Vigilante Days and Ways. In these excerpts, Langford continues describing the gold mining camps being established in that part of Washington Territory that will soon become Idaho Territory, and some of the outlaws harassing them. In this installment, Langford sets the scene of the mines and towns established along the Clearwater River and in the Salmon River watershed, including Pierce, Oro Fino, and Florence. Outlaws were drawn to the brand-new towns and the miners congregating there like magnets. To get up to speed with Langford’s tale, read the Introduction and Second Installment.
Chapter VI: Northern Mines Prospecting (as it is called) for gold placers and quartz veins has grown into a profession. No man can engage in it successfully unless he understands it. There are certain indications in the face of the country, the character of the rocks, the presentation of the strata, the form of the gulch, the gravel in streams or on the bars, the cement formation below it, or the shape of the mountains, which are known only to experienced prospectors, that determine generally the presence of the precious metals. Guided by these unmistakable signs, the veteran gold searcher is sustained in his solitary explorations by the consciousness of possessing knowledge which must sooner or later lead to success. Impressed with the idea that as many rich gulches and productive veins have been found, so others remain to be discovered, –and that as those already developed have made their owners rich, so some fortunate discovery may do the same for him, he mounts his pony, and with pick, shovel, and pan, a magnifying glass, a few pounds of bacon, flour and coffee, his trusty rifle and revolver at hand, and his roll of blankets and not unfrequently a quart flask of whiskey, he plunges into the unexplored recesses of the mountains, and for weeks and months is lost to all the world of humanity beside himself. Alone, but encouraged by that hope which outlives every disappointment, he wanders hundreds of miles into the unvisited wilderness, the hero of countless adventures and the explorer of the world’s great solitudes.
Men of this class are numerous in all goldmining regions. Their very occupation makes them maniacs. They lose all relish for society, and think of nothing but the success they are one day to meet with in the pursuit of gold. Frequent as their discoveries often are, and promising as many of them proved to be, the one they are in search of lies still further onward. Abandoning to those who follow them discoveries which would assure them all the wealth they need, they lead on and on into the mountain labyrinth, pioneering the path of empire, to die at least alone, unfriended and destitute, beyond its utmost boundaries. It is to such men that we owe the discovery of all the gold regions which have contributed to our wealth since the days of Marshall.
Gold had been discovered west of the mountains in several portions of Washington Territory previous to this time. As early as the year 1852 H. M. Chase found it on a creek which flowed into the Grand Ronde river. …such was the excitement…that several parties of discovery were organized, and plunged into the mountain recesses of that portion of Washington which afterwards became Idaho. Among others was one Pierce, who became infatuated with the idea that the river sands of this unexplored region were filled with diamonds. …An unimportant camp of the early miners, which received his name, has served to transmit his memory and mania to the present period. These early explorations, leading deeper and deeper into the mountain wilderness, finally resulted in the discovery of the Florence and Oro Fino mines.
Thousands of people, lured by their discoveries, had nearly worked out the placers of Oro Fino during the summer of 1861. …Meantime, the indomitable prospector…[c]rossing the Salmon River range, soon unveiled the riches of those places which afterwards became known as Florence and Elk City. They were immediately occupied by thousands, and other thousands of the far East, thrilled with the story of their richness, were on their way to the new El Dorado. An hegira similar to that of 1849 again took place across the plains. Lewiston was no longer the base of operations. Among the earliest of those to abandon it for a point more favorable to the prosecution of their enterprise, were the banditti which had so long held its inhabitants in fear.
Chapter VII: Charley Harper A NEW candidate for bloody laurels now appears in the person of Charley Harper. He arrived in Walla Walla in the fall of 1861. A young man of twenty-five, of medium size, of erect carriage, clear, florid complexion, and profuse auburn hair, he could, but for the leer in his small inexpressive gray eye, have passed in any society for a gentleman. His previous life is a sealed book; –but the readiness with which he engaged in crime showed that he as not without experience.
Langford describes incidents between leaders of the Lewiston-area shebang – Henry Plummer and Cherokee Bob – and soldiers or honest town folk that necessitated their leaving the area to gain time things to cool time. This meant the shebang and banditti fell under the leadership or Charley Harper.
Chapter VIII: Cherokee Bob Intelligence of the discovery of extensive placers on the head waters of the Salmon river, excelling in richness any former locations, had been circulated through all the border towns during the winter. The excitement consequent thereon was intense. Such was the impatience of the people to effect an early arrival there that many left Walla Walla and Lewiston in midwinter, and on their way thither perished in the snows which engorged the mountain passes. Others, more cautious, awaited the coming of warm weather, and made the journey, –tedious, difficult, and dangerous at best, –with comparative safety. Among the latter number were Charley Harper and his band of brigands. Mounted on strong, fleet horses which they had acquired during the winter, the criminal cavalcade with its chief at the head dashed up the river valley, insulting, threatening, or robbing every one so unfortunate as to fall in their way. Of the number prominent in the riotous column were People, English, Scott, and Brockie –men whose deeds of villainy have blackened the criminal records of nearly all the larger cities of the Pacific slope. With none of the magnanimity which characterized Joaquin Murieta and the earlier brigands of California, and with all their recklessness of crime and murder, a meaner, baser, more contemptible band of ruffians perhaps never before disgraced the annals of the race. No crime was too atrocious for them to commit, no act of shame or wantonness was uncongenial to their groveling natures. They were as totally depraved as a long and unchecked career of every variety of criminal indulgence could make them. Afraid of nothing but the law, and not afraid of that in these new and unorganized communities, they were little else than devils incarnate. Insensible to all appeals for mercy, and ever acting upon the cautious maxim that “dead men tell no tales,” the only chance for escape from death for those whom they assaulted was in their utter inability to do them injury. Human life regarded as an obstacle to their designs, was of no more importance than the blowing up of a safe or any other act which stood between them and their prey. Of course it was impossible that such a band of desperadoes should pass over the long and desolate route from Walla Walla to Florence with adventure.
Langford relates an instance of Harper’s group robbing miners on their way to Florence. The miners, after giving up their purses at gunpoint, all survive the encounter. The brigands hightail it for town.
Thundering into the town, they drew up before the first saloon, fired their pistols, and urged their horses into the establishment. Without dismounting they ordered liquor for the crowd. All the by-standers partook with them. Harper ostentatiously threw one of the purses he had just seized upon the counter, telling the barkeeper to weigh out the amount of the bill, and after a few moments they left the saloon, “to see,” as one of them expressed himself, “whether the town was big enough to hold them.”
This irruption into Florence occurred while that city was comparatively in embryo. The great floods of immigration from the east and west had not arrived. Some months must elapse before the expectations of the robbers could be realized. Meantime, they distributed themselves among the saloons and bagnios, and by means of gambling and frequent robberies, contrived to hold the community in fear and pick up a subsistence until the great crown came.
Meanwhile, Cherokee Bob returns to Lewiston and hooks up with fellow bandits and friends, including Plummer and a man named Mayfield, who had become intimate with a woman calling herself “Cynthia.” She ran a hotel in Lewiston, the “fallen wife of a very worthy man.” Bob, Mayfield and Cynthia traveled together to Florence; along the way, Mayfield became jealous of Bob’s attentions toward Cynthia. Putting his hand on the butt of his revolver, Mayfield confronted Bob.
“Bob, you know me.”
“Yes,” replied Bob with a similar gesture, “and Bill, you know me.”
“Well now, Bob, the question is whether we shall make fools of ourselves or not.”
“Just as you say, Bill. I’m al’ys ready for anything that turns up.”
“Bob, if that woman loves you more than me,” said Mayfield, “take her. I don’t want her. But if she thinks the most of me, no person ought to come between us. I call that on the square.”
“Well, I do think considerable of Cynthia, and you are not married to her, you know,” replied Bob.
“That makes no difference. If she loves me, and wishes to live with me, no one shall interfere to prevent it.”
“Well, what do you propose to do about it?” asked Bob, after a brief pause.
“Let the woman decide for herself,” replied Mayfield. “What say you, Cynthia? Is it Bob or me?”
Thus appealed to, greatly to the surprise of Mayfield, Cynthia replied: —
“Well, William, Robert is settled in business now, and don’t you think he is better able to take care of me than you are?”
This reply convinced Mayfield that his influence over the woman was lost.
Langford explains that Cherokee Bob became “settled in business” because the senior partner in a leading saloon in Oro Fino had died a few days before Bob’s arrival. The man owed Bob money. Bob tells the surviving partner that he should be given the bar and all its contents as payment for the debt.
“How much,” inquired the man, “did you lend my partner? I’ll settle with you, and pay liberal interest.”
“That’s not the idee,” rejoined Bob. “Do you think me fool enough to lend a fellow five hundred dollars, and then after it increases to five thousand, square the account with a return of what I lent and a little more? That’s not my way of doing biz. How much stock have you got here on hand?”
Bob carefully committed to writing the invoice verbally furnished.
“Now,” said he, putting the memorandum in his pocket, “I’ll hold you responsible for all these traps – the whole outfit. You’ve got to close up and get out of this without any delay. I’ll give you twenty-four hours to do it in. You must then deliver everything safe into my hands.”
The unfortunate saloon-keeper knew that the law as administered in that mountain town would afford him no redress. He also knew that to refuse compliance with the demand of Cherokee Bob, however unjust, would precipitate a quarrel which would probably cost him his life. So when Bob, accompanied by two or three confederates, came the next morning to the saloon to take possession he was prepared to submit to the imposition without resistance. Walking within the bar, Cherokee Bob emptied the money drawer and gave the contents to his victim. He then invited his friends to drink to the success of the new “outfit,” and finding himself in undisturbed occupancy, increased the amount of his gift to the man he had expelled to several hundred dollars. This was the manner in which he became, as Cynthia said, “settled in business.”
Excerpted from Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies, the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, by Nathaniel Pitt Langford, published by D. D. Merrill Company in 1893.
To gain a sense of “gold fever” and why so many risked so much to find gold in Idaho, here are estimates for Idaho gold production, 1860-1866, provided by Idaho State Historical Society:
Elk City and Dixie $2,700,000
Salmon River (bars) $800,000
Clearwater Station $800,000
Miller’s Camp $200,000
Boise Basin $20,000,000
South Boise and Atlanta $800,000
One wonders whether anyone explained to the miners how much profit they could expect, assuming of course they found gold and survived long enough to enjoy their newfound wealth:
An analysis of costs and total gold production at Pierce and Florence during those years (made by Ernest Oberbillig) indicate that at Pierce production costs took approximately 94% of the total yield; Florence, with its higher producing claims, returned a more generous profit of about 14% (with only about 86% of the gold going into costs) as compared with a 6% profit at Pierce.
Cover photo: The Bob Saloon in Miles City, Montana, 1880.