Law and Order
By Ron Marlow
The gold strikes in Idaho Territory brought in many unsavory characters. Some were escaping the ravages of the Civil War in the southern states and congregated with fellow countrymen in mining camps such as Dixie, in Central Idaho, the mining camps on the Secesh River, northeast of McCall and Leesburg near Salmon, where the town was divided with the "Secessionists" on one end and Yankees on the other end of town. Tempers flared up and the Civil War was fought in camps and towns where there was no law. Mining camp dockets were loaded with issues concerning mining problems. Convicted criminals served their time in county jails and Idaho Territory stood the expense that many went unpunished. Settlers were fed up with law breakers so came together to organize Vigilante Committees.
After horses had been stolen from him and neighbors in the Payette River Valley several times, Henry Paddock, of the Hay Press Ranch, called a meeting of settlers at the Block House, west of Emmett, to consider this issue. A Constitution and by-laws were adopted by the group that started "Criminals caught would be given a trial by a jury of seven members. They had to render a unanimous verdict which was final. The first punishment was banishment in 24 hours. The second was public horsewhipping. The third was capital punishment." That Payette Vigilante Committee was organized.
One man stood out in the group because of his leadership, abilities, personality and common sense, William J. McConnell. He was an educated man, stood six feet, four inches tall, brushy sandy hair and had blue eyes. The group respectfully called him, "Captain."
The first business was to get rid of the Bogus Gold Dust dealers who were peddling fake gold dust to establishments that catered to minors who left their gold dust for later withdrawals only to find that their dust had been "watered down." A confrontation at Pickett's Corral, east of Emmett, with some of the bogus gold dealers, resulted in their leading the territory within 24 hours. (Bogus Basin is named for the men that often traversed the Bogus Basin Road to the Boise Valley)
Next to be routed out where the Stewart Brothers, Alex and Charley, who operated the Washoe Ferry on the Snake River and dealt with stolen horses. The vigilantes surprised them in the middle of the night and they were convinced to leave the territory or be hung.
The Pickett Corral Gang was the next to leave. They'd been in the stolen horse business with the Stewart Brothers at Washoe and Sheriff Dave Updike of Ada County. Horses were driven over the hill to the Boise Valley to a Ranch one Dry Creek where Dave Updike sold them to buyers in Nevada and Oregon.
The operations of the Payette Vigilantes greatly upset the Ada County Sheriff - the contacts at Washoe Ferry were gone and the Pickett Corral Gang were gone. He deputized some of his gang to go to Horseshoe Bend with warrants, arrest McConnell and any of the Payette Vigilantes. A fast rider on horseback got word to the Captain and he immediately headed to the ranch on Dry Creek to confront the gang. Catching them off guard in the night time, they were convinced to drop the charges and disband or face "Vigilante Justice." Returning home, nothing more was heard nor done. Later the sheriff was found dead, hanging from a tree on the Syrup Ranch east of Boise. Pinned to his jacket was a note outlining the charges against him.
McConnell's reputation spread far and wide. At Idaho City, Sumner Pickham, the first Sheriff of Boise County, was murdered by a southern sympathizer, Ferd Patterson. The murder was staged and the only witnesses were Patterson’s cronies. Deputy Sheriff "Rube" Robbins caught the fleeing criminal and put him in jail to be held for trial. An Idaho City Vigilante committee was organized after this outrageous murder. Captain McConnell was called in to help set up the organization since he'd had experience and success in ridding the Payette River Valley of the criminal element. About 900 men wanted to storm the jail and get Patterson but McConnell convinced them that the courts would dispense justice. He told the crowd that it wasn't worth sacrificing 40 or 50 men's lives to hang a criminal. They thought it over and returned to their homes.
About 20 Payette Vigilantes came over from the Payette Valley to check on their leader, Captain McConnell. In the meantime tempers were at boiling point with the townspeople in Idaho City. They erected a barricade near the jail in hopes of getting to the prisoner. McConnell told his Payette Vigilantes to stay on the south side of More’s Creek. The Sheriff was in the middle protecting his jail and prisoner and the Idaho City Vigilantes were on the other side of the barricade. After a meeting of all the principles involved it was decided to let the courts handle the trial. It went as expected by the townspeople - Patterson was acquitted. The only witness was for the defense and they testified that Sheriff Robbins drew his gun first. Patterson was released and he left town only to be gunned down and killed in Walla Walla in February 1866.
With the clearing out to the criminal element in the Payette River Valley, the demise of the Updike and Pickett Corral Gangs and disposition of the Bogus Gold dealers, law and order finally came to southern Idaho Territory. From 1863 to 1896 eleven men were legally hanged in Idaho for murder although about 250 murderers escaped punishment.
William J. McConnell and the Payette Vigilantes led the way for law and order to be established in the Idaho Territory. He went on to become a U.S. Senator in 1890. From 1893 to 1896 he served as Idaho's second elected Governor and a U.S. Indian Inspector from 1897 until 1901. He died in Moscow, Idaho March 30, 1925.