally” robbed and murdered more than 100 people. As the lawlessness increased and the jail remained empty, it soon became apparent to some that perhaps their sheriff was involved with the gang.

On Dec. 23, 1863, unwilling to be bullied and victimized any longer, the Vigilante Committee, consisting of regular citizens from both Virginia City and Bannack, was organized to stop the rampant terror and bring safety to the residents of the Montana Territory. Members were sworn in by Wilbur Sanders, and Captain James Williams was their leader.

During the next 42 days, these self-authorized law enforcers went as far as the Hellgate near Missoula in pursuit of members of Plummer’s gang. Instead of orderly arrests, trials and sentencings, the vigilantes took matters into their own hands and carried out a reign of lynching. By the end of January, they had executed 24 supposed outlaws, including Henry Plummer, and banished or silenced the remainder.

University of Montana | Department of Geography |Rick and Susie Graetz