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 150,000 gold-seekers within its present boundaries. 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 1860s. Gold in paying quantities was first discovered in this camp as early as 1842 by a member of the American Fur Company, though no development was done until 1857 when 40 men prospected the entire length of the Sweetwater River. 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 for decades, there were intermittent gold developments in this gulch.
James Stuart, when at Fort Bridger, Wyoming 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 and by January 1863, it had a population of from 2,000 to 3,000 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 10,000 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 and John Creighton operating this line as a branch of his mainline along the Oregon Trail. The number 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, 6,000 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 30 million dollars in the first three years of their existence.
But these camps, like 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 381; Virginia City, 867; Helena, 3,106; Gallatin, 152; Nevada City, 100; and Bozeman, 574.
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 of 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 30,000 people, in their frenzied desire for the yellow metal, arrived at the diggings in Idaho. The gold excitement in Montana and Idaho were concurrently 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, 20,000 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.
The changing, feverish population in the camps was first composed of earnest and respectable people who had come to work for their gainings; following these came those who did not toil nor spin, but who lived illicitly off of the earnings of others; the gamblers, the road agent, the murderer. The time soon came when decency asserted itself, and another class arose which believed that some semblance of law and order should be established, and having the courage of their convictions, organized themselves into Vigilance Committees. The people who had moved from regions where there was an established government did not long tolerate the law of the gun and organizations of desperadoes and road agents. Public opinion gradually began to crystallize for law and order. These vicious bands were perfectly organized, raiding into all camps and operating along the roads between the camps. In Montana, the insignia of this red-handed band was a peculiar knot tied in their neckties, so that outlaws‘ identity might be easily established. Often hundreds of thousands of dollars were taken at one haul from the miners and merchants by these “desperate, crack shot bands of robbers and cut-throats.” In order to protect life and property, the vigilantes were forced to organize, arrest members of the outlaw band and act as judge, jury, and executioner. The hanging of a few of these robbers would always check, at least temporarily, the lawlessness of the outlaw bands.
The people of Montana did not resort to a vigilance code until forced to take drastic measures in order to disorganize and drive from the country the band of rapidly increasing desperadoes, which had created a reign of terror that was spreading over the camps. It was hard enough to wash the sands of the stream, working under the hostile eyes of Indians, but to have the fruits of toil taken by bandits could not long be tolerated. No one individual dared to punish the guilty who openly and publicly boasted of their crimes. True, high handedness continued until regularly established courts were created and laws made by the legislature, but a wholesome fear of the vigilantes made living conditions more peaceful and bearable.
Into Montana had come many deserters from the South and many who were not in sympathy with the cause for which the Civil War was being fought. Some measures were taken to test their loyalty to the Union, the first being made when the emigrants and miners arrived at Fort Bridger, where each member of a party that was going over the Salt Lake-Virginia City Road had to take the “iron-clad” oath of allegiance to the United States. Anyone refusing to take the oath was not permitted to advance.
In order to facilitate transportation through the country situated between the Yellowstone and the Columbia, Congress, early in 1857, made an appropriation for a proposed wagon road which was to run from Fort Benton, the western end of navigation up the Missouri River, to The Dalles, the head of navigation on the Columbia. It was believed that the mining camps would be helped in the district covered by the proposed roads if supplies coming from Missouri and California, as well as from Oregon to Montana, could be more easily and quickly transported over a constructed road than one that was not much more than a trail.
The construction of this military wagon road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, was supervised by Lieutenant John Mullen, hence the name, who did his preliminary work in 1858, the hostilities of the Indians preventing the early completion of the road. The first work on the road was from Fort Benton to the Snake River; in 1860 the road was put into operation, though not entirely completed until 1862. Thus was established a connecting line for transportation of supplies to forts, camps and homes from the Missouri River to the Columbia River, which might be called a rival transcontinental road of the Oregon Trail. As a matter of fact, the operation of the road relieved to a degree the congestion of freight on that central trail. Three reasons existed for the Mullen Road: it shortened the distance to be traveled by wagons, lessened the hardships of the emigrants and avoided the Indian raids along the Sweetwater and North Platte Route. There was a large migration in 1862. Some stopped on the eastern flank of the Rocky range in what is now Montana. Four steamers from St. Louis ascended to Fort Benton, and then 350 emigrants traveled by the Mullen Road to the mines of the Salmon River.
For many miles, the Mullen Road followed the old trail made by the Indians on their annual hunts from the Pacific on the way to the east of the mountains for buffalo. Some places in the old trail were twelve inches deep, made so by the centuries of travel back and forth to and from these annual hunts.
Bozeman City, just west of Bozeman Pass, was established in 1864. Fort Ellis was built in 1867 to guard the Pass, which was within 16 miles of the ground of thousands of hostile Indians to the east. Before the fort was used in April 1867, the governor of Montana, when Fort C.F. Smith was infested by Indians, called for 600 mounted volunteers for service for 90 days to go to the pass and hold back the red men. Many members of these militia or Mounted Volunteers, when started on an offensive campaign, had a pan and other implements of the best quality for digging gold while clearing the road of Indians. These men were finally equipped for fighting by the government until the regular soldiers took their places. In 1867 a messenger brought word to the soldiers guarding the pass of the desperate condition of the garrison at Fort C.F. Smith. The alarming information started John Bozeman and his companion over the trail to the besieged fort, on the way to which Bozeman was killed by Blackfoot Indians.