Headline from 1860s newspaper.

Headline from 1860s newspaper.

BACK WHEN: Olympic Peninsula history shows the danger of vigilantism

SOME PEOPLE ARE known by your local community to be the sources of recent crimes. What do you do? What would any reasonable community do? Form a committee, of course.

That is what people in Dungeness did in the 1860s. They formed a vigilance committee.

In the 1860s, law enforcement was sparse and it was not uncommon for communities to band together in vigilance committees. A vigilance committee was simply a group of private citizens that took it upon themselves to administer law and order. These people did not think the existing system was adequate enough. We can think of them as vigilantes.

These committees took many forms. Our current perceptions are shaped by the many vigilance committees that were explicitly grounded in racial prejudice and xenophobia. Other committees simply wanted to administer extrajudicial punishment.

These committees were not always frowned upon. Nor were they limited to the backwoods areas. An obituary I once read indicated this person was a prominent member of the vigilance committee in San Francisco.

A newspaper article described 1860s Dungeness glowingly. “Dungeness was a place of genuine frontier hospitality. No one ever happened along about mealtime without being invited to partake of food. Good neighbors there were, and few quarrels.”

That all changed when several men abandoned their duty to the British Navy while in Victoria, B.C. Jack Tucker, Nick Adams, Tommy Gould and Harry Martin were sailors on a British man-of-war. They decided the Olympic Peninsula was better than serving in the British navy.

It appears these men became “reckless through drink and debauchery.” It was reported that they lived with indigenous women, drinking and having a raucous time.

People concluded that these men felt the country owed them a living. That living was to be fulfilled through theft.

Chicken coops were robbed. Corn disappeared. Sheep, cattle and pigs were killed. The last straw occurred when a flock of sheep were driven past a home in broad daylight. The sheep were driven into a nearby barn.

Hezekiah Davis, who was in charge of the sheep, was tracking the sheep. Davis was joined by Marion Weir and they found the sheep in a corral. Jack Tucker was found there with a bloody knife in his hand. Tucker claimed the sheep were trying to bite him. He had to kill them in self-defense.

Within the hour, Tucker was arrested. He had been caught literally red-handed.

Tucker was arrested and tried in court for his crime. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. But Clallam County had no jail. So Tucker lived with the sheriff for 30 days.

That should be the end of it. But no. After Tucker was released, he and his friends continued in their nefarious ways. It is important to consider the context of the time. In the 1860s, the loss of a cow, pig or sheep could jeopardize your winter provisions. Today when we run out of hamburger, we simply run to the local grocery store. Not so back then.

The community had enough. These people were hardly the kind who would let their families be deprived of the necessities of life. As a result, Dungeness formed a vigilance committee consisting of 34 people. The committee also included people from Sequim and Port Angeles.

It is no surprise that these people viewed themselves as quiet, law-abiding citizens. In addition, it is no surprise these people believed law enforcement and court were a farce. Therefore, they felt justified in taking the law into their own hands.

The four perceived ringleaders, Jack Tucker, Nick Adams, Tommy Gould and Harry Martin, were given the choice of leaving the country or being hung. They sensibly chose to leave and were warned to never return.

Despite the warning, Jack Tucker defied the committee and returned. Some people believed Tucker returned to vote. That view seems odd since Tucker was not a citizen.

It was reported that Tucker was on Charley Bradshaw’s farm, which was where the town of Dungeness later stood.

The vigilance committee hurriedly assembled and held Bradshaw under arrest at gunpoint. The committee spent much of the day searching the farm for Tucker without success.

Sadly, two days later, Tucker’s body was found dead on a nearby farm with a gunshot wound through the heart.

Because of their actions, the vigilance committee was prosecuted and later paid fines for their actions.

It was never known who killed Tucker. In a sad sort of way, the community was relieved these men were gone.

The other two gathered a group in Victoria with the sole purpose of vengeance. They planned to cross over in the night. It appears they planned to capture John Weir, E. H. McAlmond and James Sherard and kill them. These men were likely the leaders of the vigilance committee. After that, the plan was to terrorize the community.

It was reported that these men had recruited 80 people to return with them. But when it was time to depart Victoria, many backed out. The plans fell apart.

Instead, the group of men filed a civil suit for damages in Port Townsend. They won their case and received compensation. But they never returned to Clallam County.

There were several points of view expressed during that time. One was that these men had abandoned their own country and illegally entered ours, bent on causing problems.

Another point of view saw these men as being persecuted for their political beliefs. It was during the Civil War period that strongly held sympathies were held for either the Union or the Southern states. Some held that English sailors supported the South while the vigilance committee supported the Union. Both views have overtones familiar to us even today.

This may not be a glorious time in our history. Yet we only need to see the news and realize that the spirit of vigilantism still seems to exist. We should always remain watchful, thoughtful and considerate of others.


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrowsilly@gmail.com.

McNutt’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

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