A bloody history nurtures hate, hostility of 'Freemen'

April 14, 1996|By T. J. Stiles

On the wind-swept Montana plains, by the shores of the upper Missouri River, a heavily armed party surrounded a hut filled with desperate men. Two or three were picked off as they emerged; "the rest," wrote one observer, "barricaded themselves in and fought until the great log hut was set on fire, when they broke forth in a body, and nearly all were killed at once."

A possible outcome of the current siege of the "Freemen"? Perhaps. But the words belong to Theodore Roosevelt, and the events took place 110 years ago, not far from where at least 10 Freemen today are holed up on a farm.

For the past 20 years, the northern Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states have been the focal point of violent, right-wing extremism -- from Posse Comitatus to Randy Weaver to the Montana Militia, and now the Freemen.

All these groups share a common philosophy of hate, racism, hostility toward the federal government (or all government, in the case of the Freemen) and the economic establishment, and faith in arms and violence. They share something else as well: deep roots in a land with a bloody history.

It is no accident that such anti-government extremism blooms on the plains and mountains of Montana and Wyoming. No part of the nation has had a more bitter and violent past. In the 1880s and '90s, it was the scene of a virtual civil war fought among ranchers, homesteaders and marginal types who settled the region.

On one side was the frontier establishment, composed of wealthy mining and railroad corporations, along with big ranchers. Roosevelt was one of them, living just across the border in the Dakota Territory.

His fellow cattlemen "compare very favorably with similar classes of capitalists in the East," he wrote. An apt choice of words, for the rich men of Montana and Wyoming were well-connected to the East, with close ties to banks, businesses and federal and territorial authorities.

On the edges of their ranges lived small farmers and ranchers, trappers and cattle and horse thieves. Hailing primarily from the South, they flourished in places such as the Missouri Breaks and Johnson County, Wyoming. By the early 1880s, the big ranchers wanted them out.

"During the last two or three years," Roosevelt wrote in 1888, "the stockmen have united to put down all these dangerous characters, often by the most summary exercise of lynch law." The leader in this effort was Granville Stuart, an early Montana statesman and head of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

He organized a party of cowboys who conducted a "war of extermination," as lawman Frank Canton called it. Roosevelt wrote that Stuart's men "shot or hung nearly 60 -- not, however, with the best judgment in all cases." In Wyoming, Canton led a force of 50 men into Johnson County in 1892 to drive out the big ranchers' foes -- only to be surrounded and defeated by the locals. The Wyoming Stockgrowers Association struck back by hiring Tom Horn as an assassin.

Most residents of the northern plains were happy with the results of this bitter, unheralded war; outlawry dissipated rapidly in its wake. But a legacy remains -- a legacy of personal violence, of deep suspicion of outside authorities, of hostility to the business establishment.

The men who died at vigilante hands were hardly angels -- but Westerners noted that the wealthy stock-raisers could hunt them down and kill them with impunity. After murdering upward of 60 men, Stuart became a state official and a United States ambassador.

This history helps explain the differences between present-day groups such as the Freemen and violent, right-wing extremists elsewhere in the country.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan emerged not in opposition to authority, but as an extension of it. In response to federal enforcement of Reconstruction in the 1860s, the Southern establishment organized the KKK to preserve its oppressive racial order.

By contrast, the forebears of the Great Plains extremists were hunted down by local leaders; it is no surprise that the ideology of today emphasizes a pseudo-libertarian hostility to government.

Echoes of the gunfire that erupted in the days when Roosevelt rode the range can also be heard in right-wing denunciations of the business -- especially the banking -- establishment. Huge railroad and mining corporations, together with wealthy ranchers, overshadowed life on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from the 1860s on. They dominated territorial and state legislatures, and suppressed strikes as violently as they dealt with Missouri Breaks horse thieves.

This legacy -- or at least perception -- of outside economic control roared to life again in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo and a fierce recession punished farmers and ranchers. Foreclosures shot up, and a deep sense of insecurity pervaded the plains. Few institutions were more unpopular than the national banking system; traditional suspicion of the central government became focused on the Federal Reserve.

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