Two old jails at Bannack, Montana. The one on the right is Montana’s first Jail. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, via Flickr, used with permission.


 By J.M. Moynahan

“They’ve hanged the sheriff!”

“They’ve hanged the sheriff!”

It was January 11, 1864, and the town was alive with the talk. If true, it was welcomed by some and mourned by others.

As events would soon reveal, they had indeed hung the 27-year-old sheriff, along with two of his deputies. The sheriff was Henry Plummer, the place Bannack City in what is now the State of Montana but was then Montana Territory. Ironically, Plummer met his end on a gallows he had constructed for a horse thief.

Hung by vigilantes

Sheriff Plummer and deputies Buck Stinson and Ned Ray were hanged the night of January 10, by a group of vigilantes. The vigilance committee believed the sheriff was the leader of a criminal gang known as “The Innocents” and that his two deputies were gang members.

There has been much debate by authors and historians as to whether Henry Plummer actually was the leader of the outlaw gang. Some have cast doubt on the stories about the questionable, interesting, and complex life of this early frontier sheriff.

Our interest in this article is not the truth or falsity of the crimes attributed to Plummer but rather the jail that built during his short tenure as sheriff (from May 24, 1863, until January 10, 1864.) It was the first jail built in Montana.

Old territorial capital

I left Butte, Montana, early in the morning heading south. I crossed the Continental Divide and was soon in the Big Hole River country and a beautiful valley. After a short stop at the Beaverhead County Museum in Dillon, I proceeded south to Montana Highway 278 and then west toward the Beaverhead National Forest and the old territorial capital of Montana — Bannack.

I went higher and higher off the valley floor until I was in the mountains. This area, like many parts of Montana, is sparsely populated. After turning off the highway onto a gravel road, I soon found I was traveling near Grasshopper Creek, which had been the location of a massive gold strike in 1862. The news brought thousands of miners to this desolate and beautiful country.

Montana’s first jail

Soon I arrived at Bannack, a genuine ghost town owned lock, stock and barrel by the State of Montana. It was all that I hoped for and actually even more.

I had researched the old town the year before I started the trip. I discovered that it had, in fact, the first jail built in what is now the State of Montana. The jail has been preserved, not restored. Actually, most of the town has been preserved rather than restored. By the time I discovered the facts about the jail, winter snows had begun in the high country, and the road to the town was impassable. Except for a ranger or two who act as caretakers, Bannack was utterly empty. There are, of course, tourists during the summer.

‘Frozen in time’

In Bannack, there are dozens and dozens of old buildings that are literally frozen in time and open to public view. An individual can appreciate some of what life used to be like when the ghost town was an actual living town. The only things missing from this place are household goods and the people. Most of the buildings are exactly as they were when left by their inhabitants.

My excitement continued as I started looking at the houses and stores, along with other structures, including a hotel and a church. I had armed myself with a map of the town, so I knew approximately where the jails were. Yes, jails plural. As luck would have it, there are two jails side by side. I made my way up Main Street until I came upon an alley that led to the jails. They were easy to identify as the larger one had bars over the windows — a dead give-away to a jail sleuth!

And here they were, the two buildings I had read about and waited almost a year to visit. They were in beautiful condition and represented outstanding examples of jails found in the early high country mining towns. (Bannack, incidentally, is at an elevation of 5,780 feet.)

The strikes begin

The area which now comprises Northern Idaho and Western Montana was explored by Lewis and Clark as well as various trappers and mountain men in the early 1800s. Of course, the original Americans had lived in the region for thousands of years. But early in the 1860s, the population was about to change, for soon thousands upon thousands of non-Indians would invade and settle the area.

There was a gold strike on the western slope of the Bitterroots late in the summer of 1860, and with it came a horde of prospectors. During the summer of 1861, the finds spread to Pierce City, Elk City, and Florence, all of which are now in the state of Idaho. Lewiston, farther to the west, became an important supply point for the miners.

Prospectors began to spread out and sample every river and creek in the area in hopes of finding enough of the elusive yellow metal to strike it rich. Visions of wealth beyond imagination drove many early miners, feeling that the next strike would be theirs.

Montana gold

One of the prospectors, John White, had come north from Colorado. He and a small party of “Pike’s Peakers” stopped on the banks of a creek to get some rest and do a little prospecting. His pan was soon put into the creek gravel, and it produced an abundance of gold.

