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 Montana, considered one of the last frontiers. The creek was originally named Willard Creek by the Lewis and Clark Expedition when they came through in 1805. But, due to the large grasshopper population in 1862, it was renamed Grasshopper Creek.
The Colorado prospectors filed one of the first gold claims in what was Idaho Territory at the time and, would later become Montana. News of the strike traveled fast and led to the greatest rush to the West since the California Gold 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 early pioneers.
As in most mining towns Bannack’s population consisted of mostly men, with the exception of 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, Henry 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 would 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 Plummer’s 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 Virginia City.
The road between Bannack and Virginia City 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 settle the West, President Abraham 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 Erastus “Red” Yager, who was about to be hanged, pointed a finger at Sheriff 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 saloon, the 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 Montana 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 school house.
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.
By 1866, Virginia City in Alder Gulch was large enough to take the title of territorial capital from Bannack, 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.