Gold at Alder Gulch, 150 Years Ago This Month
BY GARY FORNEY
Prospectors swarmed the banks of Grasshopper Creek in the bustling new camp of Bannack (18 miles West of present-day Dillon) during the winter of 1862-63, along with persons typical of mining camps in those days—gamblers, saloon keepers, merchants, and men of infamous repute. One of Bannack’s earliest arrivals, James Fergus, reflected upon this volatile situation in his diary, writing, “There was little harmony, and good men…took longer to find each other out, to know who were the roughs and who were their friends.”
Virtually all accounts of the early days in Bannack agree that it was a hard place for a man to stay alive. As Emily Meredith wrote in a letter to her father: “I don’t know how many deaths have occurred this winter but that there have not been twice as many, is entirely owing to the fact that drunken men do not shoot well.”
Among an approximate 500 residents of Bannack were the brothers James and Granville Stuart, Conrad Kohrs, John Bozeman, and a man who had a well-deserved reputation as one who did shoot well, Henry Plummer.
With all the excitement generated by such an eclectic gathering of humanity, it’s probable few people took notice of an unassuming company of prospectors riding out of town early on the morning of February 4, 1863. The party’s destination was the settlement they commonly referred to as either Cottonwood or LaBarge City that later would become established as Deer Lodge. Henry Edgar recorded the start of the group’s adventure in a journal he dutifully maintained throughout their journey:
“Feb. 4, 1863. We left Bannack. There were eight of us…Lew Simmons, Bill Fairweather, Barney Hughes, Tom Cover, George Orr, Mike Sweeney, Harry Rodgers and your humble servant, Henry Edgar.”
In what almost seems a parenthetical remark, Edgar noted, “we had agreed to meet James Stuart at the mouth of Beaverhead River.” It may have been a modest aside, but one that would prove to have highly significant implications.
The party’s circuitous route was necessitated by their need to obtain additional horses for the prospecting expedition Stuart was leading, and his insistence that each man in the expedition have at least three good horses. The men had learned they should be able to make a reasonable bargain for horses with Indians wintering in the Deer Lodge Valley, and Lew Simmons, an experienced mountain man, had agreed to guide the men to the rendezvous point to meet Stuart and the rest of his company by April 12. By March 23, the men had acquired their horses and rode away from Cottonwood early in the afternoon, but left George Orr behind to care for their worn horses and unnecessary equipment, and to work the area’s stream. With any luck, he would discover a grubstake by the time they returned.
On April 4, though, the men were bewildered as to their exact location. Although they thought they were on the Beaverhead, they were actually travelling upriver on the Stinking Water (Ruby) River. When they reached a large creek flowing in from the east (Mill Creek), they decided to follow it up into the foothills to wait and watch for Stuart’s party-which they correctly assumed was behind them. The men remained encamped for several days until Fairweather and Edgar, while out hunting for game, found tracks of shod horses.
They realized the tracks must have been made by Stuart’s expedition, now several days travel ahead. Early the next morning, Lew Simmons led the group in a determined effort to follow Stuart’s trail and catch up with his party. Day after day, Simmons doggedly followed the trail through difficult terrain and bad weather, frequently camping in the same sites the Stuart party had used. By May 1, the men were riding along the Yellowstone River within two days of finally reaching Stuart. It was the closest they would come to their objective.
About mid-day on May 1, near present-day Columbus, the men discovered tracks recently made by several hundred horses that had recently crossed Stuart’s trail. Simmons urged the party to leave the trail and take some time to consider their course of action. Edgar recorded that they “went into some small hills [to the North side of the river] to camp…Bill and I go on guard to-night.”
Then, in the dim first light of May 2, the men found themselves surrounded by a large party of Crow warriors. Simmons, familiar with the Crow language, was able to establish a tenuous peace, but it was unmistakable that the men were in the Indians’ custody.
The Crow led the men to a large encampment where they were held for the next two days, and where Simmons was almost in continuous council with the tribal leaders. At one point during the negotiations the Crow brought the captives into the council lodge and directed them to walk around a “medicine bush.” After the group made its third encirclement, Fairweather grabbed the bush from the ground and used it to hit the medicine man atop his head, an insult that, were it not for the immediate intervention of two Crow chiefs, Red Bear and Little Crow, could easily have resulted in the violent deaths of Fairweather and the others.
In spite of Fairweather’s incredibly reckless behavior, the men were granted their release with the provision they must return west. If found further east of the site of the Crow camp the Indians vowed the men would be killed on sight. The men were not totally certain that their safe passage was assured, with good reason, and Edgar wrote, “Simmons asked us what was best for him to do, stop with the Indians or go with us. I spoke for the boys and told him he had better stay with the Indians if he was afraid to risk his scalp with white men. He stayed.”
