Montana Gold Discoveries and First Settlers

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The existence of gold in Montana was not unknown to the Jesuit fathers, but they had other motives than the gathering of earthly treasure, and they would not risk the souls of their ‘dear Indians’ for the glittering metal. As early as 1852 a half-caste from the Red River settlements, named Fran├žois Finlay, but known as Benetsee, and who had been to California, prospected on a branch of the Hellgate River, finding the color, but no paying placers. The stream became known as Benetsee Creek; but in 1853 a member of the railroad exploring expedition took out of this stream, being ignorant of Finlay’s discovery, some specimens of gold, from which circumstance it was called Gold Creek by the men of the expedition, which name it retained. But the government officers were no more gold-seekers than the fathers, and the discovery was passed over with brief comment. Similar indications had been observed by Evans of the geological survey, and by McClellan’s party in the Wenatchee country, at the eastern base of the Cascade Mountains, hundreds of miles west of Deer Lodge Valley, and no one thought much about it.

But the time had come when the knowledge must be forced upon the world; and there appeared one day in 1857 at Fort Benton an unknown mountaineer with a buckskin sack full of yellow dust, for which he requested the agent, Culbertson, to give him in exchange $1,000 worth of goods. Culbertson was not an expert in judging of gold dust, never having been a miner, and but for the intercession of his clerk, Ray, would have declined the proffered treasure. On the representations of the latter, but still in some doubt, he accepted this, to him, singular currency, charging the transaction to his private account. In due time the gold was minted and produced over $1,500. Then the agent at Fort Benton would gladly have known more of his customer, who had divulged neither his name nor the locality of his mine. It happened, however, that Mercure, an old resident of Fort Benton, who had been present at this transaction, afterward met the first Montana miner, when both were digging for the precious metal, and learned that his name was Silverthorne. Further information it was said no one ever gathered from the solitary creature, and in a few years he disappeared from the territory; but whether he died or returned to friends in the east, was never revealed. Such was the story. Silverthorne was undoubtedly the first, and for several years the only, miner in the Rocky Mountains.1 But except that he was reticent concerning the source of his gold supply, there is no mystery about him more than about many other mountain men. In 1859 he was in the Bitterroot Valley, and his name was John, as I shall show further on.

The first party to undertake to prove the truth of certain rumors concerning gold placers in the then unorganized eastern limits of Washington, and the western part of Dakota, was one of which James Stuart was the leading spirit. In the spring of 1857 James and Granville Stuart, brothers, left Yreka, California, to pay a visit to their former home in Iowa,2 in company with Reece Anderson and eight other persons. Granville Stuart being seized with a severe illness when the company had progressed as far as Malade Creek, a branch of Bear River, they en-camped for ten days at the place of Jacob Meeks, a mountain man and Indian trader. At the end of that time, Stuart not having recovered, the eight proceeded on their journey, leaving the two brothers and Anderson on the Malade. By the time the sick man could ride, all the roads leading to the states were patrolled by Mormon troops, then at war with the United States, and the Stuarts decided not to place themselves in the power of the Latter-day Saints, but to join some mountain men, who traded with the annual immigrations at different points, and who were intending to winter in the Beaverhead and Bighole valleys, east of the Rocky Mountains.3

There were ten adults and a number of half-breed children in the camp, and within a radius of twenty-five miles a number of similar communities. Late in December, while they were in Bighole Valley, their encampment was enlarged by the addition of ten volunteers from Johnston’s headquarters at Fort Bridger, commanded by B. F. Ficklin, and guided by Ned Williamson,4 a noted mountaineer, their errand being to purchase beef for the army.5 But not being able to obtain cattle on the terms offered, and fearing to return across the high divide in midwinter, the detachment remained in Bighole Valley until early spring, when they returned to Fort Bridger, experiencing many hardships on their journey, owing to the scarcity of game and the inclemency of the weather.

About the last of March the Stuarts, Anderson, and a man named Ross also set out for Fort Bridger, the Stuarts having now no property remaining but their horses, twenty in number, and wishing to dispose of them. The snow on the divide being too deep for the horses to pass, the party determined upon going to Deer Lodge Valley for the purpose of hunting and curing meat for their journey, and also to ascertain the truth of an account given them while on Malade Creek by some mountaineers, of the gold placers said to exist on Benetsee Creek, as they then called Gold Creek, on the American fork of the Hellgate River. They started about the 1st of April, and reached there without difficulty, finding at the mouth of Gold Creek John M. Jacobs with a herd of cattle, which he owned with John F. Grant, who finally settled near the junction of the two forks of Hellgate River, where in 1860 he had erected two log houses.6

