BANNACK – We’ll never know how John White’s “eureka!” moment played out on July 28, 1862, when he discovered gold at Grasshopper Creek.
That strike 150 years ago Saturday precipitated Montana’s first gold rush, gave rise to its first boomtown (Bannack) and led to the mining of some of the world’s richest placer gold fields.
Even as the Civil War raged, Abraham Lincoln established Montana Territory not two years later, a direct result of White’s modest find and what it wrought.
But details of the strike never surfaced, certainly not to the extent that Henry Edgar supplied after he and Bill Fairweather spotted color in their pans 10 months later, 75 wagon miles to the east.
“I have found a scad,” Fairweather said that May evening.
“If you have one I have a hundred,” Edgar said he said, and the fabulously rich Alder Gulch diggings were born.
It’s too bad White didn’t record his moment in history, made in the company of one William Eades and a party of “Colorado men.”
Of course, he parlayed his riches from Grasshopper Creek into a career as a business tycoon and statesman of Montana, opening banks and financing railroads and lumber mills. It’s no coincidence that our seat of government today is located in Whi … Whoa! Stop the madness.
John White was murdered in early 1864, still prospecting for his fortune in the Boulder River drainage. His only footnote in history is the extent to which Montana went to track down his killer – unsuccessfully, as it turns out.
It’s a story repeated throughout the history of Montana’s formative gold strikes – at Grasshopper Creek in 1862, Alder Gulch (Virginia City) in 1863, Last Chance Gulch (Helena) in 1864, and hundreds of others from Emigrant Gulch in the Yellowstone Valley to Cedar Creek on Montana’s western edge.
The Siren of gold that has lured and plagued mankind for millennia rarely serenades those who find it first.
“That certainly applies in a number of cases. Whether it’s a blanket accuracy, I’m not entirely sure,” said Jeff Safford, emeritus professor of history at Montana State University.
Safford’s field of expertise is early mining in Madison County, and the idea holds true there.
“The discoverers of gold in Alder Gulch carried on, but none of them made a significant name for themselves in Montana – economically, financially, politically and so on,” he said. “They carried on and some of them did reasonably well, but in other trades.”
Most of the movers and shakers of infant Montana – Granville Stuart and Sam Hauser, Wilbur Fisk Sanders and Anton Holter, Frank Woody and Nathaniel Langford, James Fergus and John Bozeman – rushed to Bannack and/or Virginia City with gold on their minds. Few of them found much.
Missoula founders Christopher Higgins and Francis Worden showed up in the mining camps, too.
“But they’re not that interested in gold themselves,” said John Phillips, interpretive specialist at Bannack State Park. “They’re going to mine the miners. They have a better way to make money.”
They set up stores at Gold Creek and Virginia City, and Higgins “was out here (in Bannack) cutting lumber at one point,” Phillips said.
Fairweather was one of Montana’s most intriguing characters. His find in Alder Gulch in 1863 could have set him up for life. Instead he died 12 years later, an alcoholic with nary a flake of gold to his name, let alone a scad.
“It (gold) just really didn’t mean much to Bill Fairweather,” said Ellen Baumler, interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society. “He liked the excitement of the gold runs, but gold itself didn’t have any meaning.”
Fairweather was known to throw nuggets in the street as he rode by, “letting the Chinese and kids scramble for it,” said Baumler.
“He supposedly fed gold dust to his horse, Old Antelope. He would say if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for my horse, and he would put gold dust in the hay.”
Old Antelope, of course, outlived Fairweather by years, she added.
On the other hand, Edgar lived a long and respected life, the last 26 of them at his ranch in Plains, where he died in 1910.
Peter Ronan was in on the first rush to Alder Gulch and later became agent of the Flathead Indian Reservation. In the 1880s, Ronan gave a “where are they now” rundown of Fairweather, Edgar and their four companions at the strike – Tom Cover, Barney Hughes, Harry Rodgers and Mike Sweeney. All except Fairweather still lived.
Edgar, Ronan said, “makes brick in Missoula a few months in the summer and spends the remainder of the year and his earnings in trying to discover another gulch.”
