Although modern definition of the word vigilante refers to a person who takes the law into his or her own hands, the word once had a much more specific meaning. The origin of the vigilantism started in the early 1830s and developed somewhat differently in Southern and Western areas of the United States. When the word was introduced into the English language in 1860, vigilante referred to members of a vigilance committee, which had slightly different motives depending on the area of the country.
During the 1830s, the Deep South was entrenched in slavery and abolitionists worked around the clock to help free slaves. Vigilance committees were originally formed in the South to prevent slaves from running and abolitionists from aiding them. Later on, Northern abolitionists formed vigilance committees to help slaves that ran away from their owners in the South.
During the time of the Gold Rush in California a large number of saloons were erected which offered miners endless opportunities for drinking, gambling and fornicating. Disgruntled citizens formed vigilance groups to help restore order where there was no law, where they felt the law was not properly enforced or where they felt the law that was enforced was not harsh enough. In addition to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, vigilance committees formed in rural areas throughout the Old West.
The motives of vigilantes were honorable in many cases, especially in the West. Many times vigilante groups were responsible for breaking up outlaw groups which terrorized citizens in rural mining communities. Things were different in the South where many times vigilante groups lynched or hung innocent people and used the law as their shield. One of the most well-known vigilante groups is the Ku Klux Klan, which is said to have been responsible for the lynching of a great number of black people throughout its history. In contrast, a neighborhood watch group is an example of a modern day vigilance group which has motives to stop crime, with or without the aid of a local police force.
Actions carried out by vigilantes can vary by degrees of violence. As in the lynching of blacks, there was extreme violence and murder. However, in some cases vigilantism may only include verbal attacks or vandalism. History and the media have played a great part in determining whether vigilantes are heroes or wrongdoers.