The Flathead agency at the Jocko River became the home of the first white woman resident in Montana. This pioneer was Mrs Minnie Miller, who with her husband, Henry G. Miller, accompanied Lansdale to the Flathead country in 1855.7 A cattle owner, Thomas Adams, was also in Hellgate Valley in 1858.8

The want of any provisions excepting meat, and of proper mining tools, combined with the loss of several horses stolen by the Indians, discouraged the young men from attempting mining, and they resolved to continue their journey at once to Fort Bridger, where they arrived about the last of June. The army, however, had removed to Camp Floyd in Utah, and here they followed after a brief rest, and where their horses brought a good price. The Stuarts had by this time acquired a taste for adventure, and determined to return to Green River, where they began operations as traders, buying cattle and horses from the teamsters of Johnston’s army and wintering them in the valley of Henry fork of Snake River. For two years the brothers lived in this manner. In the winter of 1860 they made their camp in Beaverhead Valley, but the Indians killing their cattle, they moved to Deer Lodge Valley, locating themselves at the mouth of Gold Creek, still having in mind the rumored gold placers.

In July 1859 the war department had one of its engineers – W. F. Reynolds – in the field to explore the Black Hills and the Yellowstone country. Starting from Fort Pierre on the Missouri, furnished with all the necessary mining tools had gold been dis-covered, and commissioned to report on the minerals of the country, Reynolds, whose company consisted of roving adventurers, although finding evidences of gold on the affluents of the Yellowstone, discouraged searching for it, oppressed with a fear that he should be deserted, and the arms and property of the expedition carried off, if any too certain evidences of placers or quartz gold became known, all of which he reported to the government.

In the spring of 1861 James Stuart went to Fort Benton to meet the steamer Chippewa, which was expected there, to endeavor to purchase tools and other supplies. But the steamer and all her cargo9 was burned before arrival. On returning to Gold Creek he found that Blackfoot marauders had stolen all his horses except three that were every night kept tied at the cabin door by his brother. Nothing daunted, however, he hired two men who owned a whip-saw to get out lumber for sluice-boxes at ten cents a foot, and sent to Walla Walla, which since the discovery of the Nez Perce mines had become a thriving town, to procure picks and shovels, Worden & Co. of that place having a pack-train on the Mullan road, then about completed. The tools did not arrive until it was too late to commence mining that year, but a ditch had been dug, and every preparation made for beginning in the following spring. Late in the autumn three other men – W. Graham, A. S. Blake, and P. W. McAdow – arrived at Gold Creek, and prospected in a dry gulch where the village of Pioneer was located, finding good indications, and remaining until spring to work their claims. Anderson having taken a steamer down the Missouri in 1860, there remained only the Stuarts and the new arrivals, five in all, to make the experiment at mining. The results at first were not flattering, the claims, excepting one in Pioneer gulch, which paid from six to twenty dollars per day, yielding no more than from one and a half to three dollars. While working for this small amount the Stuarts kept their remaining horses picketed on a sloping piece of grass-land, which was afterward discovered to conceal an enormously rich deposit, which took the name of Bratton Bar in 1866. A man named Hurlbut discovered the placers on Big Prickly Pear Creek about midsummer of this year.

In my account of the Idaho mines I have mentioned that in 1862, and later, certain immigrants and gold-hunters made the attempt to reach Salmon River mines from Fort Hall, or the South pass, and failed, some being killed by Indians, and others being scattered among various localities. Such a party arrived in June 1862 at Deer Lodge.10 They discovered a rich placer on a branch of Gold Creek, which they named Pike’s Peak gulch. Many others arrived by steamers at Fort Benton, some of whom stopped at Gold Creek.11 Four boats from St Louis reached Fort Benton in 1862.12

In the winter of 1859 a petition had been addressed to the legislature of Washington by the settlers of Bitterroot Valley and the Flathead agency, to have a county set off, to be called Bitterroot County. This petition had seventy-seven names attached, and chiefly these of the Mullan wagon-road company, who could hardly be called settlers, although a few names of actual pioneers are to be found among them.13 The petition does not appear to have been presented until the session of 1860-1, when two counties, called Shoshone and Missoula, were created out of the region east of the later boundary of Washington, the 117th meridian.

