- Gold to Ghost
1881.This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
On July 28, 1862,
John White and other members of the "Pikes Peakers” discovered
gold in the creek waters where Bannack stands today. It was the
beginning for both Bannack and the State of
considered one of the last frontiers. The creek was
originally named Willard Creek by the
Lewis and Clark
they came through in 1805. But, due to the large grasshopper population
in 1862, it was renamed Grasshopper Creek.
prospectors filed one of the first gold claims in what was
Territory at the time and, would later become
News of the strike traveled fast and led
to the greatest rush to the West since the
Rush in 1848. A mining camp was quickly built, literally
springing up overnight. Most of the miners lived in tents, caves,
dugouts, shanties, huts, and wagons.
Word spread quickly
that Bannack’s gold was unlike other gold. Grasshopper Creek’s gold
was 99-99.5% pure, compared to most gold at 95% and miners continued
to flood the area. Bannack quickly became known as the
New Eldorado of the North and by October the camp was called home to
more than 400 prospectors.
The people who
rushed to Bannack were not only miners, they also included many
deserters of the
Civil War, outlaws and businessmen intent on
profiting from the many newcomers. These early settlers arrived by
wagon, stagecoach, horse back, steamboat, and even by foot, in search
of their fortunes. Not anticipating the harsh Montana winter, many came
ill-prepared and lacking supplies, creating a great hardship for these
As in most mining
towns Bannack’s population consisted of mostly men, with the exception
saloon girls and "painted
ladies." For the few wives living in camp, dances were their
only social activity and relief from household duties.
By 1863, the settlement had gained some
3,000 residents and applied to the U.S. Government for the name of
Bannock, named for the neighboring
Indians. However, Washington
goofed it up, spelling the name with an "a” – Bannack, which it
retains to this day.
In addition to its reputation for gold, Bannack also
quickly gained a reputation for lawlessness. The roads in and out of
town were home to dozens of road agents, and killings were frequent. In January, 1863,
Plummer arrived in Bannack and just months later was elected sheriff
in hopes that he might bring some peace to the lawless settlement.
What was not known by the
citizens of Bannack, was that Plummer
later be suspected of being the the leader of the largest gang of the area road agents.
This group of bandits referred to themselves as
the "Innocents” and grew to include more than 100 men. According to
accusers, his contacts as
sheriff gave him knowledge of when people were transporting their gold,
which he would pass on to his gang.
In May, 1863 a group of miners discovered gold
in Alder Gulch, about eighty miles to the east of Bannack. When they took
their gold to Bannack to buy supplies word soon
leaked out and many of the area prospectors headed to Alder Gulch, which
would soon become the thriving settlement of
The road between Bannack and
became a very hazardous journey as the road agents targeted the travelers
journeying between the two mining camps.
The ambitious Sheriff Plummer allegedly soon extended his
operations to Virginia City
when he was appointed
U.S. Deputy Marshal for the region of
Idaho Territory east of the
mountains in August of 1863.
Violent holdups became even more commonplace and
about a hundred men were murdered during 1863.
As more people began to
Lincoln appointed Sidney Edgerton Chief Justice of the
Idaho Territory. Edgerton, his wife Mary, and their four children
arrived in Bannack in September of 1863. Soon, Edgerton’s niece,
Lucia Darling, taught the first school children in the settlement in the
Edgerton’s living room, with twelve children attending.
By December, 1863,
the citizens of Bannack and Virginia City had had enough of the
violence. Men from Bannack, Virginia City and nearby Nevada City
met secretly and organized the
Montana Vigilantes. Masked
men began to visit suspected outlaws in the middle of the night issuing
warnings and tacking up posters featuring a skull-and-crossbones or the
"mystic" numbers "3-7-77, which some have said was the
measurement for a grave, 3 feet wide, seven feet long, 77 inches deep. While the
exact meaning of these numbers remains
elusive, the Montana State Highway patrolmen
wear the emblem "3-7-77" on their shoulder patches today.
The vigilantes dispensed rough justice
by hanging about twenty-four men. When one such man, by the name of
"Red" Yager, who was about to be hanged, pointed a finger at
Henry Plummer as the leader of
the gang, all hell broke loose.
The residents were divided on whether or not Plummer
was part of the murderous gang. But, one night after heavy drinking
in a local
vigilantes decided he was guilty and tracked him down. On January 10, 1864 fifty to seventy-five men gathered up
Plummer and his two main deputies,
Buck Stinson and Ned Ray. The
three were marched to the gallows, where the two deputies were hanged
first. According to one legend, Plummer promised to tell the vigilantes where $100,000 of gold was
buried, if they would let him live. However, the vigilantes ignored
this as they gradually hoisted him up by the neck.
