Vigilante Days and Ways.  In the last installment author Nathaniel Pitt Langford shared the stories of Pinkham and Patterson, both gamblers who followed the miners and their money to Florence. Pinkham became a sheriff, upholding the law, while Patterson drifted toward lawlessness, becoming dangerously belligerent when drunk. The two inevitably clashed, Patterson killing Pinkham. Having stacked the jury with friends, Patterson’s trial ended in acquittal. Knowing Pinkham’s friends and supporters had it out for him, he left town, later provoking an enemy who shot him, killing him “with his boots on.”

Fort Bridger, 1858; photo by Samuel C. Mills, photographer with the Simpson Expedition. Courtesy Library of Congress

Chapter XVI: Early Discoveries of Gold  Langford opens this chapter with several paragraphs describing various men who ventured west, some as trappers, ultimately finding gold in various places including California, Utah, Montana and Idaho.

The news of the discovery of the Oro Fino and Florence mines was received at Denver in the winter of 1861-62, and caused a perfect fever of excitement. Colonel McLean, Washington Stapleton, Dr. Glick, Dr. Levitt, Major Brookie, H.P.A. Smith, Judge Clancy, Edward Bissell, Columbus Post, Mark Post, and others, all left early in the spring, taking the route by the overland road, from which they intended to diverge into the northern wilderness at some point near Fort Bridger*. Another party, under the leadership of Captain Jack Russell, left soon after, going by the way of the Sweetwater trail, South Pass, and the Bridger cut-off.

My readers who have never seen the plains, rivers, canyons, rocks, and mountains of the portion of our country traveled by these companies, can form but a faint idea from any description given by them of the innumerable and formidable difficulties with which every mile of this weary march was encumbered.

History has assigned a foremost place among its glorified deeds to the passage of the Alps by Napoleon, and to the long and discouraging march of the French army under the same great conqueror to Russia. If it be not invidious to compare small things with great, we may assuredly claim for these early pioneers great conquests over nature on their journey through the north-western wilderness than were made by either of the great military expeditions of Napoleon. In addition to natural obstacles equally formidable and of continual occurrence for more than a thousand miles, their route lay through an unexplored region, beset by hostile Indians, bristling with mountain peaks, pierced with large streams, and unmarked with a single line of civilization. Their cattle and horses were obliged to subsist upon the scanty herbage which put forth in early spring. Swollen by the melting snows of the mountains, the streams, fordable in midsummer, could now only be crossed by boats, and frequently the passage of a single creek consumed a week of time. Seeking for passes around and through the ranges, ascending them when no such conveniences could be found, passing through canyons, and clambering rocks, filled the path of empire through western America with discouragement and disaster.

Smith’s Fork of the Bear River today.

Several of these companies were obliged to wait the subsidence of waters at the crossing of Smith’s fork of Bear river. While thus delayed, more than a hundred teams, comprising three or four trains, all bound for the new gold regions, arrived. Some of the companies were composed entirely of “pilgrims,” a designation given by mountain people to new comers from the States. Michaud Le Clair, a French fur-trader and mountaineer of forty years’ experience, had, in company with two others, built a toll bridge across the fork in anticipation of a large spring emigration; but a party arriving in advance of this present crowd, exasperated at the depth of the mud at the end of the bridge, burned it. Russell proposed to build another, but the pilgrims, having no faith in his skill, refused to assist. Russell completed the job on his own account, and charged the pilgrims one dollar each for crossing, and then offered to release his interest in the bridge for twenty-five dollars. Le Clair, thinking that Russell would go on with his company, refused the offer. Russell, Brown, and Warner sent their train ahead, remaining at the bridge to receive tolls. Several trains passed during the two succeeding days, greatly to the annoyance of Le Clair and his comrades. They attempted to retaliate by cutting the lariats of the horses while tethered for the night; and when they found that the animals did not stray far from camp, they sent the savages down to frighten Russell and his men. But they were old mountaineers, and felt no alarm. On the third day a much larger number of wagons crossed than on the both the proceeding days. The Frenchmen, tired of expedients, and satisfied that money could be made by paying Russell the price he demanded for the bridge, sent for him, and, after considerable negotiation, gave him the twenty-five dollars and a silver watch. The bridge temporarily erected by Russell was used as a toll bridge the following year, but it required very careful usage to prevent it from falling to pieces. The proprietors, fearful of accident, finally posted up the following placard, as a warning to travelers that heavily laden wagons would not be permitted to meet upon the bridge:

NOTIS. No Vehacle drawn by moaR than one anamile is aloud to cross this BRidg in opposite direxions at the sam Time.

Le Clair also advised him against a prosecution of his journey to the Salmon river region, assuring him that from long familiarity with the country, he knew he could not complete it in safety. The season was too far advanced and the streams were higher than usual. He then told him as a secret that there was gold at Deer Lodge on the Beaverhead. The Indians had often found it there, and if gold was his object, he could find no better country than either of these localities for prospecting. “I have been,” said he, “boy and man, forty years in this region, and there is no part of it that I have not often visited. You will find my advice correct.”

Russell placed great confidence in what Le Clair said. Hastening on, he overtook his companions, and they proceeded to Snake river near Fort Hall, an old post of the Northwestern Fur Company. Here they fell in with McLean’s train, which, as we have seen, left Denver a few days before they did, and traveled by another route. One of his latter company, Columbus Post, was drowned while attempted to cross the river in a poorly-constructed boat, made out of a wagon-box. Russell found an old ferry-boat near the fort, which the men repaired to answer the purpose of crossing their trains, and they proceeded on through the dreary desert of mountains and rock in the direction of the Salmon river. Superadded to the difficulties of traveling over a rough volcanic region, they were now, for successive days, until they left the valley of the Snake, attacked by the Bannack Indians, and their horses were nightly exposed to capture by them. After many days of adventurous travel, the whole party, with a great number of pilgrims, arrived in safety at Fort Lemhi. Here they found themselves hemmed in by the Salmon river range, a lofty escarpment of ridges and rocks presenting an insurmountable barrier to further progress with wagons. They had yet to go several hundred miles before reaching the gold regions. A large number, more than a thousand in all, were now congregated in this desolate basin. They at once set to work to manufacture pack-saddles and other gear necessary to the completion of their journey. As time wore on, the prospect of being able to do so before cold weather set in became daily more discouraging. At length a meeting was called to consider the situation of affairs, and if possible, to devise and adopt measures of relief.

