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.





June's Archived Features:

Saturday June 1, 2019
Sunday June 2, 2019
Monday June 3, 2019
Tuesday June 4, 2019
Wednesday June 5, 2019
Thursday June 6, 2019
Friday June 7, 2019
Saturday June 8, 2019
Sunday June 9, 2019
Monday June 10, 2019
Tuesday June 11, 2019
Wednesday June 12, 2019
Thursday June 13, 2019
Friday June 14, 2019
Saturday June 15, 2019
Sunday June 16, 2019
Monday June 17, 2019
Tuesday June 18, 2019
Wednesday June 19, 2019
Thursday June 20, 2019
Friday June 21, 2019
Saturday June 22, 2019
Sunday June 23, 2019

 

 

 
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.