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:
“One long stream of active life filled the little creek on its auriferous course from Bald Mountain, through a canyon of wild and picturesque character, until it emerged into the large and fertile valley of the Pas-sam-a-ri…the mountain stream called by Lewis and Clark in their journal “Philanthropy River.” Lateral streams of great beauty pour down the sides of the mountain chain bounding the valley…. Gold placers were found upon these streams and occupied soon after the settlement at Virginia City was commenced…. This human hive, numbering at least ten thousand people, was the product of ninety days. Into it was crowded all the elements of a rough and active civilization. Thousands of cabins and tents and brush wikiups… were seen on every hand. Every foot of the gulch…was undergoing displacement, and it was already disfigured by huge heaps of gravel which had been passed through the sluices and rifled of their glittering contents…. Gold was abundant, and every possible device was employed by the gamblers, the traders, the vile men and women that had come in with the miners into the locality, to obtain it. Nearly every third cabin was a saloon where vile whiskey was peddled out for fifty cents a drink in gold dust. Many of these places were filled with gambling tables and gamblers…. Hurdy-gurdy dance-houses were numerous…. Not a day or night passed which did not yield its full fruition of vice, quarrels, wounds, or murders. The crack of the revolver was often heard above the merry notes of the violin. Street fights were frequent, and as no one knew when or where they would occur, everyone was on his guard against a random shot.
“Sunday was always a gala day…. The stores were all open…. Thousands of people crowded the thoroughfares ready to rush in the direction of any promised excitement. Horse-racing was among the most favored amusements. Prize rings were formed, and brawny men engaged in fisticuffs until their sight was lost and their bodies pummeled to a jelly, while hundreds of onlookers cheered the victor…. Pistols flashed, bowie knives flourished, and braggart oaths filled the air, as often as men’s passions triumphed over their reason. This was indeed the reign of unbridled license, and men who at first regarded it with disgust and terror, by constant exposure soon learned to become a part of it and forget that they had ever been aught else. All classes of society were represented at this general exhibition. Judges, lawyers, doctors, even clergymen, could not claim an exemption. Culture and religion afforded feeble protection, where allurement and indulgence ruled the hour.”
Imagine, therefore, a fabulously rich mountain valley twelve miles in extent, occupied by more than ten thousand men and producing more than ten millions of dollars before the close of the first year! It is a stupendous demand on any imagination. How might all this gold be sent out in safe-keeping? We are told that the only stage route extended from Virginia City no farther than Bannack. Between Virginia City and Salt Lake City, Utah, there was an absolute wilderness, wholly unsettled, four hundred and 75 miles in width. “There was no post office in the Territory. Letters were brought from Salt Lake first at a cost of two dollars and a half each, and later in the season at one dollar each. All money at infinite risk was sent to the nearest express office at Salt Lake City by private hands.” Imagine, therefore, a fabulously rich mountain valley 12 miles in extent, occupied by more than 10,000 men and producing more than ten millions of dollars before the close of the first year! It is a stupendous demand on any imagination. How might all this gold be sent out in safe-keeping? We are told that the only stage route extended from Virginia City no farther than Bannack.
Between Virginia City and Salt Lake City, there was an absolute wilderness, wholly unsettled, 475 75 miles in width. “There was no post office in the Territory. Letters were brought from Salt Lake first at a cost of two dollars and a half each, and later in the season at one dollar each. All money at infinite risk was sent to the nearest express office at Salt Lake City by private hands.”
Practically every man in the new gold-fields was aware of the existence of a secret band of well-organized ruffians and robbers. The general feeling was one of extreme uneasiness. There were plenty of men who had taken out of the ground considerable quantities of gold, and who would have been glad to get back to the East with their little fortunes, but they dared not start. Time after time the express coach, the solitary rider, the unguarded wagon-train, was held up and robbed, usually with the concomitant of murder. When the miners did start out from one camp to another they took all manner of precautions to conceal their gold dust. We are told that on one occasion one party bored a hole in the end of the wagon tongue with an auger and filled it full of gold dust, thus escaping observation! The robbers learned to know the express agents, and always had the advice of every large shipment of gold. It was almost useless to undertake to conceal anything from them, and resistance was met with death. Such a reign of terror, such an organized system of highway robbery, such a light valuing of human life, has been seldom found in any other time or place.
There were, as we have seen, good men in these camps — although the best of them probably let down the standards of living somewhat after their arrival there; but the trouble was that the good men did not know one another, had no organization and scarcely dared at first to attempt one. On the other hand, the robbers’ organization was complete and kept its secrets as the grave; indeed, many and many a lonesome grave held secrets none ever was to know. How many men went out from the Eastern States and disappeared, their fate always to remain a mystery, is a part of the untold story of the mining frontier.
There are known to have been 102 men killed by Plummer and his gang; how many were murdered without their fate ever being discovered cannot be told.