Riches Gained and Love Lost at Alder Gulch
BY GARY R. FORNEY
When considering the stories of the incredible wealth produced from the Alder Gulch by the thousands of miners who swarmed through the area—and later the enormous dredges that ate the landscape by gigantic mouthfuls—it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals who labored in these hills and gulches. One of those who left us an exceptional and poignant record of his life as an Alder Gulch miner was John W. Grannis, whose diary serves as the primary source for the account that follows.
John Grannis originally began his life as a miner in the goldfields near Denver. Hardly a typical married prospector, Grannis was accompanied by his wife and young son who came with him from Indiana to the Colorado mines.
Whatever problems may have previously existed in the Grannis marriage became exacerbated by the challenges of life in the mountains. One of the earliest entries in Grannis’ diary was on February 7, 1863, when he recorded: “herded the cattle as usual, had some words with Mrs. Grannis & spatted her on the mouth.” The confrontation seems to have been the proverbial last straw, in that Grannis wrote the next day, “This morning Mrs. Grannis concluded to make her Bed By her Self & leave me for ever & take her chances in life with Mr. Griswold on the free love Principal.”
The separation was cause for deep remorse by Grannis and is a frequent theme in his journal entries over the next three years.
By the end of April 1863, Grannis had partnered with a few other men; including John X. Biedler. The little company decided to travel to the new goldfields of the Idaho Territory, arriving in Bannack on June 11, but soon moved on to the camp of Highland in the Alder Gulch. Grannis formed what proved to be a short-lived partnership with Biedler and J. Berhinger on a claim they established in the Highland District on July 2.
The early work for Grannis and his partners was difficult, obviously made even more painful to Grannis by the occasional reports he received regarding his former wife, whom, Grannis noted, he had encountered with her new companion and son (also recently arrived from Colorado) during his brief stay in Bannack.
“July 19,” he wrote, “Mrs. Grannis Bot a claim to Day for $200 in Dust; July 25, Heard Mrs. Grannis was making 50 [dollars] Per Day from her claim; July 27, Heard Mrs. Grannis want to sell her Claim and quit mining.”
As autumn approached, Grannis’ mining work was frequently interrupted by hunting for his livestock that habitually wandered away: “October 28, Traversed the Madison Valley nearly all Day in search of my ox But Did not find him; November 1, Went down town and looked for old Brin did not find him; November 2, Hunted old Brin all Day; November 13, My Cattle had Run off this morning—found them in the Evening.”
Also frequently absent was his partner, John X. Bielder. “X” would later confess in his memoirs that, “we started a drain ditch and there was lots of the kind of work I did not like.” Biedler, however, soon found the kind of work he enjoyed—riding with the Vigilantes.
Grannis began the year of 1864 in a reflective, melancholy mood: “Friday, January 1, I arose Before Day & Read the 19th chapter of Matthew. I commence this year alone in the world without a wife.”
Nevertheless, Grannis was soon in a routine common of most miners: “January 12, Cloudy & windy But nothing bad. Worked to Day 6 hours; January 13, Worked. Got the Large Rock out of the Drift. Cloudy But not cold.”
This routine was dramatically broken on January 14 when, “obeying a notice of the vigilance committee,” he went to Virginia City, having been appointed to serve as a guard for five men captured and subsequently hanged in what since has been called the Hangman’s Building. “Was released from Duty,” Grannis wrote, “as soon as they were Dead & I came home after Dark…Saw five men hung and not a very good Day for hanging neither.”
The next day, Grannis returned to the mundane: “Worked at the winless [sic] to Day. Was quite warm until nearly night when it Began to Snow & Storm quite hard.”
The remainder of 1864 entries record an endless routine of truncated weather observations and notes on Grannis’ daily work, such as: “Worked at the Shaft,” or “Worked at the Sluce,” “at the windlass and sluced” or simply, “Worked all Day.”