As they slowly rode out of the Crow village, Harry Rodgers rode at Edgar’s side. “I asked him what he thought would be the outcome,” Edgar wrote, “His answer was, ‘God is good.’”
They travelled anxiously westward until reaching the Madison River on May 14, when Edgar expressed his opinion that it was “a fine morning…once across the Madison we are safe.” They followed the river at a leisurely pace, feeling secure enough that they frequently stopped to prospect streams feeding into the Madison. After passing the site of present-day Ennis, they decided to follow a small stream entering from the west (later named Wigwam Creek) and found “gold in every pan, but in small quantities, not enough to pay.”
The party’s route continued to climb in elevation until they reach the base of “a big bald mountain” where they made camp for a few days, which they spent prospecting, hunting, and resting themselves and their horses. During this time, Fairweather and Hughes climbed the mountain and were able to get their bearings as to their course to Bannack.
The men resumed travel, spending about two days beside a small lake (one of the Axolotl’s), and Edgar wrote of the “fine grassy hills and lots of quartz” in that area. During the morning of May 26, while riding “down a long ridge,” they encountered a small creek that they decided to follow. The men followed the northerly flow of the watercourse until early afternoon, when they stopped to make camp for the evening. Edgar would recall it was “a warm afternoon…the sun was shining brightly.” It’s unlikely, however, that any of the little party could have possibly realized just how brightly the sun was about to shine upon them.
Edgar and Fairweather had camp duty for the evening, so the other men wandered back upstream to do some prospecting. After making camp preparations, Fairweather crossed the stream to look for a place to picket their horses for the night. It was “about four o’clock” when Bill returned to the campsite and told Edgar he had found a spot where a piece of rimrock was exposed along the creek bank. He asked Edgar to help him prospect the site and, as Edgar wrote, “Bill got the pick and shovel and I the pan and went over.” After washing out only three pans of dirt, the men had found a total of $12.38 worth of gold, and Fairweather declared the site was so rich that, “she’ll last till the cows come home.”
When the other men returned empty-handed to the campsite, Fairweather and Edgar shared the news of their discovery. Although initially disbelieving, all the men rose early the next morning and were washing out pans of dirt by first light. By the end of the day, all the men-prospecting different areas of the stream had found gold and were convinced they had found a valuable site.
As they sat around their campfire that night, the prospectors decided to continue their journey to Bannack to get badly needed supplies, and that they would keep their discovery a secret. Before leaving the site around noon the next day, the men staked off claims of 200 feet each for themselves, and 12 claims of 100 feet each for friends. They named the three bars where they had made their discoveries (Fairweather, Cover, and Rodgers) and formally christened the stream Alder Creek on their claim sheets.
Whether one of the men violated his pledge of secrecy, or whether it was the noticeable difference in the characteristics of their gold, it wasn’t long after they returned to Bannack before it seemed the entire town knew of their discovery. By the time the discovery men rode out for their return to Alder Creek on June 1, about three hundred new “friends” followed them, and this entourage grew larger with each passing day. Realizing the futility of attempting to separate from this mass of humanity, on June 4, near Beaverhead Rock, they halted and called for a miner’s meeting. The discovery men acknowledged what they had found, and stated their (unconven-tional) terms and conditions for leading the rushers to the site. Otherwise, as Henry Edgar told the crowd, “our horses will die at the end of the picket-ropes before we stir a foot toward the place.” The rushers agreed to their terms, but during the night of their final encampment before reaching the site, the discovery men wisely sent out a small party of trusted allies led by Barney Hughes to protect their claims.
It was late morning on Saturday, June 6, when the crowd of rushers arrived at the site of what would become Nevada City. Edgar shouted out, “This is the creek!” and the frenzied stampede to stake claims began. The following day, a miner’s meeting was held to formally begin the process of establishing the new mining district. At the next meeting, June 12, the miner’s proposed and accepted a name for the site, the Fairweather District, along with a set of 24 laws to be used in governing the district, and they elected district officers. In the meantime, every day—nearly every hour—had seen the arrival of new miners and entrepreneurs of all stripes. The cacophony of new camps coming to life filled the air from early light until well after dark along a 14-mile stretch of Alder Creek.
It would later be observed, in Northwest Magazine, August 1895, that “the discovery of Alder Gulch is the most notable event in any age in which the legends of mining history preserve a record. In no other part of the known world was so much gold extracted in a brief time from the channel of a single gulch.”
A catalyst that led to the establishment of the Montana Terri-tory, the Alder Gulch discovery shaped the course of history. Tragically, however, most of the discovery men would learn that it is more difficult to live with a fortune than find one.
Gary Forney is the author of Discovery Men, the story of the Fairweather Party and early territorial Montana, and Thomas Francis Meagher: Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer. Forney lives and writes near Ennis, Montana.