Wilbur Fisk Sanders, a Force in Early Montana
“The Most Unscrupulous Man Who Ever Disgraced the Legal Profession”
BY GARY R. FORNEY
Love him or hate him—and there were plenty of those who were in each camp—one has to admit that Wilbur Fisk Sanders was an influential force to be reckoned with in early Montana.
Born May 2, 1834, at Leon, New York, at the age of 20 Sanders moved to Akron, Ohio, to study law under the tutelage of his uncle, Sidney Edgerton. Sanders proved to be an eager and talented student of the law (he was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1856), and was soon a very capable junior partner to Edgerton. In 1858, Sanders married Harriet Peck Fenn at Tallmadge, Ohio.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Sanders quickly responded by helping to organize a battery of artillery and a company of infantry to serve the Union Army. Certainly this accomplishment is testament to Sanders' effectiveness as a public speaker and his powers of persuasion. He was elected to serve as a Lieutenant in the artillery battery, but was soon appointed Assistant Adjutant General of the 64th Ohio Infantry in October 1861. This post was also relatively short-lived, as Sanders resigned his commission in early August of 1862. Several accounts attribute his resignation to “physical disability,” but the exact nature of this disability appears never to have been fully explained. Bozeman's Avant Courier, however, indicated Sanders resigned in opposition to an order to arrest fugitive slaves.
Sanders returned to Akron where he resumed his law practice with his uncle and, in March, 1863, Sidney Edgerton was appointed as Federal Justice for the newly created Idaho Territory. Sanders determined to remain with his partner and patron and made plans to accompany Edgerton to the territorial capital at Lewiston, Idaho. The Edgerton and Sanders families left Akron on June 1, 1863, for the Idaho Territory—and what would be an adventure none of them could have possibly imagined.
En route to Lewiston, the wagons of Edgerton and Sanders detoured to Bannack. Although they would later attribute this deviation to a concern that winter weather might have closed in on them before reaching Lewiston, one can reasonably speculate that learning of the gold discoveries at Bannack and Virginia City provided an even greater influence.
The first resident of Bannack the party would meet (at the Snake River crossing) was the now infamous Henry Plummer, who was accompanying his wife, Electa, as she was leaving the territory—another matter of continuing speculation. The Edgerton and Sanders families finally arrived at Bannack on September 18, 1863, after a wagon train journey of three months and 18 days.
Both Sanders and Edgerton found cabins in an area across the creek from Bannack known as Yankee Flat, neighboring James and Martha Vail—sister and brother-in-law of Electa Plummer. Although Bannack was within the boundary of the Idaho Territory, Edgerton would not assume his position as Justice. Sanders, on the other hand, wasted little time in hanging out his shingle, made of paper. As he later reminisced, as recorded by the Anaconda Standard, July 23, 1905, “I got an office at Bannack, a log cabin which was occupied by a friend of mine…[and] I got a piece of brown paper out of a grocery store and took it down to a wagon and with axle grease made a law sign out of it—put my name on it and added the words ‘Law Office’ and tacked it up on the front of the store, and went to practicing law.”
Following the discovery of Gold at Alder Gulch, Montana, in May of 1863, Sanders was regularly travelling between Bannack and Virginia City (near Alder) building a reputation as an indomitable litigator.
Sanders had concluded some business in Virginia City, and, on the morning of December 19, was prepared to board the A.J. Oliver stage back to Bannack when he was approached by a messenger on behalf of John & Mortimer Lott, prominent merchants in Nevada City. Sanders subsequently met with the Lott brothers and agreed to serve as the prosecuting attorney against George Ives, John Franck, and George Hilderman, who were charged for the murder of young Nicholas Tbalt. With the strong encouragement of John Wilson, one of the two judges elected to administer the proceedings, Charles Bagg was added as co-prosecutor. In the opinion of at least one observer of the trial, Sanders would have found it “hard to compete” without Bagg’s assistance.
As documented in many books and articles, Ives was convicted (in spite of very questionable evidence) and—at the urging of Sanders—his execution by hanging was promptly carried out when Sanders shouted the fatal command, “Men do your duty.”
The arrest and execution of Ives galvanized the men who had a growing desire to punish those thought to be responsible for various robberies and assaults that had taken place in the Bannack-Alder Gulch region. In the week following the Ives hanging. Sanders remained in Virginia City and, accompanied by an ever-present bodyguard, was a principal in establishing a Vigilante committee for the town. Almost simultaneously, a vigilante group was also being established in Nevada City. These groups were soon merged and Wilbur Sanders was elected as “Official Prosecutor” of the Alder Gulch Vigilance Committee, Sanders having been elected to the committee in absentia.