No election was held in Missoula County until the 14th of July 1862, when James Stuart was elected sheriff. It was not long before he was called to act in his official capacity, and to arrest and bring to trial an aged Frenchman who had stolen some horses and other property. He was tried in a mass-meeting of the miners, who, compassionating his age, his sorrow, and poverty, made up a purse for him, and sent him out of the county to trouble them no more. The next horse-thieves fared worse. They were three men, named William Arnett, C. W. Spillman, and B. F. Jernagin, and arrived on American fork of Hellgate River from the west, about the middle of August, having with them half a dozen good American horses. When they had been there a few days, the owners of the horses also arrived, and entering the settlement at the mouth of Gold Creek, which was now beginning to be called by the urban appellation of American Fork, and where Worden & Co. had opened a store, under the cover of night, requested the aid of the sheriff and miners in capturing the trio. Arnett and Jernagin were found engaged in a monte game in a drinking-saloon, the former with a pistol on his knees, ready for emergencies. When ordered to throw up his hands, Arnett seized his pistol instead, and one of the pursuers shot him dead, as he stood up with the weapon in one hand and the cards in the other. So tight was his dying clutch upon the latter, that they could not be removed, and were buried with him. Jernagin surrendered, and on trial was acquitted and sent out of the country. Spillman, who was arrested in Worden’s store, and who was a finely built man of twenty-five years, made no defense, and when sentenced to be hanged, preferred no request except to be allowed to write to his father. He met his death firmly, being hanged August 26, 1862, the first of a long list of criminals who expiated their lawlessness in the same manner, and on whom the vigilants of Montana executed justice without any legal circumlocution. Soon after this affair, news of new placers on Willard (called on the maps Grasshopper) Creek, in the Beaverhead Valley, drew away the miners from Gold Creek, the Stuarts among the rest; and as the affairs of the new mining settlements deserve a chapter to themselves, I will proceed to recount them.

Footnotes

  1. James H. Bradley, in Deer Lodge New Northwest, Oct. 8, 1875. 

  2. The Stuart brothers were natives of Virginia. James was born March 14, 1832. His parents removed to Ill. in 1836, and two years later to Muscatine, Iowa. The country being new, the only education James received was from his parents, supplemented by a year of study at a private school taught at Iowa City by James Harlan, afterward U. S. senator. In 1852 the brothers immigrated to Cal. in company with their father, who returned in 1853, leaving them in the mines in the northern part of that state. From l857 their history belongs to Montana, where they became prominent citizens, and where James died Sept. 30, 1873. Con, Hist. Soc. Montana, 36-79; Helena Rocky Mountain Gazette, Oct. 8, 1873. 

  3. The place of the Bighole River camp was a short distance below where Brown’s bridge later stood. Here were encamped Jacob Meeks, our adventurers, Robert Dempsey and family, Jackson Antoine Leclaire and family, and Oliver and Michael Leclaire and family, meaning an Indian woman and half-caste children. Within a radius of 20 miles were the following H. B. Co. and other traders: Richard Grant, Sr, and family, John F. Grant and family, James C. Grant, Thomas Pambrun and family, Louis R. Maillet, John M. Jacobs and family, Robert Hareford, John Morgan, John W. Powell, John Saunders, Mr Ross, Antoine Pourrier, several employees of Hereford and the Grants whose names have been lost, Antoine Courtoi and family, and a Delaware Indian named James Simonds who was also a trailer. The Indians sold horses, furs, and dressed skins; and the white men paid them: for a horse, two blankets, one shirt, a pair of cloth leggings, a knife, a small mirror, a paper of vermilion, and perhaps some other trifles; for a dressed deer skin, from 15 to 20 balls; for an elk skin, from 20 to 25 balls, and powder; for an antelope skin, 5 to 10 balls; for a beaver skin, 20 to 25 balls; for a pair of good moccasons, 10 balls. Con. Hist. Soc. Montana, 38-9. 

  4. Williamson, while acting as expressman for Mullan in the winter of 1859-60, from Bitterroot Valley to Camp Floyd, was caught in the heavy snows near the head of Snake River and lost his horses. He made snowshoes of his saddle rigging, and through snow-blind for several days, made the greater portion of the 500 miles on foot, reaching Camp Floyd and returning on horseback within 50 days. Mullan’s Mil. Road Rept, 21-2. 

  5. It appears from the narratives of Stuart and others that cattle were somewhat extensively dealt in, even as early as 1858, by the settlers of Montana. The roving traders made a good profit buying poor and exhausted stock from the California and Oregon immigrations, keeping it on the excellent pastures of the mountain valleys, and exchanging it with the next year’s travel, one fat animal for two lean ones, or selling beef cattle wherever a market offered. 

  6. Mullan’s Mil. Road Rept, 140. Grant seems to have been the second settler on the Hellgate, McArthur being the first The Owens in the Bitterroot Valley and the traders above referred to constituted the white population of Montana in 1858. I have been told of Grant that he was a crafty trader, and when a Blackfoot came to his door he brought forward his Blackfoot wife, but when a Flathead appeared he presented a Flathead wife. Another settler in Hellgate Valley in 1860 was a Frenchman named Brown. Mullan mentions C. O. Irvine and two laborers. The names of Baptiste Champaigne and Gabriel Prudhomme also occur in his report. It would seem that the H. B. Co.’s men liked this particular region, probably on account of the Catholic Missions as well as the friendly character of the Flathead Indians. In 1861 Higgins and Worden had a trading-house at Hellgate, and Van Dom another; and a grain farm was opened about this time by Robert Dempsey, between Flint Creek and the American branch of Hellgate River. 

