Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Chouteau County Courthouse, built 1885, Fort Benton

As it turns out, the chapter John Sharp, in his book “Whoop Up Country,” calls “Law in Chouteau County” is more relevant to modern times than I expected.  Sharp's idea is that in contrast to the Canadian strategy of governmental persuasion to order, the Montana side was a free-for-all created by individualism, profit, and hatred for federal law.  On the US side some larger-than-life figures went after law-breakers, giving rise to a major literary genre of John Wayne types, but not before exasperated local citizens resorted to vigilantism (lynch mobs).  After all, a lot of them were from the South where black people were lynched, so that seemed right to them.  Horse thieves deserved the rope.  

Sharp says, writing in 1955, that corrupt law enforcement and pre-Revolutionary laws that were rigid and irrelevant created lots of criminal opportunity that I note have continued to the present.  And yet he says that between 1875 and 1881, Fort Benton settled down.  The people there are rather proud of their chaotic past and believe they are in control.  I was once in conversation with one of their local historians (there are many of them) who had just finished an account of what he thought was the last of the brothels.  (It’s typical of old male historians to have a special fondness for frontier female prostitutes but, strangely, so do the business and professional women of Great Falls, who like to dress up as "Miss Kitty.")  I said, “How do you know it was the last?  Maybe you just don’t recognize them now.”  The several women in the room jumped to agree.  Must be a novel in that.

"Soiled Doves" in Butte

In the meantime, let’s look at the big name sheriffs, working for a citizenry that operated on popularity with special consideration for the wealthy.  Henry Plummer was Chouteau’s first sheriff but also the head of a gang of road agents around Sun River until he was hanged by vigilantes in Bannack in 1863.  He was 32.  There are many versions of his life and demise.  The one linked here is not so traditional.  http://www.historynet.com/henry-plummer.htm

John J. Healy (“Johnny”) was Irish, a whiskey trader until the Mounties arrived, and an economic failure in spite of extraordinary energy.  He finally found his feet where politics and law enforcement met.  As Sharp puts it, “Johnny Healy was the law, and the law was what Johnny Healy chose to enforce.”  He particularly enjoyed being out on the trail, tracking the bad guys, and then dealing with them harshly when he caught them.  But in 1879 the horse thieves were doing so well that Johnny couldn’t keep up, so the big freighting companies sent for 25 Pinkerton agents who restored order.  (My mother's maiden name was Pinkerton -- distantly related.)

Sharp claims that Joe Kipp found it safe to carry “sums of money in excess of $100,000 across the plains to Fort Macleod without trouble.”  He doesn’t explain why Kipp would do such a thing, where the money came from, or how it was documented or corraborated since the only practical strategy would have been total secrecy.  Possibly the money was in the form of a check or bond sewn into his underwear, rather than a pack of cash or wagon of gold.

Johnny Healy’s law enforcement career ended when he was assigned the unpopular jobs of tax assessor and collector.  In 1882 he built a new prison which was a building created around a steel cage.  This increased his unpopularity because of the cost.  Small time crime was handled simply by a fine paid to the sheriff.  Even when Bob Scriver became a Justice of the Peace about 1960, he was instructed that this was the protocol and was handed a shoebox of unnumbered citation forms plus a little starter money.  One of the most common practices in the 1880's was just to float nuisance criminals on their way somewhere else.  The Blackfeet Tribal Court has been experimenting with that here recently.

When Sharp looked at the records in Sun River, he found a cruelty against animals complaint dating to 1870 and accusations requiring good behavior bonds as high as $1250 against people using “insulting and abusive language.”  This must be why the Internet is called a “frontier,” though no person on the provider platforms today is required to post a bond -- maybe the companies.  Sharp says the penalties were harsh for those who made “indecent and foul statements” in the presence of women.  These days those statements would probably be about questioning equality.

County sheriffs were not the only source of law and order.  Sharp feels that Deputy United States Marshall Charles D. Hard from 1869 to 1873 can legitimately take credit for much of the cleaning up.  John X Beidler, who liked to call himself merely X. Beidler, got his start with vigilantes, a Dutchman among the Irish.  In Kansas he rode with John Brown, but in Virginia City, Montana, he was a butcher, a cattle drover, and an adventurer in the gold fields, who was finally legitimated by riding shotgun for Wells Fargo.  In the end he died notorious but broke and ill.  Healy, like John Conrad, went to Alaska where the trail grows cold.
Making drunkenness normal.

“Norming” is a concept about how people accept the philosophical error of “from IS to OUGHT,” that is, acceptance of the status quo as the only possible reality.   Even today we have a lot of norms that need to be changed, for instance, the idea that it's normal and inevitable to kill prostitutes, especially if they are Indians.   Moving that blindness over to new insight about what can and should be done is a frontier enterprise removing society from embattled violence that justifies just about anything.  It's not easy and it's always a job that is incomplete.  Normal strategy is (1) a matter of protesting that disorder is bad for business and (2)  churches try to expose and protest what has been taken for granted.  These strategies can be heard in contemporary political debates, but the norm is still where it has been for decades.  Some wonder whether the media reinforce low expectations.

At one point Johnny Healy’s effort at "forced conformity" was something he considered a harmless joke:  He was holding Bad Bull, a Canadian Blood Blackfoot, as an accused horse thief.  Before releasing him, Healy close-clipped the man’s long hair, and then everyone mocked the new skinhead, laughing in the same way as people laugh today at tricking Islam people into eating forbidden food.  Breaking other people’s taboos is SO much fun.  Until it becomes a time bomb of hatred.  Many people are now trying to re-norm such bullying, fighting the idea that there is only one true way, the way in the limited minds of people imposing violations and stigmas.

Buffalo Soldiers, Fort Keogh
Re-normed by the Civil War

The US Military was also present in these years, though much drained by the Civil War and accommodating hardened and sometimes below-standard men.  They introduced little bubbles of civilization in much the same way as is illustrated in the current BBC/PBS series called  “Indian Summers,” about the time in India when new politics of revolution turned norms on their heads, empowering East Indians in a way unthinkable at the time.  The American cavalry did run little fort schools, drafting officers and whatever other men had some knowledge.  They even put on plays.  They were pretty dubious spellers, but there were newspapers, and literary societies (book club anyone?).  The ladies were thrilled when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police rode down to confer with American officers.  

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