Interestingly though, even after Plummer and several of his henchmen were hanged, the robberies did not
cease. In fact, the stage robberies showed more evidence of
organized criminal activity, more robbers involved in the holdups, and
more intelligence passed to the actual robbers.
Many historians today think that the story of Plummer
and his gang was fabricated to cover up the real lawlessness in the
Territory - the vigilantes themselves.
By May, 1864, Sidney
Edgerton, the territorial Chief Justice decided there were so many
people in the area that they needed a new territory. Edgerton
convinced the president and on May 26, 1864, it was made official,
with Edgerton as the governor. Bannack
became the first territorial capital and the Legislature of Montana
met in Sidney Edgerton’s cabin.
In the summer of 1864
the numbers of school age children had increased dramatically and the
Edgerton home could no longer accommodate the classes. A
crude log cabin was built to serve as school teacher, Lucia Darling's
By the fall of 1864, nearly ten thousand
people crowded along the area hillsides, living in tents, shacks,
lean-tos, and eventually sturdier housing. Settlements were so
numerous and scattered that people called the area the "fourteen-mile
city." But, for these thousands of people, the gold was already
getting harder to find.
in Alder Gulch was large enough to take the title of territorial
where it remained until 1877 before permanently moving to Helena.
In the meantime the vigilantes continued their antics
and three years after Sheriff Plummer
was hanged, the vigilantes virtually
ruled the mining districts. Finally, leading citizens of Montana,
including Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher, began to speak out
against the ruthless group. In March, 1867, the miners issued their
own warning that if the vigilantes hanged any more people, the "law
abiding citizens" would retaliate "five for one." Though a few
more lynchings occurred, the era of the vigilantes was past.
By 1870, there were no more easy diggings in and
within just a couple of years, the population of
shrank to a just a few hundred.
In 1874, realizing the need for a
school, Bannack Masonic Lodge No. 16 built the combination lodge and
school house. Classes would be held in this building for nearly 70
In 1875, the
Beaverhead County Courthouse was built, a building that still stands in
today. In August 1877, the courthouse played a role in one of the
most exciting events in
history, when the town was threatened with an
had just defeated General Gibbon at the bloody Battle of the Big Hole.
Word reached the isolated community that the
were on the rampage and headed straight for
Bannack. People from around the
area gathered in
Bannack to seek protection. Two
lookouts were built on the highest points of the hills on either side of
Hangman's Gulch for early warning. In case of a siege, the local
water supply was barricaded. The women and children were gathered in
the brick fortress. Some stories tell of hiding the
children in the safes located inside the courthouse. Although the
killed four settlers in Horse Prairie, they never came close to
At the time there was no church in
and a Methodist circuit preacher named William Van Ordsdel, used the
Indian scare to convince the townspeople to build a church as thanks
for God's deliverance. The church is still stands in
In 1881, nearby Dillon became the county
seat and the courthouse was abandoned. The building remained
empty until 1890, when it was purchased by Dr. John Meade, who
remodeled it as a plush hotel. However, by this time
was called home to only about 400 people, and the hotel was closed
several times over the years, reopening whenever mining activity
Bannack was revived
for a time when the first electric dredge was invented. In no
time at all Grasshopper Creek supported five of them for the next ten
years. Unfortunately, it was these very same dredging operations
that destroyed several hundred of the many buildings that had been
erected in the 1860s.
By the 1930's the
businesses and social community had left
Bannack and very few
people remained. By the 1940’s there would be so few students that the
school would have to close and
Bannack became a ghost
Bannack survives due to the
good graces of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who saved the town from the
elements and vandalism by making it a state park on August 15, 1954.
Today, over sixty structures remain
standing, most of which can be explored. The staff preserve,
rather than restore the buildings of this old town allowing visitors
an opportunity to relive the
Bannack State Park is
open year round with winter operating hours of 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, and
summer hours of 8:00 am to 9:00 pm. The Visitor Center is open
seven days a week during the summer months from 10am to 6pm.
Bannack Days, with
historic displays, activities and events, is held the third weekend in
July each year. The visitor center is open from mid-May through
September. A group picnic site is available. The park is 5,800 feet in
elevation and is 1154 acres in size. There are 28 sites in the
campground with vault toilets, grills/fire rings, firewood, picnic
tables, trash cans, drinking water and access to Grasshopper Creek for
fishing. Flush toilets are located in the visitors center and escorted
and unescorted tours are available.
of America, updated April, 2017.
For More Information:
Bannack State Park Website
Ghosts in Bannack, Montana
Bannack Photo Prints
Plummer - Sheriff Meets A Noose
Henry Plummer by Emerson Hough
City, Montana - Heart of the Comstock Lode
An old barn and wagon in
July, 2008, Kathy Weiser.
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
Bannack, Montana Slideshow:
All images are available for
prints & downloads
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