Mines of Idaho & Montana

Gold Creek, Montana

Gold Creek, Montana

The first of these parties arrived at Gold Creek by wagon-train from Fort Benton and the second hailed from Salt Lake. An election was held for the purpose of forming a sort of community organization, the first election ever known in Montana. The men from the East had brought with them some idea of law and organization. There were now in the Montana fields many good men such as the Stuart Brothers, Samuel T. Hauser, Walter Dance, and others later well known in the State.

These men were prominent in the organization of the first miners’ court, which had occasion to try — and promptly to hang — Stillman and Jernigan, two ruffians who had been in from the Salmon River mines only about four days when they thus met retribution for their early crimes.

An associate of theirs, Arnett, had been killed while resisting arrest. The reputation of Florence for lawlessness and bloodshed was well known; and, as the outrages of the well-organized band of desperadoes operating in Idaho might be expected to begin at any time in Montana, a certain uneasiness existed among the newcomers from the States.

Bannack, Montana

Bannack, Montana

Two more parties, likewise bound for Idaho and likewise baffled by the Salmon River range, arrived at the Montana camps in the same summer. Both of these were from the Pike’s Peak country in Colorado. And in the autumn came a fifth — this one under military protection, Captain James L. Fisk commanding, and having in the party a number of settlers bound for Oregon as well as miners for Idaho. This expedition arrived in the Prickly Pear Valley in Montana on September 21, 1862, having left St. Paul on the 16th of June, traveling by steamboat and wagon-train. While Captain Fisk and his expedition pushed on to Walla Walla, nearly half of the immigrants stayed to try their luck at placer mining. But the yield was not great and the distant Salmon River mines, their original destination, still awaited them. Winter was approaching. It was now too late in the season to reach the Salmon River mines, five hundred miles across the mountains, and it was 400 miles to Salt Lake City, Utah, the nearest supply post; therefore, most of the men joined this little army of prospectors in Montana. Some of them drifted to the Grasshopper diggings, soon to be known under the name of Bannack — one of the wildest mining-camps of its day.

These different origins of the population of the first Montana camps are interesting because of the fact that they indicate a difference in the two currents of the population which now met here in the new placer fields. In general, the wildest and most desperate of the old-time adventurers, those coming from the West, had located in the Idaho camps, and might be expected in Montana at any time. In contrast to these, the men lately out from the States were of a different type, many of them sober, most of them law-abiding, men who had come out to better their fortunes and not merely to drop into the wild and licentious life of a placer camp. Law and order always did prevail eventually in any mining community. In the case of Montana, law and order arrived almost synchronously with lawlessness and desperadoism.

Henry Plummer

Henry Plummer

Law and order had not long to wait before the arrival of the notorious Henry Plummer and his band from Florence, Idaho. Plummer was already known as a bad man but was not yet recognized as the leader of that secret association of robbers and murderers which had terrorized the Idaho camps. He celebrated his arrival in Bannack, Montana by killing a man named Cleveland. He was acquitted in the miners’ court that tried him, on the usual plea of self-defense. He was a man of considerable personal address.

The same tribunal soon assembled once more to try three other murderers, Moore, Reeves, and Mitchell, with the agreement that the men should have a jury and should be provided with counsel. They were all practically freed, and after that, the roughs grew bolder than ever.

The Plummer band swore to kill every man who had served in that court, whether as juryman or officer. So well did they make good their threat that out of the twenty-seven men thus engaged all but seven were either killed or driven out of the country, nine being murdered outright. The man who had acted as sheriff of this miners’ court, Hank Crawford, was unceasingly hounded by Plummer, who sought time and again to fix a quarrel on him. Plummer was the best shot in the mountains at that time, and he thought it would be easy for him to kill his man and enter the usual plea of self-defense.

Bannock, Montana Gallows

Sheriff Henry Plummer was hanged from the very
 gallows that he, himself had built earlier in the year.

By good fortune, however, Crawford caught Plummer off his guard and fired upon him with a rifle, breaking his right arm. Plummer’s friends called in Dr. Glick, the best physician in Bannack, to treat the wounded man, warning him that if he told anything about the visit he would be shot down. Glick held his peace and later was obliged to attend many of the wounded outlaws, who were always engaged in affairs with firearms.

Of all these wild affrays, of the savage life which they denoted, and of the stern ways in which retribution overtook the desperadoes of the mines, there is no better historian than Nathaniel P. Langford, a prominent citizen of the West, who accompanied the overland expedition of 1862 and took part in the earliest life of Montana. His work, Vigilante Days and Ways, is an invaluable contemporary record.

It is mentally difficult for us now fully to restore these scenes, although the events occurred no earlier than the Civil War. “Life in Bannack at this time,” says Langford, “was perfect isolation from the rest of the world. Napoleon was not more of an exile on St. Helena than a newly arrived immigrant from the States in this region of lakes and mountains. All the great battles of the season of 1862 — Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run — all the exciting debates of Congress, and the more exciting combats at sea, first became known to us on the arrival of newspapers and letters in the spring of 1863.

The Territory of Idaho, which included Montana and nearly all Wyoming, was organized on March 3, 1863. Previous to that time western Montana and Idaho formed a part of Washington Territory, of which Olympia was the capital, and Montana, east of the mountains, belonged to the Territory of Dakota, of which the capital was Yankton, on the Missouri River. Langford makes clear the political uncertainties of the time, the difficulty of enforcing the laws and narrates the circumstances which led to the erection in 1864 of the new Territory of Montana, comprising the limits of the present State.

In Montana, as elsewhere in these days of great sectional bitterness, there was much political strife; and this no doubt accounts for an astonishing political event that now took place. Henry Plummer, the most active outlaw of his day, was elected sheriff and entrusted with the enforcement of the laws! He made indeed a great show of enforcing the laws. He married, settled down, and for a time was thought by some of the ill-advised to have reformed his ways, although in truth he could not have reformed.

By June 1863, the extraordinarily rich strike in Alder Gulch had been made. The news of this spread like wildfire to Bannack and to the Salmon River mines in Idaho as well, and the result was one of the fiercest of all the stampedes, and the rise, almost overnight, of Virginia City. Meanwhile, some Indian fighting had taken place and in a pitched battle on the Bear River where General Connor had beaten decisively the Bannack Indians, who for years had preyed on the emigrant trains. This made travel on the mountain trails safer than it had been; and the rich Last Chance Gulch on which the city of Helena now stands attracted a tremendous population almost at once. The historian above-cited lived there. Let him tell of the life: