Becoming a Territory

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"Bannack Mining District Records, 1862-1863." These records show the appointment of Henry Plummer as sheriff. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

The tremendous flood of people attracted to Montana by the gold rush created an immediate need for law and order. The gold fields attracted all kinds of people including those who would profit from the hard work of others by becoming criminals. Miners courts were developed to handle many disputes, but were hardly equipped to deal with the amount of violence present in the mining camps. One of the most famous criminals in Montana was Henry Plummer, who was, ironically, sheriff of the Bannack District. He and his gang were suspected of robbing gold shipments and murdering miners for their gold. Plummer met his end swinging from a rope hung by the local vigilance committee.

Vigilance committees were formed by concerned citizens who wanted some form of protection and acted as a police force for an area hundreds of miles away from any official law enforcement. Vigilante justice was swift and not always reliable as it often took little evidence for a conviction and hanging to occur.

In 1863, President Lincoln sent Sidney Edgerton to present-day Montana, which at the time was part of the Idaho territory, to become chief justice. Edgerton quickly recognized the value of the gold being produced in the Bannack area and the need for this region to have its own territorial government. In 1864, Edgerton returned to Washington to advocate for this idea. On May 26, 1864, Congress created the Montana Territory with Lincoln appointing Edgerton as the first territorial governor.