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        3-5,13+

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        Montana | Activity 8.7: Frontier Justice in the Lawless West

        Students watch a video about what justice was like in Montana before the structured law was enacted, and learn about the challenges of establishing law through the lens of a Virginia City trial.

        Lesson Summary

        Students watch a video about what justice was like in Montana before the structured law was enacted, and learn about the challenges of establishing law through the lens of a Virginia City trial.

        This lesson is part of "Great States: Unit 8: State Government & Constitution" which gives students the opportunity to explore some unique features of Montana’s politics and government, both in the past and today.

        Time Allotment

        20-30 minutes

        Learning Objectives

        Standards

        2.4: Explain how governments provide for the needs and wants of people by establishing order and security and managing conflict.

        4.1: Identify and use various sources of information (e.g., artifacts, diaries, photographs, charts, biographies, paintings, architecture, songs) to develop an understanding of the past. 

         

        Supplies

        Directions

        1. Explain to students that a gold rush in 1862 led to settlers flocking to what is now Virginia City. Among the people to come were doctors, lawyers, farmers, merchants, and those fleeing the Civil War back east.

        1. Explain that when settlers came to Montana, they were building communities from scratch: there were no infrastructure, lawmakers, or justice systems. Without these things in place, the city lacked a system for electing officials, thus it was difficult to set up permanent laws in Virginia City. The people who moved there did not have the intention of staying—they came to make money and then leave. Grassroots justice stood up against the violence and lawlessness that ensued. The Secretary of War stationed soldiers close by to keep order.

        1. Tell students they will be watching a video about the justice environment in Virginia City during its early development.

        1. Play the video, Corrupt Leaders: Montana - The Second Century. [5:43]

        1. Have students answer the following as a class discussion:

          1. What was Henry Plummer’s gang called?

          2. Why were Virginia City and neighboring towns considered to be “outside the influence of organized law?”

          3. Why did historian Michael Malone say that chaos reigned in places like Virginia City?

        1. Explain that members of the community ran the trial of Plummer’s gang members. The three judges were doctors, and the prosecutor was a blacksmith. The jury was practically a street mob and ruled to hang Stinson and Lyons (Forbes was let go). Pleas from some people resulted in the banishment of Stinson and Lyons instead. Explain that the banishment was ineffective and the men came back within the year, though they met their deaths later. Other trials throughout Montana were conducted this way, and many outlaws, known as “road agents,” were hanged.

        1. Ask students, “Do you think it would be easy or hard to set up a new justice system?” If time allows, have students spend 15 minutes making a list of classroom rules. Write their suggestions on the board. Ask students how they think their rules should be enforced. Would they elect a classroom sheriff? Are there consequences if a rule is broken? Would they need to hold class courts when someone breaks a rule?

        Answer Key

        Discussion questions:

          1. The Innocents

          2. No courts, jails, police, or army outpost nearby

          3. No state government, no working territory government, camps were isolated, and no strong federal presence meant that there was no effective government

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