Crime and Punishment in the Gold Camps (Part 1)

 (Imagine this old ghost as a rip-roarin' gold camp in its heyday.)

As most of you know, I'm a student of western mining history as well as being a small-scale gold prospector and miner. In this post I'll be touching on two important issues that affected early gold camps in the American West: crime and punishment (tip of the hat to Russian author Dostoyevsky).

Society Went by the Wayside

It should come as little surprise to anyone that lawlessness and violence were part and parcel of virtually every early mining camp or boom town that was spawned by the presence of gold. This holds true not only for the American West but just about every nation in the world (e.g., Australia, Canada, Africa) where workable deposits of the yellow metal were found. Any time you mix gold with alcohol, guns, gambling, and prostitution there's bound to be excesses committed in every imaginable way and without reservation. Raw impulse and reaction replaces logic and thoughtful deliberation. Just as the crimes committed in the gold camps were often impulsive and deadly, so was the justice meted out as punishment for those transgressions. And often, the "just" part of justice went missing in action.

 (Gold was always the main focus.)

The aspiring Argonauts who poured into the gold camps of the American West were primarily young, brash, wildly optimistic, and totally unprepared for the "adventure" they were about to embark on. Their lives at home were, for the most part, static and driven by the strong social and religious values of the day. Acting out or acting up were not only considered signs of poor upbringing but could bring down instant punishment or even unspoken banishment from "polite" society. Of course, all of this social rigidity and control went by the wayside once miners reached the diggings, wherever those might be. Gold camps were not, by and large, directed by politeness, consideration for others, or the highest moral values. Drunkenness, thievery, violence, and yes...even murder were commonplace in most stages of a gold camp's boom-and-bust cycle and in some instances, these negative attributes tainted boom towns right to the bitter end. You see, the only thing that truly and finally resolved the presence of crime in the gold camps was when the gold ran out and the camps folded up.

Order Over Chaos no Matter What

That said, gold camp justice was swift and sure, and left little room for debate or appeals of any sort. There may not have been many rules or much law in the gold camps at first, but unlike our modern era, the rules and the law that were eventually established favored those who had been preyed upon and not their criminal predators (after all, there were no bleeding heart sob-sister organizations around back then to help criminals). For the most part, the miners in the camps (placer or lode-based) didn't have much time for lawyers or extended hearings or trials. They had claims to protect and gold to dig. So in many gold camps it was good ol' "Judge Lynch" who held sway. Who was Judge Lynch? He was a mythical figure who typically showed up in the camps as an angry mob armed with a length of rope and little patience for the offender(s) who were either hung outright from the nearest tree, or whipped within an inch of their lives or banished (or both). Some gold camps gained such a fearsome reputation regarding the punishment meted out to local offenders and criminals that their very names reflected this. Placerville, now a seemingly thriving community at the lower end of California's Northern Motherlode Region used to be called "Hangtown" back in the old days. And hang them they did in Hangtown. The first three offenders (what crimes they committed remain murky to this very day) were judged and convicted by an assembly of local miners, many of whom were roaring drunk at the time, and then hung.

 (Four n'er-do-wells strung up out side the Yreka, California courthouse in the late 1800s. Yreka was the center of the gold mining boom in the Siskiyous at the time.)

What crimes were typical of the day and could warrant such extreme punishment in the gold camps? Killings or murder and robbery or theft (usually of gold dust) were the common violations. But some criminals were tried, judged, and executed for cheating at gambling (a common vice in the camps) or even horse theft. Claim jumping or the theft of mining equipment or gear could also merit severe judgment in the camps because these things were viewed as "the bread and butter" of each and every miner's existence and reason for being where they were. The punishment that criminals suffered in the camps was dictated largely by the nature of the crime and how drunk (or sober) or harsh (or lenient) those dispensing justice felt at any given time since there were no exact standards, regulations, laws or recognized statutes in the camps. If a criminal got lucky he was horsewhipped or banished from that particular camp or locale. In a small number of instances offenders who were horsewhipped actually died from their injuries, so this punishment was always painful and sometimes fatal. Since no formal society or law existed in the camps for the most part, the miners and the local merchants placed a very high value on swift justice, whatever that might mean for a potential offender. The rights of the miners and the local citizens had to be respected and some sort of order had to be established in the camps lest chaos reign supreme.

Too Many Rats

Interestingly enough, in the beginning days, weeks, and months of a new gold strike the camps were relatively safe and crime free. How could this be, you ask? For the simple reason there was still plenty of gold ground to go around, open space to claim, and fairly decent types of individuals looking to mine gold. Let's use an analogy here. Just like two rats in a roomy cage, miners (and those around them) got along well since there was enough to go around for all concerned. However, once more rats started entering the cage, first just a few in a slow trickle and then more and more in a veritable torrent until hundreds or even thousands arrived, the cage became unbearably crowded and elements of the rat population turned on themselves in savage fashion. This rats-in-the-cage analogy may not be flattering but it's true nonetheless and has been proven with real rats in real cages. Add into this volatile mixture the arrival of thieves, hustlers, con men, saloon keepers, whores, gambling cheats, card sharps, and every other conceivable form of n'er-do-well and low life imaginable and you have a recipe for disaster in the making. Some people are going to get absolutely plowed with liquor, envious or jealous, have sharp words, desire what others hold or have, steal from one another, or beat, stab, or shoot one another. I call this the "Too many rats in the cage theory." On that not-so-happy note I'll leave you to consider all this.

(Put too many rats in the cage and voila!)

There's more to come so stay tuned.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, another great post! The gold rush town of Bannock Montana (now one of the best kept ghost towns) is famous not only for being one of Montana's best gold strikes, but also for it's outlaws. The "Innocents" was the name of a large gang of outlaws that terrorized the area. The sheriff, Henery Plumber was the leader of the gang, also known as the Plumber gang. When it was learned Henery was the leader, they strung him up. They also hung others in the area. 4 outlaws were hung in nearby Virgina City Montana, one by the name of Frank Parish. Frank ran the rattlesnake station stage stop,and was rumored to give wealthy travelers a red silk bandana from the "friendly" stage operator.......this marked him as having money to be robbed by the gang. He is of special interest to me because my Great Grandpa Fred Parish told us he was family. We have not been able to prove it, but he was supposed to be an Uncle to me. True or not, I'll claim him! Thanks for this post JR, as you know, I love this stuff! Gary


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