Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana;

 

with its

 

Transactions, Act of Incorporation, Constitution, Ordinances.

 

Officers and Members.

 

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Vol. II.

 

"Old legends of the monkish page,

Traditions of the saint and sage,

Tales that have the rime of age,

And chronicles of Eid."

--Longfellow.

 

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Helena, Montana:

State Publishing Company

State Printers and Binders.

1896


Page 252-254.

 

A Leaf from the Diary

 

of

 

James Fergus

 

Relative to the Fisk Emigration Party of 1862, and Early Mining Life at Bannack, 1863.

 

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         The wild fever of speculation that passed over Minnesota in 1855 and 1856 was followed by a reaction in 1857 and 1858 that broke up many of her business men. Added to this reaction, all the northern portion of the state was visited in those last years by myriads of grasshoppers while floods in the Mississippi carried away the timber booms and millions of feet of logs went down the river. Business of course came to a standstill; some of those whose business was broken up or who could not find profitable employment went, in 1860, to Colorado. Later, some of the loyal portion entered the army but the majority, belonging to what was called the "Moccasin" or pro-slavery democracy, remained behind. In the spring of 1862 a private party was organized to go to the Salmon River gold mines, then lately discovered. In that party were John Potter and Mark Leadbeater—now of Gallatin valley. Later James L. Fisk, then a private in a Minnesota regiment, received a Captain's commission and the command of an Emigrant Escort from Fort Abercrombie, on the Red River of the North, to Fort Benton; their ultimate destination being the Salmon River gold mines. It being late in the season before this party was organized, little time was given for preparation, and some of the party from Little Falls and neighborhood started off with but one or two days' notice, some after it had reached Abercrombie, and David Bently and William Sturgis overtaking it on the plains. It left Abercrombie in July, and it may be remarked here that, while there were some good men in the party, it contained as many broken, reckless men as ever crossed the plains together. The trip was pleasant, nothing unusual occurred other than one wedding and one birth. At Fort Union, near the mouth of the Yellowstone, we were joined by Mr. Meldrum, of the American Fur Company, and near the mouth of Milk River by large bands of Gros Ventres and River Crow Indians. On our arrival at Fort Benton we learned that the Salmon River mines were overrun with men, and that gold had been found on the Prickly Pear, at Gold Creek, on the Boulder, at Big Hole, and at Bannack. A party went ahead to Prickly Pear, and on their return a consultation was held near what is called the Three Mile House, three miles south from Silver City. All the emigrants (except Rockwell, Ault, Ellis, Wright, Sturgis, Cardwell, and some few that went on to Oregon and Washington Territory) and myself went into Prickly Pear and commenced building houses for the winter. In a short time N. P. Langford and _____ _____ were commissioned to proceed to Bannack, where Rockwell and party had already gone, and report the conditions of the mines, etc., at that point. The result was that nearly the whole of the Minnesota party moved to Bannack. Fisk had gone west by way of San Francisco to report at Washington. John Potter & Co., who preceded us across the plains, were operating in Pike's Peak gulch, but afterwards also came to Bannack, as did all outsiders, to winter, also a number of "Roughs" from the "West Side" who soon set to work to get their living otherwise than by hard work. Rows soon commenced in the whiskey shops, murders were a daily occurrence, and finally a crisis was reached, which I can better describe by a leaf from a memorandum kept by me at that time. (David Bently and I were then working at joiner's work.) It is headed:

 

A Day in a Mining Camp.

 

Bannack City Gold Mines, Idaho Territory, January 21st, 1863.

 

         "Morning bright and pleasant; another coffin to make—three in a few days. The first man died of apoplexy induced by drinking too long and too freely of his own bad whiskey; the second was shot in cold blood in mid-day and the murderer (Plummer) is still at large, untried, unpunished and no one molests him; the third, a young man in the prime of life, lately married, died of fever—at 4 o'clock coffin was finished. Went across the river to hang a door, was detained until dark, when suddenly six or eight shots were heard in rapid succession across the river which were instantly followed by the most unearthly screaming and wailing from some Indian lodges situated on Yankee Flat, occupied by a few helpless squaws and papooses of the lower class, inoffensive, doing no one any harm, and living among us by virtue of an understanding or treaty made with the Indians last fall. I hastened over and found that some fiends had crawled up unperceived and fired into the lodges and killed one or two old Indians and squaws and several children. Of course consternation ensued, and interpreters were sent for to ascertain from the Indians who had committed this horrible deed, and to assure them that the whites generally were not going to massacre them. Still more horrible to relate, while this investigation was going on in the Indian lodges the murderers returned reinforced, and, regardless of the presence of the whites and the wailings and anguish of the bereaved savages, fired the contents of their guns and revolvers into the lodges, wounding four white men—one mortally—and more Indian women and children. What an atrocious deed! What a savage murder! Here is work for the morrow. The miners are aroused at last, murderers are to be caught and punished, and the Indians to be appeased or a thousand armed savages may pounce on us at an unlooked for moment." I omit the remainder. Suffice it to say that the miners were fairly aroused, a meeting was held and men appointed, or rather volunteered, to follow and bring back the murderers who were known to have left town on the Deer Lodge road.

 

         And here I will say that Bannack was settled principally from three points, viz: Disappointed Colorado miners who had started for Salmon River and were generally known as Pike's Peakers, the Fisk and other Minnesota emigrants, sometimes known as "Tenderfeet", and prospectors and roughs from the west side; and consequently there was little harmony, and good men from those three parties took longer to find each other out, to know who were roughs and who were their friends, than if they all had been from one place or longer acquainted. Again, every man had left his home to better his condition. Bannack was not supposed to be a settlement, but simply a mining camp where every one was trying to get what he could, and then go home. Consequently the majority were simply trying to attend to their own business and to let that of others alone; but these murders finally roused their better natures, the murderers were caught, a meeting held for their trial, and while there was no lack of courage or brave men, or men of good sense, there was a wonderful lack of men who could or would speak in public—men who understanding the principles of law had the gift to state them and the courage to do it then and there. Judge Smith was employed by the prisoners, Colonel McClean would have nothing to do with it, and we were just like a mob without a leader. Had these cases been prosecuted like that of George Ives, then Plummer, Moore, Reeves and Mitchell would have been hanged, no road-agent band would have been organized, and no necessity would have existed for a vigilance committee.

 

         I have written all this to show that at the trial of Plummer, etc., at Bannack, the miners had no head, no leader, and no one who could instill confidence in the masses. Had this thing been nipped in the bud, had the leader been hanged, it would have saved many a dollar in money to the miners, and many a weary mile's travel to the vigilantees. As it was, Plummer, on the motion of Judge Smith, was allowed to tell his own pitiful story, with a tear in his eye, and was acquitted by a majority of the meeting to become the leader of highwaymen. Moore, Reeves and Mitchell were tried by a jury, had Judge Smith to plead for them, the prosecution amounted to nothing, and they were banished—to return in a few weeks.