A vigilance committee, in the 19th century United States, was a group of private citizens who organized themselves for self-protection. The committees were established in areas where there was no local law enforcement, or where the local government was ineffectual, corrupt, or unpopular. The groups, despite generally held opinions, were not mobs of unorganized individuals bent on revenge of the moment, but usually well-organized, with charters defining their purposes and official membership lists. Some were public, but many were secret. Secrecy prevented retaliation by lawless or corrupt organizations and also made it difficult for government officials to pursue criminal charges in areas where the government held jurisdiction. Vigilance committees are not unique to the United States and existed into the 20th century.
Committees were set up for a number of reasons. Because of population differences (politics and settlement patterns), the purposes generally fell into certain geographical areas.
In the North
Before the Civil War
, Fugitive Slave Laws
authorized slave hunters to pursue run-away slaves
into non-slave states. All through the North
, vigilance committees opposed to slavery provided fugitive slaves food, clothing, temporary shelter, etc. They also assisted run-aways in making their way
, which did not recognize the Fugitive Slave Act.
In the South
In the South
, before the Civil War, vigilance committees harassed local abolitionists
. After the Civil War, they resisted and intimidated the unpopular government officials
appointed and elected under Reconstruction
. (see Jim Crow)
In the West
In the western United States
, both before and after the Civil War, the primary purpose of these committees was to maintain law and order and administer summary justice where law enforcement was inadequate. In the newly settled areas vigilance committees provided security and mediated land disputes. In ranching areas they ruled on ranch boundaries, registered brands, and protected cattle and horses. In the mining districts, perhaps the most lawless areas of all, they protected claims, settled claim disputes, and attempted to protect miners and other citizens. In California
they were organized to take control from corrupt and criminal government officials.
Vigilance committees were generally abandoned when the conditions favoring their creation ceased to exist. The northern antislavery committees disbanded when slavery was abolished. The southern groups also dissolved when the Federal government returned the state governments to the control of their citizens at the end of Reconstruction. In the west, as governmental jurisdiction achieved the degree that courts could dispense justice, the citizens abandoned the committees.
Vigilance committees, by their nature, lacked an outside set of checks and balances
leaving them open for excesses and abuse. Lynchings
and murder of law-abiding citizens were common in the South. In the West, swiftness of justice sometimes led to the innocent being hanged or to them just disappearing. A few committees were taken over by fraudulent individuals seeking profit or political office.
- Anti Horse Thief Association; 1860s, organized at Fort Scott, Kansas
- Atchison County Protective Association; 1880s, Atchison County, Kansas
- Bald Knobbers; 1880s, Taney and Christian counties, Missouri
- Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
- Bodie 601; 1881, Bodie, California
- Boston Vigilance Committee; 1842, Boston, Massachusetts
- Colored Vigilance Committee; 1840s, Detroit, Michigan
- Citizens' Safety Committee; 1864, Aurora, Nevada Territory
- Female Vigilant Association; 1837, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Free State Vigilance Committee; 1850s, Lawrence, Kansas
- General Vigilance Committee; 1852, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Invisible Empire of the South, 1870s, Southern United States
- Jackson County (Indiana) Vigilance Committee (aka Scarlet Mask Society), 1868 hung 10 members of the Reno Gang
- Knights of the White Camilia, 1870s, Southern United States
- Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1869, Southern United States (not the current reconstituted Ku Klux Klan)
- Los Angeles Vigilance Committee; 1850, Los Angeles, California
- Mexico Vigilance Committee; 1850s, Mexico, New York
- Neutral City Vigilance Committee, 1880s, No Man's Land, Oklahoma
- New Orleans Vigilance Committee; 1850s, New Orleans, Louisiana
- New York Committee of Vigilance; 1850s, New York
- New York State Vigilance Committee; 1850s, New York
- Philadelphia Vigilance Committee; 1837, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Committee of Vigilance; 1851 & 1856, San Francisco, California
- Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia; 1840s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- 3-7-77 Vigilance Committee; 1860s, Virginia City, Montana
- "601" Vigilance Committee; 1880s, Virginia City, Nevada
- "601" Vigilance Committee; 1880s, Eureka, Nevada
- "601" Vigilance Committee; 1880s, Hiko, Nevada
- Vigilance Committee; 1830s, Bytown (Ottawa), Ontario, Canada
- Vigilance Committee; 1850s, Salt Creek, Leavenworth, Kansas
- Vigilance Committee; 1860s, Cheyenne, Wyoming
- Vigilance Committee; 1860s, Virginia City, Montana
- Whitechapel Vigilance Committee 1888 - 1989, London, UK founded as a means of attempting to capture Jack the Ripper.
- Ypsilanti Vigilance Committee, founded 1838, Ypsilanti, MI
In film and media
The Ox-Bow Incident
is a 1943 movie directed by William A. Wellman
for Twentieth Century Fox
. The story tells of a group of men pursuing cattle rustlers. It was based the novel of the same name written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Other uses of the term
- Vigilance Committee is also currently used by some self-interest groups to monitor the actions of others.
- Vigilance Committee is also used by history buffs for certain of their groups.
Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes
, by Roger D. McGrath. University of California Press, 1984. ISBN 0-520-06026-1