Where the Wind River Chain of the Rocky Mountains stretches far away to the east, and the Bitter Root Range far away to the northwest, like giant arms holding in their embrace the fertile valleys whence the myriad springs which form the two great rivers of the continent take their rise,—on the northern border of the United States, and accessible only through leagues of desert,—lie the gold fields of Montana. Four years ago all this region was terra incognita. In 1805, Lewis and Clarke passed through it; but beyond a liberal gift of geographical inaccuracies, they have left only a few venerable half-breeds as relics of their journey. Among the Indians, what they did and said has passed into tradition; and the tribes of which they speak, the Keheet-sas, Minnetarees, Hohilpoes, and Tus-he-pahs, are as extinct as the dodo. Later explorers have added little to the scanty stock of information, save interesting descriptions of rich valleys and rough mountain scenery and severe hardships in the winters. For the most part, it was a country unexplored and unknown, and held by the various Indian tribes in the Northwest as a common hunting-ground.
One bright morning in August, 1864, after a brief rest at Salt Lake, we left Brigham's seraglios for this new El Dorado. We had taken the long trip of twelve hundred miles on the overland stage, which Mr. Bowles describes in his admirable book "Across the Continent." But his was the gala-day excursion of Speaker Colfax and his party, so full of studied and constant attention as to lead Governor Bross to tell the good people of Salt Lake, a little extravagantly, that the height of human happiness was to live in one of Holladay's stages. This life loses its rose-color when nine inside passengers, to fortune and to fame unknown, are viewed as so much freight, and transported accordingly.
It is four hundred miles due north from Salt Lake City to Montana. The low canvas-covered Concord hack, in which we travel, is constructed with an eye rather to safety than comfort, and like a city omnibus, is never full. Still, our passengers look upon even their discomforts as a joke. They are most of them old miners, hard-featured but genial and kindly, and easily distinguished from men reared in the easy life of cities. Mr. Bowles describes them as characterized by a broader grasp and more intense vitality. I could not but notice, particularly, their freedom from all the quarrels and disagreements sometimes known among travellers in the States. The heavy revolver at every man's belt, and the miner's proverbial love of fair play, keep in every one's mind a clear perception of the bounds of meum and tuum.
I must hurry over our four days' journey and its many objects of interest. All the first day we ride through brisk Mormon villages, prosperous in their waving cornfields and their heavy trade with the mines. At a distance is the Great Salt Lake,—properly an inland sea, like the Caspian and Sea of Aral,—having a large tributary, the Bear River, and no outlet. Crossing Bear River, and the low mountains beyond, we follow down the Portneuf Canon to Snake River, or Lewis's Fork of the Columbia, along which and its affluents lies the rest of our journey.
Hurrying past the solitary station-houses, and over here and there a little creek, our fourth night brings us to a low hill, which we need to be told is a pass of the Rocky Mountains. We cross this during the night, and morning dawns upon us in a level prairie among the network of brooks which form the extreme sources of the Missouri. Here, more than sixty years ago, Lewis and Clarke followed the river up to the "tiny bright beck," so narrow that "one of the party in a fit of enthusiasm, with a foot on each side, thanked God that he had lived to bestride the Missouri." It is called Horse Prairie, from the circumstance that they here bartered for horses with the Shoshonee Indians. They had often seen the men, mounted on fleet steeds, watching them like timid antelopes at a distance, but never allowing this distance to lessen. No signs or proffered presents could induce a near approach. One lucky day, however, Captain Lewis surprised a chattering bevy of their squaws and made prisoner a belle of the tribe. Finding all effort to escape hopeless, the woman held down her head as if ready for death. There was among them the same effeminate fear of capture and the same heroic fortitude when death seemed inevitable, that Clive and Hastings found in the Bengalee. But the Captain gallantly painted her tawny cheeks with vermilion, and dismissed her loaded with presents. It is hardly necessary to add, that captures of Shoshonee Sabines were not long matters of difficult accomplishment. Very soon all the chiefs followed, with a rather exuberant cordiality towards the party, and with forced smiles the explorers "received the caresses and no small share of the grease and paint of their new friends."