White’s strike occurred July 28, 1862, and was the first great gold strike in what is now Montana. (Montana became the 41st state in 1889). The discovery took place on Willard’s Creek two miles east of where the town of Bannack would soon be born. The prospectors named the creek Grasshopper, not knowing that the Lewis and Clark party had already named it Willard’s Creek. The name Grasshopper stuck, and the name Willard lost.

The gold in the creek was of such abundance that when word was spread, it led to the most significant gold rush since the 1849 California Gold Rush. As it turned out later, not only the Grasshopper but many of the areas in the territory were rich with precious metals.

Soon boomers (people who would go from strike to strike) flooded the area, and the mining camp of Bannack sprung up.

Birth of Bannack

By the fall of 1862, the town of Bannack had grown beyond most people’s imagination. The valley — uninhabited just six months prior — had become a regular mining camp. Housing consisted of a series of wickiups, tents, lean-tos, and crude cabins. Merchants set up shop in tents and hastily constructed buildings. The camp was a beehive of activity.

During rainy periods the street was a quagmire of mud. In dry weather, one choked on the dust.

As winter approached, permanent structures replaced temporary living quarters. Although one couldn’t control outside elements, at least a person could make his living area more comfortable.

Soon the town would have a Main Street, which was dominated by males since few females initially came to these early camps. By the following spring, Bannack could boast three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, a brewery, a restaurant, a billiard hall and four saloons.

By this time, there were two sections of town straddling the Grasshopper and joined by a footbridge over the creek. The population was estimated at 3,000 in the town with another 2,000 in the surrounding hills.

Typical residences

The typical residence of this period was a small one-room cabin built of logs, some rough with the bark still attached, and others hand-hewn and relatively smooth. The logs were chinked between with mud. The floor was dirt covered with ryegrass and had an animal hide on top. The fur side was left up and was fastened down with wooden pegs.

Roofs were willow poles caked with mud and top-coated with a layer of shale. The shale hopefully would reduce the danger of fire from chimney sparks. Some roofs were merely sod covered with a growth of grass.

Furniture was generally crude. The stove or fireplace was used for heating and cooking. Bunks had mattresses stuffed with dry meadow grass. For most, living was functional rather than luxurious.

Good people (and not)

The vast majority of people who came to the area were law-abiding, with a primary goal to mind their own business, strike it rich and leave. Usually in that order. Some did.

But… others came hoping to strike it rich off the miners themselves rather than the land — some through legal means, such as stores, saloons, etc., and others through illegal means, such as con-games, robbery and murder.

Although they may have been called desperados, the lawless element or outlaws, they were plainly criminals. They were little different from the criminals of today who prey off law-abiding citizens.

The desperados 

Early Bannack criminals were involved in a variety of illegal activities. The initial attempt to deal with their illegal activity was through miners courts. Much of the time these miners’ courts were concerned with claims disputes.

Criminal offenses might be tried when the offender became too brazen or the crime too serious. The court would convene, and the miners present (all were invited) would hear testimony by the accused and accuser. Once testimony was complete, the assembled audience decided on questions of guilt and innocence. If the man (usually only males were involved) was found guilty, he might be fined or banished (or both). For more serious offenses, he would be executed. Horse stealing, claim-jumping, and murder were examples of capital offenses.

Quick verdicts

Most miners were too busy during the good weather to become very involved in these court proceedings. They were often impatient with a lengthy defense, so decisions were often fast, sometimes given before all the testimony was complete. Frequently it was, “he’s guilty, get a rope, let’s hang him now and be done with it!”

 An alternative to the miners’ court was an election of a judge, sheriff and coroner. Organizing a community this was was a particularly attractive alternative since most miners had more important things to do with their time than participate in trials.

First election, first trial

The first such election occurred in Bannack in early 1863 when the town’s first criminal trial took place. The miners in an assembly elected a Mr. Hoyt as judge and Hank Crawford as sheriff.

During Bannack’s first criminal trial Henry Plummer was put on trial for killing his one-time friend, Jack Cleveland. There is no question that Plummer did kill Cleveland, but it was considered to be a “fair fight.” By midnight of the trial date, he was found innocent of murder and released.

