Justice on the wagon trains

It was said to have started with a Virginia farmer named Lynch who caught a thief then tied the man to a tree and personally flogged him instead of handing him over to officers of the law. Lynch, it seems, had little regard for the capabilities of the law or for the efficiency of the local courts and so dispensed his own justice and thus bypassed the technicalities and delays of the legal system. This summary administration of law by irresponsible and irregular individuals and tribunals in places where regular courts existed then came to be called Lynch law. But along the great migration route across the country, between the Mississippi River and California, there were no regular courts and, in most cases, no established law to follow. Still, all summary proceedings outside the bounds of strict court procedure, both during the gold rush and later, came to be labeled under the grand umbrella of Lynch law.

A wagon train arrives in California, Bancroft Library

But even on the plains of 1849 this was not new to many. As early as the 1830s the Cherokee along the Santa Fe Trail near the crossing of the Arkansas River sentenced fraudulent debtors to “take the benefit of the bankruptcy law” whereby the delinquent debtor was seized, tied to a post, and stripped bare so that each of his creditors could score across the poor man’s back with a whip or hickory switch the amount of his bill at the rate of one blow per dollar owed. Afterward the creditors were expected to declare themselves perfectly satisfied and could not afterward be persuaded to take even one cent from the debtor who it was said had “paid with his hide.”

Fort Kearny, BYU Library

One of the first of the gold rush summary trials happened in 1849 on the plains near Fort Kearney. One emigrant learned that another man had badly insulted his wife and, without waiting for explanation or apology, promptly shot the man. His companions took the killer to the fort for trial, but after the facts were heard it was found that the offense was great enough to produce an ungovernable passion in a reasonable mind and he was acquitted. But soon after, along the Humboldt River, a man who considered it in his own best interest to stay ahead of his companions set fire to the meadows of dry grass he came by so as to deny them to others and help to prevent those who followed him from catching up. At this point in the journey grass, so necessary for the animals, was already scarce and the burning of the meadows put men and their animals in great jeopardy. Therefore a company of men was formed from those following and, riding their very best horses, they soon caught up with the offending arsonist. He was then shot dead from his saddle as he tried to flee. Justice had been done in the simplest, most efficient manner possible. This absence of law along the trail, followed soon after by corrupt and incompetent officials in gold rush towns and cities, led to the vigilantism of the 1850s.



  1. It always seemed to me that calmer minds would try for justice when given the chance, but passions being what they are, lead to a bastardization of justice. Of course having spent twenty years working within the juvenile system there might be a case of things not always getting better. (Smile)

    • After the Rocky Mountains the travelers would encounter bad water, little grass and often ran short of food. Their animals died, especially the oxen. I think they could get a little short tempered at someone who would burn the grass their animals needed. We are a softer, gentler society now.

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