Steadily, however, his determined efforts began to pay benefits. On those days when his health, weather conditions and the condition of equipment permitted work, Grannis steadily recorded daily gold recovery of more than $100 per day and $1,000 per week; a present-day value of over $95,000.
Nevertheless, in one of the final entries to his diary for the year, Grannis reflected a deep melancholy: “felt well [this morning] but thought how time had changed …13 years ago I was married, young & Buoyant with hope I thought not of what awaited me in lifes journey. I have tasted of the Sweets & Sorrows of life to a great extent.”
Interspersed in the diary are entries of his participation in occasional social activities (usually connected with the Masonic Lodge or playing billiards), rumors of new gold strikes, and observations of local events that Grannis typically reported in a detached, matter-of-fact style: “August 27, Went to a Miners Meeting Monday evening. Lemuel Reid got killed I helped carry him home. Worked all week got $1062.45.”
Grannis was generally more expansive when writing of visits by friends, who briefly lifted his spirits, and on those days when Grannis felt the weight of his relatively solitary life: “Sunday, June 18th, Bid Mr & Mrs Wetherbee Good-Bye & wished that I was Ready to go with them to the States…I feel lonely without them I could hardly check the Rising Tear as I kissed Mrs Wetherbee & Said that Dear old word Good Bye. came home and took a long Sleep, I feel the need of Rest. a years hard work in the mine has made me feel ten years older….”
Grannis began 1865 in much the same fashion as he spent 1864, hard at work as a miner. Throughout 1865 and 1866 the entries in Grannis’ journal blur into a tedious routine of back-breaking labor, dramatically punctuated by the calamity of cave-ins, flooding, accidents, and notes that indicate his deteriorating health. His association with the Masonic Order in Virginia City provided an obvious source of satisfaction, as was attending “Dancing School” and balls and his occasional forays to community events:
“July 4, 1865, Highland and myself Included went to town and got on a Big Gane. Got tight and Run the Hurdy gurdees till Midnight then came home.”
Never far from his thoughts, however, was the lingering regret of his divorce, “March 24, 1866, Mrs. Griswold my former wife was 40 years old to Day.” Another lingering theme was his incorrigible livestock, “May 3, 1866, lost our animals this morning and Did not find but 2 of them to Day; June 20, 1866, My Horse had Run off. Hunted for my Horse for some time did not find him; June 24, Bought me another Horse; July 7, hunted my poneys to Day for a long time. failed to find them.”
The diary of John Grannis concludes on Friday, December 31, 1866, by which time the amount of gold he was finding—on those days he bothered to work—had dropped precipitously. The final entry made by the 36 year-old doesn’t reflect hope or thankfulness, but the brutal reality of life for one who chose the life of a miner: “this year has Been Bad luck to me from the first to last. Been Sick and went to Elk Creek and lost one Thousand Dollars. Have Done nothing since July.”
Grannis then left the Alder Gulch and moved into the Gallatin Valley where he began farming. He became one of the early members of the Masonic Lodge in Bozeman, remarried (Thirza Cline), and finally settled in Park County where he served as a county official.
Any happiness he was to have known during this time, however, would be relatively brief. In the summer of 1886, Grannis suffered a stroke that left him badly paralyzed. He was sent to the asylum at Warm Springs for care and treatment, but died there on Oct. 8, 1887, at the age of 58.
Perhaps, in his final thoughts, one is hopeful he may once again have reflected, as he once did sitting in his modest little miner’s cabin at Highland, “…although…my health [is] Somewhat impaired By a life of hard toil Still I can look Back on my Past life & Point to it with Pride….”
Sources: Diary of John W. Grannis (Montana Historical Society, SC 301). Madisonian, Oct. 21, 1887. Pace Archives, Thompson-Hickman Madison County Library. Park County News, April 9, 1964.
Gary Forney is the author of the just-released book Dawn in El Dorado, the Story of the Founding and Early Years of the Montana Territory. Previous works include: Discovery Men and Thomas Francis Meagher: Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer. Forney lives and writes near