More trials followed, and the elements of a criminal justice system developed.

Sheriff Crawford and Henry Plummer almost immediately took a dislike to each other. Plummer had a strong personality and was particularly skilled at handling guns. Crawford was somewhat intimidated by him. Crawford said, “He (Plummer) or I must die or leave the camp.”

Two days after his statement, Crawford found Plummer standing across the street with one foot resting on a wagon spoke with his gun across his knee. Encouraged by friends, Crawford fired his double-barreled shotgun at Plummer. One of the balls entered Plummer’s right elbow and traveled down to his wrist. The force from the impact was so great that it knocked him down.

Plummer did not see who had fired the shot and exclaimed to those who came to his aid, “Some son of a bitch has shot me!” He eventually recovered much of the use of his arm, and Sheriff Crawford left town never to be heard from again.

Plummer is the new sheriff

Bannack Sheriff Henry Plummer

On May 24, 1863, elections were held again in Bannack City. Of the 554 votes cast, Henry Plummer received the majority and was elected sheriff for a one year term.

Plummer was a friendly man of vigorous character and apparently was liked by many citizens. He first came to Bannack in early November of 1862 and started working as a miner. He had been involved in some killings before his arrival. There are questions as to whether these were justifiable or not. The fiction that has since surrounded this man is considerable. Much conflicting literature has been produced; consequently, differentiating fact from fiction has been difficult.

In many ways, Plummer was a good choice for sheriff. His charm and appeal, when combined with his social and political savvy, put him in good stead. Also, he had prior law enforcement experience as a city marshal in Nevada City, California. He also feared few, if any, men.

As mentioned above, he was good with firearms. It is said that he could draw his pistol and fire five shots in three seconds. Shooting like that was no small feat and took considerable skill and practice. Many a man was well aware of his skill.

Plummer was a good administrator. After his electoral victory, he assumed duties as sheriff of Bannack and other areas in the Bannack district. He immediately developed an organization of deputies to help enforce the laws. Locally, he deputized Buck Stinson and Ray Ned. He deputized others to assist in the surrounding areas under his jurisdiction. When gold was discovered in Alder Gulch some 70 miles to the east of Bannack, his jurisdiction expanded, and he covered this area as well.

The sheriff was also a man who made himself available to assist anyone needing help or advice. This talent aided in his popularity since people felt they could go to him for “straight talk.”

Still no jail

The sheriff did not receive a regular salary. He was, instead, paid when he rendered specific services. For example, he got 25 cents for summoning witnesses and jurors, $1 for serving warrants, $2.50 for attending trials and 25 cents per mile travel expenses. The sheriff’s job was more than anything a community service. Plummer’s primary income came from his mining claims.

Prior to the time Plummer was elected sheriff, there was no jail. When a person was accused of a crime, he was held for a brief time until a miners’ court could be assembled and a trial held. The person held would probably be chained to a tree or wagon and guarded until court, after which he was either punished or set free.

Even with the election of the first judge and sheriff, there had been no talk about building a jail. It was probably Sheriff Plummer’s idea to develop such a structure. He probably reasoned that more civilized areas of the states had jails, so why not Bannack? Building a lock-up probably seemed like an excellent alternative to chaining and guarding a man.

Passing the hat

The major problem Sheriff Plummer faced was how to finance a jail. There were no funds for such an undertaking, so he struck upon the idea of having local citizens put up the money. He thus secured funds by obtaining individual subscriptions from townsfolk. He went around town and collected money from everyone who would pay. He took subscriptions for as little as $2.50.

Plummer probably took gold dust as well as “Lincoln Skins” from people. Depending upon the quality, gold dust was valued at about $18 an ounce and was considered legal tender. The Lincoln Skins were the dollars issued by the Union Government in the states.

It was probably no easy task to convince the citizens that building a jail was an acceptable alternative to dispatching justice in the usual manner. But Plummer was able to collect sufficient funds and the first jail in what is now the State of Montana was erected.

It should be noted that there is some dispute as to whether the jail was built in 1862 or 1863. Research now clearly indicates that it was constructed in 1863 after Plummer was elected Sheriff of Bannack.

Whether Sheriff Plummer constructed it himself, or whether he had help or contracted out the job is not known. He may not have even had a hand in the construction. Legend has it that he did build the jail. What we know for sure is that it was built and in place sometime after May 24 when he was sheriff.

