Living History Days in Bannack, Montana – Part 1

We came to Montana in late September for the Living History Days.

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The sky was slightly frowned with grey clouds holding rain, which spilled every now and then with a cold drizzle. The trees along Grasshopper Creek were gradually changing colors from green to yellow, depending whether or not they realized that it’s time for fall attire. The cold air was saturated with traces of rain drops and an atmosphere of mystery.

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During the Living History Days, Bannack becomes a portal into the past, back to its glorious, lawless, and infamous days of the 1860s Montana gold rush. We stepped into this historical portal after checking into the visitor center and picking up a map of Bannack and a booklet. Visitors don’t need a time machine thanks to the volunteers of the Bannack Association and the park rangers of the Bannack State park.

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Bannack has only one street, which is lined on both sides with wooden sidewalks. As soon as we stepped into this wide street we witnessed a thrilling chase, which involved loud gun shots and anxious shouts. Three men on horseback dressed in old western clothing raced into the town, shooting behind them and spurring their horses. Loud cracks of gunshots were accompanied by clouds of gunpowder, which covered the horsemen. They stopped abruptly, holding their horses in the middle of the street. Two of them jumped from their saddles and rushed to their wounded friend, who was leaning helplessly onto the neck of his horse. A long arrow was sticking from his side and he moaned from pain. They helped him to get down from his horse and almost carried him to the wooden sidewalk.

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The wounded man could not make it into the doctor’s office and dropped on the sidewalk in front of the doctor’s cabin. Luckily, the doctor saw his new patient. He ran out of his cabin dressed in a white medical apron with a case of medical instruments in his hand. He gave his patient a local anesthetic, a sip of whisky from his flask, and began to operate on him. The poor guy moaned in pain while his buddies held him tight on the wooden boardwalk. In a few minutes the doctor removed the arrow from the miner’s body and it was over. He stood up and showed the long yellow arrow that he extracted. His white medical apron was covered with blood. The friends of the operated miner helped him to get back on his feet and walked him away so that he could rest. The doctor became instantly famous and everybody wanted to follow him into his office located in a log cabin.

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We decided to pay a visit to the doctor later and headed to a mining camp located next to Grasshopper Creek. We turned from the main street to a dirt road overgrown with grass next to a red roofed log cabin. This cabin was built on the place where Sidney Edgerton lived with his wife and four children. Sidney Edgerton was the first Chief of Justice of the Idaho Territory and subsequently the first Governor of the Montana Territory.

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Edgertonwas appointed by President Lincoln as the Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory in March of 1863. Edgerton and his family were traveling from Ohio in a wagon to Lewiston, the capital of the Idaho Territory. In Lewiston Edgerton was supposed to be sworn in to assume his responsibilities. However, they settled in Bannack instead. Their first lodging was a one room cabin with a sod roof, which leaked every time it snowed or rained and wind blew through holes between the logs. But it was the best accommodation in Bannack at that time and they bought it for $ 400. Later the cabin was destroyed by fire and a “Governor’s Mansion” was built instead. It very much resembles the original and has the same sod roof as the first governor’s cabin had.

Governor's Mansion
Governor’s Mansion

The Montana Territory was established in May of 1864 due to the efforts of Edgerton and as a result of his trip to Washington D.C. Edgerton was appointed as the First Governor by President Lincoln. As a Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory, he would not be able to perform his duties effectively. There was only one Marshal for the whole territory and the territory lacked a judicial system.

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On our way to Grasshopper Creek we passed a miners’ camp comprised of three large tents. One of the tents had a sign “Miners’ Association.” During the gold rush, miners lived in such tents all year round. There was a little furnace inside of one tent and a chimney was sticking out of the roof of the tent. Furnaces, warm blankets, and bedrolls saved miners from rain, hail and fog in the fall and the spring, and snow and frost in the winter. Mining equipment, such as shovels, picks, axes, and hammers and also pans for washing gold were displayed outside the tents.

