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There's Gold in Them Thar Hills! The Early Days

Stuart Brothers Discover Gold

Its no coincidence that Montana is nicknamed the "Treasure State." Our state motto, Oro y Plata means "gold and silver" in Spanish. As we'll see, gold and silver were responsible for first bringing large numbers of settlers to Montana. The economy and culture those men and women created led to Montana's statehood in 1889. Montana's mining history is full of wild west adventure and intrigue. You could spend weeks exploring that history in the state's numerous ghost towns and museums.

Fur Trappers were among the first Europeans to explore the area we know as Montana. But fur trappers and Native Americans (who'd been here for centuries) had little interest in digging for gold. In fact, the first person believed to have discovered gold in the area, a trapper named Francois Finlay, is rumored to have kept his discovery a secret so as not to ruin the region for fur trapping. Either Finlay or his superiors seemed to have realized that the discovery of gold would alter Montana's future forever.

Graves Store, Bannack Property of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code).

It was 1852 when Finlay made his discovery at Gold Creek near what became Missoula. Over the next several years, at the Government's request, the region was surveyed and explored by people like Iaasic Stevens and Lieutenant John Mullan. Among other projects, they crisscrossed the Continental Divide searching for a suitable mountain pass over which a road might be built. Mullan Road was the first road in the area to connect the eastern with the western United States. Mullan Road carried scores of travelers from Fort Benton to such far away places as Oregon or California. As more and more people passed through Montana, many of them began to stop, spread out, and search for new places to live.

In 1858, James and Granville Stuart found gold deposits at Gold Creek; the very same creek Francois Finlay had come across just six years earlier. But the Stuarts didn't keep their discovery a secret. It wasn't long before folks were pouring in from all across the country looking to strike it rich. Some were old '49ers from California, some came from Nevada, some from the East, and others were just high-plains drifters following news of new money to be made.

The vigilantes' cabin Property of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code).

A few years later, in 1862, gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek. The mining camp that sprang up along Grasshopper Creek was named Bannack. Bannack was one of the first camps to evolve into something like a town. During that time the Civil War was still being fought in the southeastern United States. Miners loyal to the North set up in "Yankee Flats." Those loyal to the South pitched camp across the creek where the ghost town of Bannack sits today. Many of the men who came west during the gold rush years were ex Confederate soldiers with nothing to return to in the South. The next year, gold was discovered at Alder Gulch. The mining camps in Alder Gulch became Virginia City and nearby Nevada City. Last Chance Gulch, in what is now Helena (Montana's capitol) was so named when the "Four Georgians" struck gold on their last attempt before giving up and going home to Georgia.

Soon, mining camps began to appear along many of Montana's streams. The mining courts, which had been established to arbitrate claim disputes, could not handle the sort of crimes that the mining community began committing. Murder, assault, and robbery were commonplace. In just over a year, Henry Plummer's "Innocents" killed 102 people that we know of. The Vigilantes hanged the "Innocent" sheriff and road agent for his treachery in 1864. Montana was granted Territorial status by Congress that very same year. With that came real courts and, occasionally, the rule of law.

Most miners spent their entire day hard at work. They didn't have time to feed themselves, build houses, or perform other chores required by daily life. It didn't take long for people to realize that many miners had piles of money and that mining wasn't the only way to get rich in the West. Entrepreneurs came into the camps and set up saloons, barber shops, construction companies, general stores, and hurdy-gurdy houses. They brought agriculture. As men and women began to settle in with the rough and tough miners, the wild west was slowly tamed. Schools were established, dancing halls were built, and theatres were even set up to entertain the townspeople. One camp/town, Rimini, was named after a dramatic production, Francesca da Rimini, which residents watched a travelling theatre troupe perform. Camps quickly became towns and towns were becoming cities. Montana Territory soon would be a state.

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