Lewis and Clarke called Horse Prairie by the prettier name of Shoshonee Cove. But the names they gave have passed into as deep oblivion as the forgotten great man, Rush, whose pills they publish to the world as a sovereign specific in bilious fevers. Of all the names on their map only those of the three forks of the Missouri, from President Jefferson and his Secretaries Madison and Gallatin, remain. The unpoetical miner has invented a ruder nomenclature; and on the rivers which they called Wisdom, Philosophy, and Philanthropy, he bestows the barbarous names of Big Hole, Willow Creek, and Stinking Water.
A few hours' ride brings us to Grasshopper Creek, another affluent of the Missouri, and, like them all, a crooked little stream of clear cold water, fringed with alders and willows, and with a firm pebbly bed, along which the water tinkles a merry tune. What a pity that these pure mountain children should develop to such a maturity as the muddy Missouri! Parallel with this little stream, where it winds into a narrow chasm between abrupt mountain walls, winds a crooked street, with a straggling row of log-cabins on either side, and looking from the mountain-tops very much like the vertebrae of a huge serpent. This is Bannack, so called from the Indian tribe whose homes were in the vicinity. These were the bravest, the proudest, and the noblest looking Indians of the mountains till the white man came. Yet seldom has there been a stronger illustration of the inexorable law, that when a superior and inferior race come in contact the lower is annihilated. Every step of the white man's progress has been a step of the red man's decay. And now this tribe, once so warlike, is a nation of the spiritless beggars, crouching near the white settlements for protection from their old foes, over whom in times past they were easy victors.
At Bannack, in the summer of 1862, a party of Colorado miners, lost on their way to Gold Creek in the Deer Lodge Valley, discovered the first rich placer diggings of Montana. A mining town grew up straightway; and ere winter a nondescript crowd of two thousand people—miners from the exhausted gulches of Colorado, desperadoes banished from Idaho, bankrupt speculators from Nevada, guerilla refugees from Missouri, with a very little leaven of good and true men—were gathered in. Few of them speak with pleasant memories of that winter. The mines were not extensive, and they were difficult to work. Scanty supplies were brought in from Denver and Salt Lake, and held at fabulous prices. An organized band of ruffians, styled Road Agents, ruled the town. Street murders were daily committed with impunity, and travellers upon the road were everywhere plundered. Care was not even taken to conceal the bodies of the victims, which were left as food for the wolves by the roadside.
Next year, the discovery of richer mines at Virginia left Bannack a deserted village of hardly two hundred people. It is a dull town for the visitor; but the inhabitants have all Micawber's enthusiastic trust in the future, and live in expectation of the wealth which is to turn up in the development of the quartz lodes. We visited the most famous of these lodes,—the Dacotah,—almost every specimen from which is brilliant with little shining stars of gold. And deep down in the shaft of this lode has been found a spacious cave full of stones of a metallic lustre, sending out all the tints of the rainbow, and many-colored translucent crystallizations, varying from the large stalactites to the fragile glass-work that crumbles at the touch.
Leaving Bannack, the road ascends a very lofty range of mountains, and passes by much wild and picturesque scenery. Mountaineers call these ranges, where they separate two streams, by the name of "divides." They have a scanty but nutritious herbage, and are for many months in the year covered with snow. On many of them a stunted growth of hybrid pines and cedars flourishes in great abundance. These, with the quaking ash and cottonwood along the streams, are the only woods of Montana. None of the harder woods, such as oak or maple, are found. It is inconceivably grand from the top of this range to look out upon the endless succession of vast peaks rolling away on every side, like waves in the purple distance. High above them all towers Bald Mountain,—the old Indian landmark of this section,—like Saul among his brethren. I have crossed this range in the gray of a February morning, with the thermometer at thirty-five below zero, and I never felt such a sense of loneliness as in gazing out from our sleigh—little atom of life as it seemed—upon this boundless ocean of snow, whose winters had been unbroken solitude through all the centuries.