Miners working their claims on Grashopper Creek
Miners working their claims on Grashopper Creek

When we came to the creek there were a few miners panning for gold in the cold water of the creek. They were glad to tell us about the mining process and show us how they used their equipment. For example, a rocker box was 15 times more efficient than panning and sluice boxes, called “long tongue,” allowed miners to wash larger quantities of gold bearing dirt from the bottom of the creek, thus revealing the gold. We had a chance to scoop and dump a bucket of gravel into a rocker box, then pour a bucket of water from the creek and shake it from side to side to see how it works. Particles of gravel and dirt were washed down to the bottom levels of the box and particles of gold were supposed to stay on the top level. We did not find any gold.

A rocker box
A rocker box

However, in 1862 this place was one of the richest placer deposits ever. These deposits were found in the bedrock at the bottom of the creek. The miners told us that the bedrock was so rich in gold that it had a yellow color, which was visible through the clear water of the creek. Bannack placer gold was almost pure gold, 99.5%, compared to 80% and 95% gold typically discovered elsewhere. By the end of 1862 approximately $ 500,000 in gold had been mined in Bannack.

During the early days mining was lucrative. Some lucky miners washed $ 600, $ 1000, or $ 1,500 per day in April 1864. The first Governor also shook a pan of dirt in the fall of 1863, as Mary Edgerton, his wife, wrote in her letters to her family in Ohio. An ounce of gold at that time was worth $ 18.

The life of prospectors in the mining camp was difficult and dangerous because Bannack was in a lawless Wild West territory. However, in the absence of a judicial system and a government, they established their own laws and miners’ court to rule on disputes. Miners had to follow the rules established by the miners’ court. Violators were banned from the camp.

A typical stake was 100 feet up or down the creek and extended for 50 feet on both sides of the creek. In order to claim a title on a stake, a miner had to stake it, post a notice and had it recorded it with a recorder. A miner had to work at least 5 days a week on his claim when the creek was not frozen. If the claim stayed idle and the owner was absent, it could be confiscated. If a miner got sick this rule did not apply until his recovery. Miners’ court also resolved disputes between miners about their claims.

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Miners tried to save money to move into a log cabin or a boarding house and eventually to be able to bring their families to Bannack. However, it was difficult for miners to save money. All other businesses in Bannack mined the miners. The work of the miners was very hard. Business owners charged them very high prices in gold. Every business had a scale to weigh a miner’s hard earned gold dust and was not averse to cheating. Prices for food and everything else except for lumber and beef were very high because it was difficult to transport it to such a remote location. Travelling and freight were dangerous because of road agents and hostile Indians.

Volunteers of the Bannack Assosiation
Volunteers of the Bannack Assosiation

In winter Bannack was cut off of the rest of the country due to heavy snowfall and unpassable roads. At that time there was nothing to do and mining was not possible due to the frozen creek. The miners spent their savings in saloon drinking and gambling away their hard earned gold. A shot of alcohol called “forty rod” or “red eye” cost $ 1 in gold. Here is a recipe for this drink: 1 barrel of whisky, 2 barrels of water, a little camphor and strychnine, and a few plugs of tobacco mixed together. At the bottom of the barrel it became so poisonous that patrons dropped dead in saloons after drinking only two glasses of red eye.

Dancing halls and brothels had its doors open all the time. Lack of female company enticed some miners to spend their gold on prostitutes and entertainers. Hurdy Gurdy girls got their nickname from an old musical instrument, which was played in dancing halls. They charged $0.50-$1 per dance plus a treat, which cost another 50 cents.
There were about 35 to 40 respectable women in Bannack in 1863. At that tie Bannack had a total population of 3,000. These women had to be accompanied by a man while walking through the town. This was because brawls, first fights and shoot outs were common on the streets of Bannack and stray bullets whizzed around like flies.

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There were not many job opportunities in Bannack for respectable women except for school teacher, cook, or laundress. However, some women were very entrepreneurial and ran businesses by themselves or as a family business. A boarding house, a drug store, a mercantile store, and a sewing and tailoring shop were run by women of Bannack by themselves or in a partnership with their husbands. We had the pleasure to meet them and listen to their stories. To be exact, the residents of Bannack were represented by avid and passionate members of the Bannack Association, who participated in Living History Days and told visitors stories of the past.

Resources used.

Vigilante Days and Ways. Nathaniel Pitt Langford.


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