Lynch law and the wagon trains

On May 16, 1842 one of the first organized wagon trains, with one hundred and sixty souls, half of them armed men, left Elm Grove, Missouri for the Oregon Territory. At some point on their way one man proposed to steal an Indian pony and the rest of the group, worried about the consequences, decided to try the man before the entire company. But since he had only talked of stealing the horse and had actually done no wrong he was acquitted. This event caused much discussion about the need for rules of conduct. A committee was formed to discuss it but decided that no law other than the moral code enacted by the creator and recorded in every man’s heart was all that was required. Their verdict was met with great favor by the rest of the emigrants and sufficed to carry the party safely to the Willamette Valley.

Leaving Missouri by C.C.A. Christensen

Prior to the rush of 1849 more and more wagon trains made the long journey west, either to Oregon or California. Most of these trains consisted of neighbors, families and good friends who already knew each other and planned to settle in close proximity. They had recognized leaders and were generally subservient to the good of the whole. There was little need for a code of laws and, except in rare cases, it was never even thought of. Year after year more and more wagons laden with children, the cattle driven alongside, made their way across the great expanse of the continent with little more disagreement than if they’d never left the east.

Wagon Train re-inactment Utah 1912

But with the onset of the gold rush in 1849 when large mixed groups of adventurers headed west with no other purpose except to reach the mines in the fastest and least expensive way, it was quickly found that a code of conduct and provision for tribunals to enforce it was needed. Unlike those who came west by ship, there was no captain, no brig, and no law of the sea along the trail to California. Nearly every overland train thus began with a leader and regulations for the government and mutual safety of the members. But, like any law or code based on theory and not actual experience, these early codes were found to be insufficient and impracticable.

Covered Wagon

And it also proved that the majority of the companies, so carefully organized before departure, broke apart well before the South Pass across the Rocky Mountains. In 1849 there was an almost uninterrupted string of wagons and riders stretching as far as the eye could see. Men made new friends, traveled at a pace they were comfortable with, wagons broke down, and animals had problems. Parties would pass each other again and again as they worked their way west. Many men gave up their wagons altogether, preferring to carry their supplies by mule back. It was faster, the mules didn’t break down, were much easier to get across the high passes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Once into California the transient nature of the miners continued and was a major reason that the method of quick justice that came to be called Lynch law became such an important part of the early mining times.



  1. “Humans are inherently evil.” I don’t believe this and I’ve never believed the psychologists’ who condemn human frailty under duress as an indicment of all mankind, especially when we attempt to govern ourselves by our own rules as if we were akin to apes or monkeys. Its true some pioneers couldn’t obey rules or handle the rigors of traveling west by any means, wagon train or otherwise, and made hasty retreat home to safety where they were made to comform within societal guidelines. But instead, westward migration proved the human spirit could be an unbreakable and impregnable force against any adversary under voluntary or self-imposed constraints and regulations. I believe Americans are unique in this way. We govern ourselves and are made stronger by it. Humans are inherently good and I trust my fellow man in an open society to follow, “the moral code enacted by the creator” as you so eloquently point out, that these 1849 Gold Rush pioneers gave us a wholesome patern to live by, and a Lynch law for evil doers to die by.

    • Oh, you are so right, Randall! Americans are unique and so was the gold rush. I don’t think that anything like it could have happened anywhere else. Just think, gold is found in 1848. Thousands and thousands of people pour into California. Most were good, hard working men but with them came every crooked lawyer and corrupt politician who needed a fresh start, felons just released from English prisons in Australia, and half the bandito’s in Northern Mexico and all this with almost no government in place anywhere, no courts, no laws, no jails, no roads, no housing, few towns, little food and still, by the end of 1850, this rough frontier was made a state in the union. Amazing and only in America!

      • John, yes, Californians were an impressive lot to have taken a Spanish colony to statehood in such a short period of time. Wouldn’t it be an interesting comparison of these pioneers with modern day Californians?

        • Randall, one consideration towards statehood for California had to be the tremendous amount of gold. But aside from that, and this happened to some degree throughout the settlement of America, the journey to California in 1848-50, no matter the chosen route, was long, difficult and dangerous, only the strongest, healthiest and most ambitious men attempted it.

          We’ve come a long way as a people in education, technology and just general brain power since then, but we’ve sure lost a lot of the down to earth toughness the American pioneers had, no matter where they came from or where they settled.

  2. An interesting character that I came across was Ned McGowan who apparently had a notorious reputation in California during the gold rush there and then came up to BC and ‘ran’ Hill’s Bar near Yale with his gang of criminals. My short story Gold Bar in the Fraser Canyon is loosely based on his exploits. Have you come across Mr. McGowan in your stories? Cheers to a great blog!

    • Thanks for writing, Michelle. Ned McGowan was well known in San Francisco. He supplied the gun that James Casey used to kill James King of William. This was the final straw that caused a long suffering populace to organize the second version of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. It looks like Ned barely got out of town in time to save his own neck. I didn’t know he showed up in your backyard. He was a colorful character. I expect he caused some trouble up your way too.

  3. In the old western TV show, Have Gun Will Travel, Season 6, Episode 24, Caravan, aired Feb 23, 1963, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) states that by custom a wagon train was governed by maritime law, with the wagon master as captain. The 25-minute episode video is at

    TV script, at time 8:20:
    I want to tell you about an old American custom.
    Two wagons… one, two…comprise a wagon train.
    A wagon train is run by maritime law.
    I am the guide, the captain.
    If you interfere with one of my whims or fancies or orders, that interference constitutes mutiny, and I can have you imprisoned or put on bread and water.
    There are no yardarms out here and precious few trees.
    But if I so desire, I can send a wagon tongue on in, run a rope over the top, around your neck, and run you up, is that clear?

    • That’s an interesting comment, Jerry. From what I’ve read most of the early wagon trains were more democratic about punishment but after the gold rush things may have changed as the move west became a more organized commercial venture. Thanks for that great quote. I remember Paladin well. It still reruns on TV sometimes.

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