  7. Mrs Miller was born in Vermont, was educated in the Mormon faith, and resided at North Ogden. At the age of 16 she married a gentile and fled with him to escape the wrath of the saints. Helena Independent, Jan. 20, 1875. 

  8. Later a resident of Washington City. 

  9. The Chippewa exploded 400 miles below Fort Benton, a deck hand having taken a lighted candle into the held to steal some alcohol from a cask, when the spirit took fire. There were 280 kegs of powder on board. Both alcohol and powder were intended for the Indian trade. The boat was run ashore, and the passengers ran a mile away. It is soberly stated that a safe weighing 12,000 lbs was hurled three quarters of a mile by the force of the explosion. The passengers were left to get to Fort Benton as they could. Corr. S. F. Bulletin, Aug. 28, 1861. 

  10. As an episode in the history of settlement, the following is interesting: In April 1862 a party of six men left Colorado for Salmon River, or Oregon, or anywhere west, to escape from Colorado, which we all then thought a sort of Siberia, in which a man was likely to end his days in helpless exile from his home and friends, because of the poorness of its mines.’ At a ferry on the north Platte they fell in with 14 others, and finding Bridger’s pass filled with snow, the winter having been of unusual severity, the joint company resolved to proceed across the country to the Sweetwater, and through the South pass. On arriving at Plant’s station, on the Sweetwater, it was found in flames, the Indians having just made a raid on the stations along the whole line of the road between the Platte bridge and Green River. Here they found a notice that another party of 18 men had retreated to Platte Bridge to wait for re-enforcements. They accordingly sent two expressman to bring up this party, and by the time they were ready to go on, their force was 45 men, well armed and able to fight Indians. Replenishing their supplies at Salt Lake, they continued their journey, overtaking at Box Elder a small party with 8 wagons loaded with the frame of a ferry-boat for Snake River, above Fort Hall, J. Mix being one of the ferry-owners. From the best information to be obtained at Salt Lake or Snake River, they would find their course to be the old Mormon settlement of Fort Lemhi, and thence 60 miles down the Salmon River to the mines. But on arriving at Lemhi on the 10th of July, they found a company there before them under Samuel McLean, and heard of another, which had arrived still earlier, under Austin, all bound for Salmon River mines, and deceived as to the distance and the practicability of a road, the former being 360 miles, and the latter impassable for wagons. The wagons being abandoned, and the freight packed upon the draught animals, nothing was left for their owners but to walk. Thirty-five men decided to proceed in this manner to the mines, most of McLean’s party remaining behind. The 3d night after leaving Lemhi the company encamped in Bighole prairie, and on the following morning fell in with a Mr Chatfield and his guide, coming from Fort Owen to Fort Lemhi to settle a difficulty arising from the Lemhi Indians having killed and eaten one of McLean’s horses; but learning from the company just from Lemhi that the matter had been arranged, Chatfield turned back; and his conversation induced 22 of the company to resign the idea of Salmon River, and turn their faces toward Deer Lodge, the remainder continuing on the trail to Elk City, from the point where it crossed the Bitterroot River, near its head. Among these who stopped on the Montana side of the Bitterroot Mountains were Henry Thrapp, M. Haskins, William Smith, Allen McPhail, John Graham, Warner, Thomas Neild, Joseph Mumby, James Taylor, J. W. Bozeman, Thomas Woods, J. Caruthers, Andrew Murray, Thomas Donelson, N. Davidson, James Patten, William Thompson, Murphy, and Dutch Pete. Ten of the 22 remained at Fort Owen, taking employment there at the Flathead reservation, of which John Owen was agent. Twelve went to Cold Creek, where they arrived about the last of July. Rocky Mountain Gazette, Feb. 25, 1869. 

  11. According to Mullan, of 364 immigrants arriving at Fort Benton in July, a large number were destined to Walla Walla, with saw and gristmills, and many to the mines. Mil, Road Rept, 34–5. This year, also. La Barge, Harkness, & Co. established a trading- house near Fort Benton, and intended to erect mills near the Deer lodge mines. Among these who arrived by steamer were W. B. Dance and S. S. Hauser. Jerome S. Glick, David Gray, George Gray, George Perkins, William Griffith, Jack Oliver, and Joseph Clark stopped at Deer Lodge mines. 

  12. Emihe, June 17th; Shreveport, do.; Key West No. S, June 20th; Spread Eagle, do. 

  13. 1859 Petition for Bitterroot County 



MLA Source Citation:

Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 20 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/montana/montana-gold-discoveries-and-first-settlers.htm - Last updated on Oct 21st, 2014


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