After becoming sheriff, Plummer had his office at the back of George Chisman’s store. The jail is located a short distance to the south of the store. At the time, there was probably some sort of alley between the jail and the back of the store.

The original jail

The original jail is roughly 12-foot by 12-foot, making it about 144 square feet. It measures about six-foot, six-inches in height. The door faces north, and there is a small barred window next to the door. Another small barred window is found on the west wall.

This building was constructed of hand-hewn logs and probably had a sod roof. The interior was finished with milled lumber for the walls and planks on the floor. On the floor, there are two shackle rings. These were undoubtedly used as further security to make sure prisoners did not escape, especially at night or when the sheriff was away. Slop buckets probably were used and meals provided by friends of the accused, the nearby eating establishment or someone under contract with the sheriff.

Prisoners who were arrested in an area other than Bannack were probably held locally and if not immediately tried, were sent to the jail. It is unlikely that a large number were confined in the jail during Plummer’s reign as sheriff but probably enough to warrant its existence.

The construction of this facility is basic and sturdy. It looked a bit like some of the miner’s cabins of the time. Both this original jail — and the second jail built after it — boast of never having had an escape.

The second jail

Bannack’s second jail was built in the 1860s, probably sometime after the abrupt end of Sheriff Plummer’s career. This jail was a vast improvement over the first facility. While the original jail is only about 144 square feet, this second facility is almost twice as large, being about 270 square feet. This jail also was constructed of hand-hewn logs, which were carefully put in place. The roof was of sod, commonly found on many cabins and smaller structures.

The interior of the jail was finished with milled lumber for the walls and a plank floor. The plank floors in both jails may have been added at a later date. Unlike the first jail, which was a single room, this building contained two cells, each measuring 5’10” x 7’5”, or 43-1/2 square feet. (This provided 317 cubic feet per cell.) The ceiling height is 7’4”, a full 10 inches more than the original jail. The front cell has a window with five bars, while the rear cell has no windows facing outside. The cell doors are solid, but there are barred openings on the wall above each door.

Upon entering this jail, one finds a main room 13’ x 15’2”, the two cells being to the right. There is evidence of a chimney hole in the ceiling located about midway along the wall, which fronts the cells. The sheriff (and later marshal) most likely had his office here. The stove was used to warm the building. His desk was probably situated across the room from the stove.

Under normal conditions, there was probably only one prisoner per cell. With multiple criminals in captivity, there would most likely be double or triple bunking. After completion of the second jail, the original jail could have been used for overflow. There was no running water, consequently no toilet, so slop buckets were undoubtedly used. Prisoners were probably fed in their cells or taken to a cafe.

By the way, F. Lee Graves, author of Bannack: Cradle of Montana, in a telephone conversation in 1993, told me that the two jails were once connected by a common roof. 

When the county seat was moved from Bannack to Dillon in 1882, the jail was probably used by some sort of city marshal. There is little written about the jail after the 1800s.

Plummer’s legacy

Yes, vigilantes ended the life of Sheriff Henry Plummer on that cold night of January 10, 1864. Whether he was guilty or innocent of the crimes they charged him with, no one will know for sure. Ironically, he was never a prisoner in his own jail. So-called “justice” by the vigilantes was too swift.

Vigilantes were never known for their interest in dispensing due process. Many of these vigilantes were not known, and those who stepped forward later to speak often embellished and distorted what had happened.

Plummer’s guilt or innocence is not our concern. Our concern is that he left an important legacy to Bannack and the State of Montana. He left the first jail. This jail still stands as a silent testament to one lawman’s accomplishments – accomplishments of the sheriff they hanged!

Visiting Bannack

You can see the two old jails and 50-some other buildings in old Bannack by visiting the Bannack State Park. The park is open seasonally from early March to late October; a visitor center is open during the summer and on weekends in May and September. For specific hours, fees and special events, check the website.

Two campgrounds are located within the park, about a quarter-mile from the townsite. The park is located at 4200 Bannack Road, Dillon, Montana (but actually is about 26 miles from Dillon). For more information, call (406) 834-3413 or email:

J.M. MOYNAHAN is Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Criminal Justice, Eastern Washington University.