A few days following Sanders’ return to Bannack, a small party of the Alder Gulch Vigilantes paid him a visit with some rather astonishing news—Sheriff Henry Plummer and his deputies Ned Ray and Buck Stinson had been identified (by a man whom they had arrested) as part of an elaborately organized gang of road agents. With some difficulty the Vigilante posse and Sanders were able to recruit a few Bannack men to help them take Plummer and his deputies into custody and, without benefit of a trial, the accused road agents were hanged. This appears to have been the only vigilante execution in which Sanders participated, but he would proudly acknowledge his membership in the vigilante organization throughout his remaining years.
The Sanders family moved to Virginia City in early 1864, (where they would later build one of the city’s most elegant homes) and Wilbur formed a law partnership with Jerry Cook. Soon thereafter, the Territory of Montana was created and was in the throes of its first election. Wilbur Fisk Sanders was often—quite literally—center stage in the political free-for-all as candidate for the post of Territorial Delegate, and flag-bearer for the Radical Republicans. Sanders and Sidney Edgerton were outspoken critics of the Democrats, labeling them as “traitors” and “uncultivated savages.” Sanders’ bid for the position of Delegate fell short, however (despite some ballot chicanery by Edgerton) and it would prove to be the first of several unsuccessful runs for various political offices; including an attempt to win the appointment as Territorial Governor. Undoubtedly, however, the most egregious intrusion of Sanders into the political theatre would be his leading role in convincing Congress to take the extraordinary, and unprecedented, action of nullifying the second and third sessions of Montana’s territorial legislature.
Sanders would serve as the president of the Montana Historical Society (which first met in Virginia City) from 1865 to 1891, was a founding member of the Society of Montana Pioneers, a founding member of the Masonic Lodge in Montana, its first Grand Secretary (1866-68), and the Grand Master (1868-69). He was also a founding member and President of the Montana Bar Association, a charter member and Commander of the Montana chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, and President of Montana Wesleyan University in Helena. Most significantly, he was a tireless advocate of the Republican Party—many times to the frustration and embarrassment of the party itself. As the Dillon Tribune eulogized, July 14, 1905: “[Sanders] was loud, always to his own worldly detriment, in his condemnation of political dishonesty or fraud, and within his own party, he oftentimes stood alone upon a separate platform.”
In the fall of 1868, Sanders would join the exodus from Virginia City to Helena—and earn the ever-lasting enmity of its residents and proponents by taking a leading role in the effort to relocate the territorial capital. Over the years, Sanders' strident rhetoric and political machinations would offend many Montanans, including Governor Benjamin Potts (himself a Republican) who opined that Sanders was “the most unscrupulous man who ever disgraced the legal profession.” And although Sanders was consistently defeated in his bids for election as Territorial Delegate, he was elected to serve in the Territorial House of Representatives from 1872-80. His political endurance was ultimately rewarded in 1890, predictably amidst great controversy.
After admission to statehood in 1889, Montana held its first election for the U.S. Senate which—true to course—ended in dispute. Unable to resolve the deadlock, the state legislature sent two Republicans (Sanders and Thomas Power) and two Democrats to Washington. The impasse was resolved by a vote of the Republican-controlled Senate that seated both Republicans. Lots were drawn between Powers and Sanders in order to stagger the terms of the newly appointed Senators, and Sanders, literally, drew the short straw, giving him only three years in office. Sanders returned to Montana following his brief stint in the Senate, and was never re-elected to public office.
One thing Sanders apparently never lost was his acerbic wit. Following one of his frequent and convincing political defeats, he offered Helena’s citizens one of his classic retorts: “When I was nominated by the Republican convention…it was said around town that ‘you could beat Sanders with a yellow dog,’ and you did.”
Wilbur Fisk Sanders died at his home in Helena on July 7, 1905, just three days after a memorial statue in front of the capitol was dedicated to Thomas Francis Meagher; one of many men who had once been the target of Sanders’ mudslinging. Sanders did live long enough, however, to learn that the Montana legislature had created a new county that would carry his name. In 1913, his memory was also honored with a memorial statue, largely financed by W.A. Clark. Currently located within the capitol building, the statue is inscribed with perhaps one of Sanders’ briefest, but most memorable statements: “Men, Do Your Duty.”