Acting the Part
How a Nevada City volunteer uncovered unseen vigilante history
VIRGINIA CITY—Donna McNamara has been coming to Nevada City for 17 years, acting as a schoolmistress in the annual living history productions in the ghost town.
“The first time I was down there, it was just opening it up and closing it down in the fall,” she says. Once living history was born, she traded her real-life teacher’s clothing (she teaches special education) for a schoolmistress’s dress circa 1864 and has been volunteering ever since.
With degrees in history, elementary education and master’s degree in reading curriculum and instruction, McNamara is more of an expert than most when it comes to history books. But when she had the opportunity to delve deeper into a part of Montana heritage that had long fascinated her, she got to—literally—write the book.
McNamara attended the University of Great Falls, where she earned her first history degree. When it came time to complete the requisite senior thesis, the chose a topic near and dear to her heart: the vigilantes of Virginia City.
Her mother had been close friends with John Comfort, a former Madison County attorney whose uncle had been John Lott. Lott was the first treasurer of the Montana territory, as well as the author of the famous vigilante oath signed in Virginia City in December 1863 and one of the founding members of the group.
In that oath, the signees swore to dedicate themselves to the “purpose of arresting thieves and murderers and recovering stolen property,” swearing to “reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right and never desert each other or our standard of justice, so help us God.”
Their primary aim was protecting the residents of the Montana territory from thieves who would stop stagecoaches and traveling merchants, shaking down their passengers for valuables and cash and often willing to commit murder to pull off their heists.
So McNamara wrote the thesis, graduated from UGF and moved to Washington. Fourteen years later when she moved back to Montana, John Comfort had died, but McNamara’s mother, still close friends with his wife, had found a book of nothing but names, dates and sums of money, that had belonged to Comfort’s vigilante uncle.
“It was a record of money donated to the vigilantes that he had kept,” says McNamara. “I really didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something important.”
She held onto the book for years, never quite knowing what to do with it. Then one summer, she brought it with her on her annual trip to Virginia City for the living history season and showed it to the volunteer coordinator.
He told her two things.
“He told me, number one, get this in a safe place,” McNamara remembers. “And two, write a book about it.”
So, the research began. McNamara would come to Virginia City for 10-day stretches, living in the Thompson-Hickman Library and the courthouse on her days off, poring over books and documents to figure out what the money log could mean. What she found illuminated what had previously been a blurred and foggy period in Virginia City history.
“Everybody has always thought the vigilantes were kind of a renegade group,” she says. “But with this book and all this research, you can see that the vigilantes were publicly supported. People just wanted their lives back.”
In the log book, monetary donations and expenditures of the vigilantes were meticulously logged, from a dollar or two at a time up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. It was dubbed the “Ferreting Fund.”
“Back in 1862, that’s a lot of money,” McNamara says. “But they were so tired of having their lives upset, because you were vulnerable to road agents, and the gangs were nothing but a bunch of murderous thugs. It was dangerous to go anywhere with anything.”
Ultimately, McNamara acted on that second piece of advice. Her book, A Birth of Justice: The Vigilantes of Virginia City, was published in late 2017 after years of painstaking research and a stroke or two of pure luck, answering the perennial question of how the vigilantes funded their quest for hometown justice in the communities of Virginia City, Alder Gulch and north toward Helena.
“These guys were not thugs,” she says of the vigilantes. “They didn’t personally profit from the money that was donated. It was all put toward costs.”
A Birth of Justice emerged as the scratching of a seven-year curiosity itch, and McNamara doesn’t as yet intend to write another book, at least until that itch crops up again. In the meantime, she’ll continue teaching students about Montana history, both in her real-life classroom and in the streets of ghost town Nevada City.
“I live to come down there in the summer,” she says. “I’d really like to come full-time, but it just hasn’t happened yet. You’d be surprised what you can find.”