Magazine article Financial History

Don't Mess with My Gold: The Vigilantes of Montana

Magazine article Financial History

Don't Mess with My Gold: The Vigilantes of Montana

Article excerpt

Gold has motivated entire societies, torn economies to shreds, determined the fate of kings and emperors, inspired the most beautiful works of art, provoked horrible acts by one people against another, and driven men to endure intense hardship in the hope of finding instant wealth and annihilating uncertainty.

- Peter L. Bernstein

The territory of Montana, like California, was birthed in a gold rush. However, while the eyes of the nation were focused on California during the gold rush of 1849, the 1862 discovery of gold on Grasshopper Creek in southwestern Montana went largely unnoticed by a nation locked in the grips of a bloody civil war. The mining town of Bannack, described by prominent Montana historians as "a hell-for-leather berg," sprung up on the banks of Grasshopper Creek. With the onset of winter, residents quickly turned their attention from gold mining to survival. Mining resumed in the spring, and more miners flooded into the area from California, Nevada and the war-torn states in the East.

Bannack, located in the extreme western part of the Dakota Territory, was for all intents and purposes outside of the influence of territorial law. The Territory of Idaho, which included Bannack and most of western Montana, was created in the spring of 1863. Congress, however, failed to provide the new territory with any civil or criminal codes, which was extremely unfortunate given the degenerate natures of many who were attracted to the mining camps.

From its beginning, Bannack experienced many acts of lawlessness including the murder of Jack Cleveland by the soon-to-be-elected sheriffof Bannack, Henry Plummer. Plummer had had his share of scrapes with the law in spite of his previous career as a lawman in California. He had even served several months in the notorious San Quentin prison for the murder of his girlfriend's husband, but he was released due to failing health. According to Allen (2004), Plummer's "reputation for past violence seemed to work in his favor, since his fellow townsmen could appreciate the need for a man who commanded fear and respect to serve in the post." Perhaps Plummer was truly trying to turn his life around, but his close association with the ne'er-do-wells in the area, some of whom became his deputies, led many to wonder whether Plummer had truly turned over a new leaf.

Two days after Plummer's election, gold was discovered 70 miles east of Bannack at Alder Gulch. Cushman (1973) described Alder Gulch as "the richest single working in the history of mining." The gold workings at Bannack were largely abandoned as miners rushed to make their fortunes at Alder Gulch. Several towns appeared overnight in the Alder Gulch area, but the two most important were Virginia City, which later became the territorial capital of Montana, and Nevada City. Plummer stayed in Bannack but extended his authority as sheriffto Alder Gulch.

Nathaniel Langford, a resident of Bannack, was one of the first to write about vigilante activity in the mining camps. According to Langford, the early successful miners simply wanted to get out of Alder Gulch with their gold in the fall. "Failing in this, they knew that they would be doomed to a long winter of idleness, exposed to the privations incident to a new and isolated region, and to the depredations of a large and increasing criminal population." What Langford described as a "hegira" attracted the attention of the criminal element that saw an opportunity to relieve miners and merchants of their gold. Although the number of hold-ups was overestimated by Langford and others, several robberies occurred in the fall of 1863, which made the residents of Bannack and Alder Gulch very nervous.

The tipping point came in December of 1863 when a young German immigrant named Nicholas Tiebolt was murdered and stripped of the gold his employer had given him to purchase a pair of mules. George Ives, the main suspect in Tiebolt's death, was immediately captured, and a miner's court was assembled in Nevada City to try him. …

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