The Montana Gold Rush

The Montana Gold Rush
Reports of gold in Montana date back as early as 1852, but only limited quantities were found and little interest were given to the area for many years. It wasn’t until ten years later that John White and other prospectors, who had previously been searching for gold in the Pikes Peak country of Colorado, discovered rich placer deposits along the banks of Grasshopper Creek in Southwest Montana.

Members of the party quickly filed several claims along Grasshopper Creek, and in no time word got out that rich gold placers were being worked there. At the time, the area was still part of Idaho Territory, a rugged and remote corner of the United States. The town of Bannack sprang up, and by the next spring there were an estimated 3000 miners living in Bannack and exploring the nearby region. Many of the men had taken part in the California Gold Rush years before, and came in hopes of being a part of the next big American gold strike.

Bannack gained a reputation as a rough and lawless mining town, where robberies, gunfights, and murders were not uncommon. The roads in and out of town were notoriously dangerous. A man named Henry Plummer was elected sheriff of the town in hopes that it would reduce some of the crime, but it was later suspected that he was actually a secret leader of one of the largest gangs in the areas, robbing prospectors of their gold on their way out of town.

With thousands of gold seekers converging on the area to search for riches, new gold deposits were soon discovered nearby. In May of 1863, a new deposit was found at Alder Gulch, roughly 75 miles west of Bannack. The miners who found the rich gold placers rode into town to purchase supplies in Bannack, an word got out that a new discovery had been made. Miners left Bannack and created a new settlement which became known as Virginia City.

The dangerous conditions in the region continued, and the road between Bannack and Virginia City became exceptionally dangerous to travel. The violent gangs that were led by Henry Plummer continued their endeavors. It was estimated that in the year of 1863, up to 100 men were murdered on the road between the two camps.

By the end of 1863, the residents of the region had become fed up with the violence and dangers associated with the area. A group of men organized a group called the “Montana Vigilantes”. Wearing bandanas over their faces, they would visit suspected gang members in the middle of the night and threaten revenge if killings continued. The vigilantes brought justice to the camps, hanging an estimated 24 men suspected to have taken part in the violence of the prior year. One of the men, Erastus Yager, confessed at his hanging that Henry Plummer had indeed been the leader of the violent gangs in the area.

With the confirmation that Plummer had been involved, the Montana Vigilantes rounded up Plummer and his deputies. They men were hung from the same gallows that he had built the previous year.

Interestingly, after the hanging of Plummer and his deputies, the violent gang activity in the area continued with no delay. Whether Plummer actually had any involvement is still debated among historians. In fact, many suspect that the stories of his leadership role in the crimes were highly exaggerated or fabricated altogether to cover up the fact that members of the Vigilantes themselves were actually a large part of the violence. The facts of the matter may never completely be known, but there is no argument that the mining camps of Bannack and Virginia were some of the most lawless of the west.

Mining continued in the region for many years. Additional strikes were made at Helena, and numerous smaller discoveries were made in the surrounding mountains. As with all gold strikes, the richest placer ground became worked out after a few mining seasons. Populations in the mining camps shrank as men moved on in search of richer ground.

In 1895, the area of Bannack was revived for a short time when several bucket line dredges were brought in to Grasshopper Creek to rework the placers. Because of their ability to process huge amounts of ground, they were able to work some of the less profitable grounds and still operate profitably.

Today, many original structures remain standing at Bannack. Prospectors who pan the creeks around Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena can even a bit of gold from time to time.

Read more about Gold in Montana

And: The Ghost Town of Garnet