This Day in History
Night Riders

On a day like today in the 1870’s…

In the violent, nearly lawless West all “night riders” were viewed with suspicion: Most honest, law-abiding men had no need to be away from home for an evening. Far too often such activity meant that participants were up to no good; they might be cattle rustlers, horse thieves, train robbers making their way to the Mexican border, or vigilantes out to avenge such misdeeds. Vigilantes, Regulators, Cattlemen’s Associations, and Citizen’s Leagues abounded in the West where they were seen as a necessary evil, but more necessary than evil. Such groups, like the hired gunmen turned lawmen, were supported by literary romantics: Owen Wister praised vigilantism in The Virginian, Hubert Howe Bancroft pointed with pride to the work of the San Francisco vigilantes in his Popular Tribunals. The list of politicians and writers, both East and West, who sang the praises of these dubious characters is long. (It should be no surprise that Theodore Roosevelt tried - unsuccessfully - to join a “Stockman’s Association” during his ranching days.) Yet, despite all of the public admiration for vigilante groups, even N. P. Langford’s classic Vigilante Days and Ways fails to make heroes of Montana settlers who formed a mob and lynched all suspected villains.

Vigilante movements did not originate in the “wild” West, nor end with the closing of the frontier. The first such group was formed in the 1760’s in South Carolina and no one need be reminded of the still active, if abhorrent, Ku Klux Klan. The temptation to take the law into one’s own hands arises when a group feels threatened by the existing law, or views that law as inadequate. Doubtless “justice” can sometimes be served in this manner, but there is a danger of any mob response to perceived injustice. When lynching became the preferred method of dealing with suspected crime, it had an undeniable tendency to turn into murder, pure and simple. Just as in many southern states the lynching of a Negro came to be viewed more as sport than justice, so the mere suspicion of being a thief justified the execution of many an innocent man in the West, as Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s moving Ox Bow Incident illustrates so well.

May's Archived Features:

Monday May 1, 2023
Tuesday May 2, 2023
Wednesday May 3, 2023
Thursday May 4, 2023
Friday May 5, 2023
Saturday May 6, 2023
Sunday May 7, 2023
Monday May 8, 2023
Tuesday May 9, 2023
Wednesday May 10, 2023
Thursday May 11, 2023
Friday May 12, 2023
Saturday May 13, 2023
Sunday May 14, 2023
Monday May 15, 2023
Tuesday May 16, 2023
Wednesday May 17, 2023
Thursday May 18, 2023
Friday May 19, 2023
Saturday May 20, 2023
Sunday May 21, 2023
Monday May 22, 2023
Tuesday May 23, 2023
Wednesday May 24, 2023
Thursday May 25, 2023
Friday May 26, 2023
Saturday May 27, 2023
Sunday May 28, 2023
Monday May 29, 2023



All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.