This month’s Legendary Lawman column came about through the reading of several books on Montana’s gold rush history. Several of these books are listed as fictional but contained just enough historical fact to force me to dive deeper into the subject. Most notably is Frederick Allen’s 2004 book, "A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes." As usual in the case of old west history, opinions differ on the “truth”. What is most interesting about Henry Plummer is that his life has been more thoroughly examined in the late 20th Century than it was just following his death. Some feel he was an honorable lawman and his reputation was attacked through innuendo and rumor for political reasons. Others claim he was a member of a lawless bunch that set out to steal from prospectors.
William Henry Handy Plumer was born in Addison, Maine sometime in 1832 to Jeremiah and Elizabeth (Handy) Plumer, he was one of eight children (or six or seven... tough to say). By all accounts he was well educated and came from a family background of seaman. The adult males (father, brothers and brother-in-law) were all sea captains. Henry was expected to follow in these footsteps but due to his slight build he was not physically suited to the rigors of the sea. This was an enormous disappointment to his family and probably an embarrassment to Henry. With the death of his father while Henry was in his teens the family fortune began to dissolve. This was all the push he needed, so he decided to follow a group that left Maine in search of gold out west.
On 27 April 1852, the nineteen-year-old sailed from New York aboard the U.S. mail ship Illinois to Aspinwall, Panama. From there he traveled by mule until he boarded the Golden Gate up the coast to San Francisco, California. On May 23rd he completed his coast-to-coast journey without incident and without a dollar to his name. Several accounts put young Mr. Plummer (no mention on when he changed the spelling of his last name) at work in a bakery. This lasted only until he had enough to follow his thirst for adventure and run off to the gold fields. Apparently he must have done well, as a year after arriving in California he had obtained a ranch and a mine outside the county seat of Nevada City. Trading shares in the mine for a local business, the Empire Bakery, he was now a respected member of the community.
Two years after the purchase of the Empire Bakery, Plummer was persuaded to run for town sheriff and city manager. At this time Nevada City was the third largest city in the state and being a politician was much more to Plummer’s taste than working a bakery. He was elected the Nevada City town marshal in 1856, making him the only lawman for miles. After re-election in 1857 Plummer had a run in with a miner names John Vedder. Apparently our young marshal was having an affair with Vedder’s wife and when Vedder discovered this he called Plummer out. Plummer shot him dead in the street without much effort.
While many saw the shooting as a “fair” fight the case eventually went to the California Supreme Court. Plummer was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin in February 1859. Being of ill health (some claim he had tuberculosis) and still having some political clout (many residents petitioned the Governor to stay his sentence), Plummer was released from jail on August 16, 1859. While his reputation was tarnished, many believed Henry Plummer to be a trustworthy man of the law. So, in May of 1863 Plummer was elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana.