Bannack, Montana

The gold and silver camps of Montana produced more than rich ore, sometimes they gave us colorful stories to pass on from one generation to another. A group of seven prospectors left Bannack in the spring of 1863 headed for the Yellowstone River to find their fortune and fame. They awoke on the morning of May 1 to find themselves surrounded and captured by either, Crow or Sioux Indians, know one knew for sure. What they did know was that the Indians were more than a little upset at the trespassers.

The men were herded into the Indian village and into the medicine man’s tent. The prospectors were sure they were goners. One of the miners, who possessed an uncanny ability to handle poisonous snakes without danger to himself, discovered two live rattlesnakes kept for ceremonies, and stuffed them into his shirt. When the Indians threatened the miners with their lives, the crazy one (miner, not Indian) pulled out the snakes and threatened the Indians. The Indians thought he was evil and released the whole group fearing evil spirits would invade the tribe.

The prospectors high-tailed it out of there and headed back toward Bannack. Feeling lucky they stopped beside a creek for the night to try out the panning. Only one of them ended up doing any panning for gold and he was just looking for enough color to buy some tobacco back in town.

That prospector made mining history. He found gold; lots and lots of gold. They staked their claims and named it Alder Gulch for the dense growth of alder trees at the site. The men agreed to say nothing of their discovery when they arrived at Bannack the next day. They wanted to stock up and return to work their claims in secret.

Sure. While in town they ate well, dressed well, and drank well for men who before they left had done nothing well. The lucky prospectors tried to slip out of town the next morning but were followed by three to four hundred men. Before reaching Alder Gulch the prospectors gave in and held a meeting with the followers. It was decided that everyone would stake two claims each, there would be no claim jumping, and they would all live happily ever after. Two out of three ain’t bad. For want of tobacco money Virginia City (Montana, not Nevada) was born.

Speaking of tobacco .. . In Virginia City’s heyday years, the 1860’s, one out of three businesses was a saloon. Sometimes the whiskey supply would run low and the supply wagon was a few days out yet, so the tavern keepers would brew up their own “tanglefoot.” They would mix a quantity of boiled mountain sage, two plugs of tobacco, one box of cayenne pepper and a gallon of water. They would sell this whiskey substitute for 25 cents each. There is no report of how many tavern keepers were shot, so it must not have tasted too bad.

Cats, horses, and mules worked deep in the mines of Montana. The cats hung around to get the mice that were eating the feed for the horses and mules. They loved it down there. The horses and mules, of course, were used to haul out the ore. They lived underground with clean stables, feed and fresh water. At one point, there were at least a thousand horses and mules living in the Montana mines. They would pull up to six ore cars at a time; each car with a ton of ore. They worked at different levels and pulled to the main shaft where the ore was transported to the surface. Each animal had its own driver who would tend to the animal and handle the ore car train. Frequently the animals would become attached to their drivers (or vice-versa) like pets. A deep affection grew between them; and one wouldn’t go to work without the other!

First Jail In Montana At Bannack

Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, was accused by some of secretly leading a ruthless band of road agents, with early accounts claiming that this gang was responsible for over a hundred murders in the Virginia City and Bannack gold fields and trails to Salt Lake City. However, because only eight deaths are historically documented, some modern historians have called into question the exact nature of Plummer’s gang, while others deny the existence of the gang altogether. In any case, Plummer and two compatriots, both deputies, were hanged, without trial, at Bannack on January 10, 1864. A number of Plummer’s associates were lynched and others banished on pain of death if they ever returned. Twenty-two individuals were accused, informally tried, and hanged by the Vigilance Committee  (the Montana Vigilantes) of Bannack and Virginia City. Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, was a member of that vigilance committee.

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