Over this divide we pass among a low range of hills seamed with veins of silver, having already a more than local reputation. The hills embosom a clear little creek called after the yellow rattlesnake, which is almost as plentiful a luxury in these wilds as the grasshopper. It is, however, less venomous than its Eastern brethren, for not even the oldest inhabitant can instance a death from its bite. Nervous people avoid it studiously, but is has many friends among the other animals. The prairie-dog, the owl, and the rattlesnake live a happy family in one burrow, and the serpent has another fast friend in the turtle-dove. These doves are called the rattlesnake's brothers-in-law, and there runs a pretty legend, that when an Indian kills one of them, or mocks their plaintive cry they tell the rattlesnake, who lies in wait and avenges the wrong by a deadly sting. And when one of the snakes is killed, the turtle-doves watch long over his dead body and chant mournful dirges at his funeral.
The road to Virginia passes through the basin in which lie the tributaries of Jefferson Fork. It is a barren waste. Being in the rich mineral section of the country, its agricultural resources are proportionally deficient. Providence does not sprinkle the gold among the grain lands, but, by the wise law of compensation, apportions it to remote and volcanic regions which boast of little else. Along the water-courses is a narrow belt of cottonwood, and then rise the low table-lands, too high for irrigation, and with a parched, alkaline soil which produces only the wild sage and cactus. Miners curse this sprawling cactus most heartily, and their horses avoid its poisonous porcupine thorns with great care. All through these brown wastes one sees no shelter for the herds, no harvests of grain or hay, and wonders not a little how animal life—as well the flocks of antelope, elk, and deer in the mountains, as the cattle and horses of the rancheros—is preserved through the deep snows of the Northern winter. But even when the mountains are impassable, there is seldom snow in the valleys; and along the sides of the hills grow stunted tufts of bunch-grass, full of sweetness and nutriment. Horses always hunt for it in preference to the greener growth at the water's edge. And it is not an annual, but a perennial, preserving its juices during the winters, and drawing up sap and greenness into the old blades in the first suns of spring. This bunch-grass grows in great abundance, and it is only in winters of extreme severity that animals suffer from a lack of nourishing food.
Specks of gold may be found in a pan of dirt from any of these streams, followed back to the mountain chasm of its source. Upon one of them, in June, 1863, a party of gold-hunters stopped to camp on their return to Bannack, after an unsuccessful trip to the Yellowstone. While dinner was being cooked, one of them washed out a pan of dirt and obtained more than a dollar. Further washings showed even greater richness; and, hurrying to Bannack, they returned at once with supplies and friends and formed a mining district. In the absence of law, the miners frame their own law; and so long as its provisions are equal and impartial, it is everywhere recognized. The general principle of such laws is to grant a number of linear feet up and down the gulch or ravine to the first squatter, upon compliance with certain conditions necessary for mutual benefit. In deliberations upon these laws, technicalities and ornament are of little weight, and only the plainest common-sense prevails. Prominent among their conditions was a provision—for the exorcism of drones—that every claim must be worked a fixed number of days in each week, or else, in the miners' expressive vocabulary, it should be considered "jumpable." Compliance with law was never more rigidly exacted by Lord Eldon than by the miners' judges and courts, and in the first days of this legislation a hundred revolvers, voiceless before any principle of justice, yet too ready before any technicality, fixed the construction of every provision beyond all cavil.
This was the beginning of Virginia Gulch, from which twenty-five millions of dollars in gold have been taken, and which has to-day a population of ten-thousand souls. The placer proved to be singularly regular, almost every claim for fifteen miles being found profitable. From the mouth of the canon to its very end, among snows almost perpetual, are the one-storied log-cabins, gathered now and then into clusters, which are called cities, and named by the miner from his old homes in Colorado and Nevada. In travelling up the crazy road, with frowning mountains at our left, and yawning pit-holes at our right, we pass seven of these cities,—Junction, Nevada, Central, Virginia, Highland, Pine Grove, and Summit.