By Grace Raymond Hebard and Earl Alonzo Brininstool in 1922
Not only was gold discovered in California during the days before railroads were established in the West, but other localities yielded enormous fortunes of the precious metal. Colorado, during the summer of 1859, had one hundred and fifty thousand gold seekers within its present boundaries. True, this was largely a restless, floating population, one-third of which in time returned to the states, disgusted with the West and the mining districts within sight of Pike’s Peak.
Nevada, Idaho, and Montana proved rich fields for those who had become discontented with other districts, and the trails to new mining camps were now filled with an eager throng seeking new localities wherever there was a rumor of a great “strike.” There is no doubt that in time the fields the prospector had left, proved to be quite as rich in returns as the new locality, but the desire to acquire in a night a vast fortune was too much of a temptation to be overlooked.
Although Wyoming did not experience the intense and prolonged gold excitement as was felt in the territory outside of her boundaries, South Pass City, a few miles north of the famous South Pass, contributed materially to the sum total of gold mined in the sixties. Gold in paying quantities was first discovered in this camp as early as 1842 by a member of the American Fur Company, though no developing was done until 1857 when forty men prospected the entire length of the Sweetwater. Gold was found everywhere in the stream and its numerous tributaries. In the fall of 1861, when gold was being found in abundance in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, three-score of men located claims along Willow Creek on which stream South Pass City was located. By 1863 mining was carried on in Carissa Gulch and from that time to the present day there has intermittently been gold developments in this gulch.
James Stuart, when at Fort Bridger in August, 1863, found many teams there congregated to go to Bannack camp, having deserted the gold-fields of Pike’s Peak. Among the number of those disgruntled were many who tried their luck at South Pass City, as did hundreds of other miners from Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and California. By 1868, this little hustling mining camp boasted of more than four thousand people, which number was greatly increased in the following year. All of the roads in 1869, leading to South Pass City, were full of eager jostling prospectors. But the camp soon experienced a decline after the rich “pickings” had been mined. Today South Pass City camp is a picturesque ghost city containing less than a score of people and a few relics in the way of log cabins, of what was for a number of years the most prosperous mining camp in Wyoming.
The discovery of gold in southwestern Montana during the last days of 1862 gave rise to the city of Bannack (at that time in Idaho) the camp by January, 1863, having a population of from two thousand to three thousand people. Bannack, for a short time, was the capital of the territory after it was organized in 1864, being moved to Virginia City when the scramble for gold was discovered in the new mining camp in Beaverhead Valley. Virginia City was first named “Varina” in honor of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, but the people of the camps soon changed the name to one that did not so constantly remind them of the South and the civil strife then being carried on in the States.
With the discovery of this new camp, the population of Bannack pretty generally moved en masse to Virginia City, which, by 1864, had a population of ten thousand typical mining people. Virginia City remained the capital until 1866, when it was moved to Helena, another camp of unusual promise. Telegraph lines in 1866 were running to both of these camps by the way of Salt Lake, John Creighton operating this line as a branch of his main line along the Oregon Trail. The amount of letters sent from one of these western mining camps was evidence of the number of people in the camps. From Virginia City in one day in 1863, six thousand letters were dispatched to the east by the way of Salt Lake, being an accumulation of ten days when the stage was not in operation.
Helena, first called “Last Chance Gulch,” became a roaring camp in 1864, and soon grew to be a shipping point for mining supplies, as it was on a direct road from Fort Benton to Virginia City and Bannack being one hundred and forty miles from the Fort and one hundred and twenty-five from Virginia City. The road between Helena and Fort Benton was on the west side of the Missouri River and easy to travel, though there was a trail through the mountains on the east side of the river.
The class of people who came to Montana were respectable and law abiding, the usual rough and tumble population incident to the finding of gold was not conspicuous. As early as 1868 Helena established a public library to meet the demands of the reading public. Alder Gulch, also rich in precious metal, yielded from 1863 to 1869 ten million dollars worth of gold and contained in 1864 fourteen thousand people. Summit, Virginia City, and Nevada City mined thirty million dollars in the first three years of their existence.
But these camps, as Junction, Montana City, and Central City which had come into existence in a day, soon worked themselves out, the population drifting to the larger camps; the population of Bannack in 1870 was three hundred and eighty-one; Virginia City, eight hundred and sixty-seven; Helena, three thousand one hundred and six; Gallatin, one hundred and fifty-two; Nevada City, one hundred; Bozeman, five hundred and seventy-four.
The Idaho and Montana mines were easily reached from Fort Hall by the way of the Oregon and California Trails, which connected with a newly established road running northeastward from the old fort. In 1862 gold was discovered in Boise Basin (Idaho) the richness of this camp creating a stampede from other camps. By the spring of that year the trails and roads leading to Boise Basin were crowded with eager miners coming from the camps of California and Nevada; the agriculturalists from Oregon and Washington and all sorts and conditions of emigrants from the country east of the Rocky Mountains.
In the year following the finding of the gold, at least thirty thousand people, in their frenzied desire for the yellow metal, arrived at the diggings in Idaho. The gold excitement in Montana and Idaho were concurrent making the living conditions in that northwestern part of our country one of intense activity, great richness and lawlessness.
Supplies poured into these camps from Walla Walla during the month of November, 1863, twenty thousand dollars worth of dry goods being shipped over the trails into camp, while Utah rushed over the Salt Lake and Virginia City road a pack train loaded with provisions. Gallatin Valley (Montana) was a favored spot for home seekers with an agricultural inclination, from where were grown quantities of grain and vegetables which were used to feed those who toiled, not in the soil, but in the sands. The Gallatin Valley was an extensive meadow in which, in 1867, were grown wonderful crops of wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat, and vegetables, crops more than sufficient to supply the growers who sent provisions to places in Montana where crops were not grown.