Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Stagecoach Robbery, and Murder, in Portneuf Canyon [otd 07/13]

On the afternoon of July 13, 1865, the stagecoach traveling south from the Montana gold fields towards Salt Lake City reached a point about ten miles southeast of today's Pocatello. They entered a stretch of Portneuf Canyon favored by bandits because heavy willow thickets crowded the road.
Portneuf Canyon, ca 1872. National Archives.
Five of the seven passengers had got on in Virginia City while two more had boarded at Taylor's Crossing (today's Idaho Falls). Among them, the men carried gold generally valued at $60-75 thousand ($4-5 million at today's prices) plus at least $5,000 in cash. The exact details of the robbery that happened next have been distorted over time, but the bloody nature of the event remains.

One key discrepancy involves what “participant” Frank Williams was doing on the coach. Later narratives asserted that he was actually driving the stage. But the contemporaneous Idaho Statesman account (July 22, 1865), gleaned from an earlier Utah newspaper item, said, “The passengers booked for Boise were Frank Williams (a former stage driver) …” [and others]. That article also identified the driver as one Charley Parks, whom later accounts claimed was the “shotgun messenger.”

Suddenly, a heavily armed man leaped onto the road and ordered the driver to “Halt!” Then, according to the same report, six more bandits sprang from the brush along the sides. Wanting to protect their treasure, several passengers drew revolvers and fired. The blast of return shots wounded the driver and killed or mortally wounded four passengers. One of the murdered men was merchant David Dinan (sometimes referred to as Dignan). East Idaho pioneer Alexander Toponce recalled, "My friend Dignan had twenty-seven buckshot in his body."

In the confusion, Frank Williams and another passenger, James B. Brown, escaped into the thick brush. The bandit fusillade missed the last passenger, a man named Carpenter, but he was covered in blood from those who had been shot. A few more men appeared, leading horses, and the robbers galloped off. They left the severely wounded driver and Carpenter, figuring both would soon die. After the robbers disappeared, Carpenter freed two stagecoach mules, helped the driver onto one, and they rode for help.

Unfortunately, the greater part of eastern Idaho – 10 million sparsely-inhabited acres – had virtually no conventional law enforcement at the time. Driven to desperation by the rampant crime, citizens formed vigilance committees. Thus, it was the vigilantes, along with agents from the stage line, who pursued the perpetrators.

Investigators first carefully checked the two passengers who had somehow fled unscathed through a fusillade of shots. When Brown was cleared, suspicion focused on Williams, who had since left the area. The vigilantes trailed him first to Salt Lake and then into Colorado.
Florida Educational Technology Clearinghouse.

Watchers observed that the man was throwing money around with abandon – far beyond the means of an ordinary stagecoach employee. Then Williams must have spotted the surveillance because he abruptly fled toward Denver. Caught on the trail, he quickly confessed his role, which was to tip off the gang when the stage carried a big haul.

Williams named his accomplices, who he claimed had told him there would be no violence. Unmoved by the man's purported remorse, the vigilantes hanged him, and pinned a warning note to the body. They then tracked down five of the men Williams had identified and unceremoniously strung them up too.

The fate of the remaining 2-4 bandits is unclear, although two may have met their fate for other crimes. Investigators had much less success with the loot, which the crooks apparently spent even faster than the clueless Williams.
References: Barzilla W. Clark, Bonneville County In The Making, (Idaho Falls 1941).
J. V. Frederick, Ben Hollady, the Stagecoach King, Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale, California (1940).
N. P. Langford, Vigilante Days and Ways, Montana State University, Bozeman (1957). Original publication in 1890.
Alexander Toponce, Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1971).
R. Michael Wilson, Great Stagecoach Robberies of the Old West, a TwoDot® Book, Morris Book Publishing (2007).


  1. Any ideas as to how gold dust was transported in 1860's... metal pails or sacks?

  2. In a pizza box!

  3. Evan, There seem to be at least two versions of this robbery - or maybe there are two very similar robberies. Here is a link to one of the similar accounts:
    I've written a book set in the Idaho Territory 1863-64 called Justice in Season. I'm currently working on the sequel which will feature a fictionalized version of this robbery -- that's why I'm wondering if these are different robberies, or just differing accounts of the same robbery. Justice in Season, as well as my other books, are available on Amazon, or through my blog. I wold like to know your thoughts about the robberies - 2 different, or 1 with differing accounts?

  4. After re-reading the accounts, I suppose it is two different incidents.

  5. The Legends of America account certainly sounds like the one I have in my blog. Seems like I've seen several slightly different tellings of the same robbery. In 1865, the "information infrastructure" was rather primitive, so some references are based on pioneer memories from (literally) years later.