Russell repeated to the assemblage the information he had received from Le Clair, expressing his belief that it was true, and recommended as a choice of evils that they should turn aside, and go to Deer Lodge and Beaverhead, rather than attempt a journey down the Salmon to the Florence mines, through a country of which their best information was disheartening in the extreme.

Several companies, including those of McLean and Russell, arrive in a place that would later become Bannack, initially part of Washington Territory and eventually Montana. Provisions are dangerously low. Some decide to attempt a retreat to Salt Lake City rather than starve in such a desolate area but Russell convinces them to stay. They find gold, and provisions arrive. “The step between the extremes of misery and happiness was, in this case, very short. The camp was hilarious with joy and mirth.” The next spring, Russell returned to Colorado, showing his friends their specimens of gold taken from the Grasshopper diggings – the first discovery of gold in what would become Montana – creating a new wave of emigrants in early 1863 seeking the next El Dorado.

*From Wikipedia: Fort Bridger was originally a 19th-century fur trading outpost established in 1842, on Blacks Fork of the Green River, in what is now Uinta County, Wyoming, United States. It became a vital resupply point for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail. The Army established a military post here in 1858 during the Utah War, until it was finally closed in 1890.

CHAPTER XVII: Captain Fisk’s Expedition   Meanwhile, author Langford joined the Fisk Expedition, leaving the States in the summer of 1862 and ultimately bringing them to Washington Territory, what is modern-day Montana. The purpose of this government-supported trip was to assess the feasibility of opening a wagon road between St. Paul and Fort Benton, connecting at Fort Benton with a military road earlier constructed by Captain John Mullen between the fort and Walla Walla.

All the streams not fordable on the entire route were bridged by the company and many formidable obstacles removed. The company arrived without accident, after a tedious but not uninteresting trip, in Prickly Pear valley** on the 21st day of September. About one-half of the number remained in the Prickly Pear valley, locating upon the creek where Montana City now stands. The remainder accompanied Captain Fisk to Walla Walla. All who were officially connected with the expedition, except Mr. Knox and the writer, returned by way of the Pacific ocean and the Isthmus to Washington.

Gold had been found on Prickly Pear creek a short time before the arrival of our company. “Tom Gold Digger,” or “Gold Tom,” had pitched his lodge at the mouth of the canyon above our location and was “panning out” small quantities of gold. The placer was very difficult of development and the yield small. Winter was near at hand. Many of the party who had left home for Salmon river, where they had been assured profitable employment could be readily obtained, now found themselves five hundred miles from their destination and with cattle too much exhausted to attempt the journey, in the midst of a wilderness, nearly destitute of provisions, and with no chance of obtaining any, nearer than Salt Lake City, four hundred miles away, from which they were separated by a region of mountainous country, rendered impassable by deep snows and beset for the entire distance by hostile Indians. Starvation seemingly stared them in the face. Disheartening as the prospect was, all felt that it would not do to give way to discouragement.

Main Street in Bannack, MT, a ghost town and state park. Photo: Mark Halloway, CC BY 2.0

Traders brought provisions at great personal risk and seeking their own fortune, so prices were high and the newcomers had yet been able to find any gold. Langford and some others head for Bannack.

The little gulch at Pike’s Peak was fully occupied when we arrived, and after remaining a few days, we mounted our horses and made a tedious but unadventurous journey to Bannack, then, and for nearly a year afterwards, the most important gold placer east of the Rocky Mountains.

The fame of this locality had reached Salmon river late in the fall of 1862, and many of the people left the Florence mines for the east side. Among them came the first irruption of robbers, gamblers, and horse-thieves, and the settlement was filled with gambling houses and saloons, where bad men and worse women held constant vigil, and initiated that reign of infamy which nothing but the strong hand could extirpate.

** Prickly Pear valley is where Helena, Montana exists today.

The pattern repeats: gold is discovered, miners flock, followed closely by those who would take advantage of them and what gold they find – the gamblers and robbers. The pressure for citizens to form committees to defend themselves moves from Florence and other mines in Idaho eastward toward Montana. The next installment picks up in Bannack in 1862 with some of the same bad characters exposed by Langford in earlier chapters.

From the Wikipedia entry on Bannack: Founded in 1862 and named after the local Bannock Indians, it was the site of a major gold discovery in 1862, and served as the capital of Montana Territory briefly in 1864, until the capital was moved to Virginia City. Bannack continued as a mining town, though with a dwindling population. The last residents left in the 1970s. It is now a ghost town and state park.

One of the few women who lived there early in the rush, Emily Meredith, wrote in 1863: “I don’t know how many deaths have occurred this winter but that there have not been twice as many is entirely owing to the fact that drunken men do not shoot well… bullets whiz around so, and no one thinks of punishing a man for shooting another.”

Catch up on earlier installments of Vigilante Days and Ways: Introduction; Second Installment, Third Installment, Fourth Installment, Fifth Installment, Sixth Installment, Seventh Installment and Eighth Installment.

Cover photo: A Bannack building, first floor was a school, second floor a Masonic Temple. Photo by Mark Halloway, CC BY 2.0

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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