“Mr. Edgar was a worthy man,” Missoulian editor Arthur Stone wrote upon Edgar’s death. “He profited little in worldly wealth from his share in the discovery of Montana’s great gold bars. But he retained his manliness; he resisted the temptations which beset the trail of the pioneer and he lived an exemplary life.”
Grasshopper Creek was dubbed Willard Creek by Lewis and Clark in 1805. It meets the Beaverhead River near Interstate 15, 10 miles southwest of Dillon. White’s strike was a few miles above the confluence. A richer vein farther upstream was tapped shortly after, and that’s where Bannack City rose in a hurry.
The timing was good. The California gold rush that began in 1849 had petered out, and now the “Pikes Peakers” in Colorado, White’s party among them, were on the hunt for richer grounds.
The Salmon River mines in what was not yet Idaho were going great guns, but the Beaverhead country had just gotten safer and easier to access with completion of the government-funded Mullan Road from Walla Walla to Fort Benton.
Bannack became home to Montana’s first territorial capital. But even as the first Legislature met there in the winter of 1864-65, it was a dying little camp and Alder Gulch was on its way to becoming one of the richest gold fields in U.S. history.
In “Montana: A History of Two Centuries,” authors Michael Malone, Richard Roeder and William Lang wrote that at least 10,000 people crowded into the “steep, rugged contours” of Alder Gulch in the first year and a half.
Somewhere between $30 million and $40 million in gold was taken from the 14-mile-long string of claims in the first five years. It’s safe to assume the vast majority of it left the territory.
“Oh, boy, is it safe,” said Safford, who studied a satellite mining district of Virginia City.
The big money wasn’t in manning pick, shovel and sluice, he said.
“Some of them made a great deal of money selling claims to unsuspecting and arrogantly rich Easterners,” Safford said. “I know that just by following their records. But then they went home. They made their killing and got out.”
He tracked some 2,500 names of people who went in and out of the Hot Springs district or were associated with it in 1864 and 1865. Fewer than 10 percent of them showed up in Montana’s first census in 1870.
The so-called Four Georgians yanked attention northward when they made the last-ditch strike that made Helena famous in July 1864. Only John Cowan was from Georgia; D.J. Miller hailed from Alabama, John Crabb from Iowa and Reginald (Robert) Stanley from England.
They played roles in the early days of Helena, but only for a short time. In 1867, all sold their claims and headed back to civilization – reportedly with a wagon laden with gold.
Cowan was well enough off in his Georgia hometown to earn the Southern gentleman’s title of colonel.
Meanwhile, Baumler said Hauser, one of the unsuccessful miners, established Montana’s first chartered bank in 1866 on the discovery site in Last Chance Gulch, in a parking lot just north of the Helena public library.
Tolerate him or not, you have to hand it to William Andrews Clark. He was one of those early stymied gold-seekers in Bannack who stuck with Montana Territory and beyond. Nearly everything else he touched turned to gold – Butte copper at the top of the list.
“He did most of his mining south of here on Jeff Davis Gulch, and he was in and out of Bannack,” Phillips said. “There was a big tobacco shortage here, so he and a partner start off to the Boise Basin, resupply with tobacco, bring it back up here and make a fortune selling tobacco.”
In later years, Clark gifted Montana with the Columbia Gardens in Butte, Missoula’s electric streetcar system and political corruption of grand proportions. When he died in 1925, he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States.
Of Montana’s original gold finders, Tom Cover may have come closest to meriting more ink on the pages of history. After his group struck it rich in Alder Gulch in 1863, Cover popped up in a number of places, partnering with Bozeman (and some think murdering the trailblazer) and building the first commercial flour mill in the Gallatin Valley.
But he, too, fled the territory. Ronan described him in the 1880s as a wealthy citizen of San Bernardino County in California and “one of the original owners of the beautiful town of Riverside.”
“He went to Southern California where he was an orange grower,” Phillips said. “But he died looking for gold in the Anza-Borrego Desert. He still couldn’t get gold out of his system.”