A Year in Montana

"The swift Yellowstone and the Colorado rise in lakes in the enchanted Wind River Mountains..."

In the month of September, 1864, reports came to Virginia of mines on the Yellowstone. The reports were founded on some strange tales of old trappers, and were clothed with a vagueness and mystery as uncertain as dreams. Yet on such unsubstantial bases every miner built a pet theory, and a large "stampede" took place in consequence. I started with a party for the new mines, early in October. A day's ride brought us to the Madison Fork, a broad, shallow stream, difficult of fording on account of its large boulders, and flowing through a narrow strip of arable land. Very different is the Gallatin, beyond. It is cut up into narrow streams of a very rapid current, and waters a valley of surprising fertility. The Snakes called it Swift River. This valley is forty miles long and from ten to fifteen wide, and rising at its sides into low plateaus plenteously covered with rich bunch-grass. It is already pre-empted by farmers, and by easy irrigation are produced all the hardier vegetables and cereals, in quantity, size, and closeness of fibre not equalled on the Iowa prairies. The valley gradually widens as you descend the stream, until, at the junction of the Three Forks, it stretches into a broad prairie, sufficient alone to supply all the mines with grain and vegetables. A few enterprising speculators once laid out a town here, with all the pomp and circumstance of Martin Chuzzlewit's Eden. Pictures of it were made, with steamers lying at the wharves and a university in the suburbs. Liberal donations of lots were made to the first woman married, to the first newspaper, to the first church, to the first child born. But there were no mines near, and the city never had an inhabitant. The half-dozen buildings put up by the proprietors are left for the nightly carnivals of bats and owls.

On our road we passed a half-dozen huts, dignified with the name of Bozeman City. Here lives a Cincinnatus in retirement, one of the great pioneers of mountain civilization, named Bozeman. To him belongs the credit of having laid out the Bozeman Cut-off, on the road from Fort Laramie to Virginia, and he is looked up to among emigrants much as Chief-Justice Marshall is among lawyers. I saw the great man, with one foot moccasoned and the other as Nature made it, giving Bunsby opinions to a crowd of miners as to the location of the mythical mines.

Parting from him, we crossed a high range of mountains, and from their tops looked down upon the spiral line of the Yellowstone, marked by the rich tints of its willows and cottonwoods, red, yellow, and green, in the crisp frosts of October. The air on these mountain-tops is much rarefied, and so very clear and pure that objects at a great distance seem within the reach of an easy walk. The Yellowstone flows in the eastern portion of Montana through an uninhabitable desert called the Mauvaises Terres, or Bad Lands, which, mingling their soil with its waters, give it the yellow color from which it is named. These lands are vast wastes, covered with what appears to be pine ashes. No signs of vegetation are found, but they are abundant in strange petrifactions. I have seen from them petrified reptiles and portions of the human body, having a pearly lustre and inlaid with veins, and looking like the finest work of papier-mache.

The valley of the Upper Yellowstone has a thin, rocky soil, almost worthless for farming land. But what a paradise it would be for Izaak Walton and Daniel Boone! Quaint old Izaak would have realized a dream of Utopia in watching in the crystal stream its millions of speckled trout. It almost seems as if the New England trout had learned their proverbial wariness from long experience. There is none of it in these Yellowstone fish. They leap at the bare hook with the most guileless innocence. Trout are rarely found in the waters of the Missouri, but they fill all the brooks west of the mountains. They bite ravenously; one veracious traveller going so far as to assert that they followed him from the water far into the woods, and bit at the spurs on his boots. But mountaineers, even of the most scrupulous veracity, are occasionally given to hyperbole. Daniel Boone, too, would have found his paradise of a solitude undisturbed by white men, and full of wild game. Every night our camp was entertained with the hungry cry of wolves, the melancholy hooting of owls, and the growls of bears crackling the underbrush. The grizzly bear is not found in Montana; only the small black and cinnamon bears are seen. When wounded, these exhibit the most extreme ferocity; but persons who choose to avoid them will find them always willing to preserve the most distant relations. The most interesting of all the wild animals is the antelope. Every hour we passed flocks of these little fellows. They are timid as school-girls, but as inquisitive as village gossips; and while frightened and trembling at our presence, they could not resist keeping in our view, and stopping every few moments to watch us, with most child-like curiosity. Though fleet as the wind, I have seen many of the meek-eyed little fellows watch too long, and pay for their curiosity with their lives.

The most eastern settlement of Montana is at the mouth of a canon near the Yellowstone, one hundred and thirty miles from Virginia. A party of Iowa emigrants found fair prospects here, and made it their home, calling their mines Emigrant Gulch, and their half-dozen log-huts Yellowstone City. Their gulch is rich in gold, but the huge boulders, many tons in weight, make it impossible to obtain the treasure by the present rude methods. The few profitable claims are high up in the mountains, and are free from ice only in the hottest days of summer. Even the donkeys, so much in use in transporting supplies to the mountain miners, cannot travel here, and every pound of flour is carried on men's backs over giddy paths almost impassable for the chamois. Still the emigrants went to work with a will, and full of confidence. They built themselves log-cabins, not so convenient as those at Virginia,—for they had not the miner's knack of reaping large results from such limited resources,—but still substantial and comfortable. They enacted written laws, as ample as the Code Napoleon. Almost every day during our visit they met to revise this code and enact new provisions. Its most prominent feature was the ample protection it afforded to women in the distribution of lots in their prospective city, and the terrible punishment with which it visited any man who dared offer one of them an insult. They certainly founded their republic on principles of adamant, but in spite of high hopes and wise laws the boulders refused to move. Even Iowa enterprise at last gave way under constant disaster, and the people of the little city are one by forsaking it for the older mines.

The swift Yellowstone and the Colorado rise in lakes in the enchanted Wind River Mountains. Mr. Stuart mentions the weird tales, told by trappers and hunters, of places—avoided, if possible, by man and beast—in these mountains where trees and game and even Indians are petrified, and yet look natural as in life. These trappers are accustomed to exaggerate. I remember hearing a very serious account from one of them of a vast mountain of quartz so transparent that he could see mules feeding on the other side. There is also a story of a trapper who was lost in the fastnesses of the mountains years ago, and wandered for many days among streams whose bottoms were pebbled with gold. It is the miner's romance to repeat these fables of the Wind River Mountains, and to look forward to the day when the Indians shall be forced to yield to them his enterprise.

We arrived at Virginia at the end of October, and the commencement of the long mountain winter. The snows were soon blown in deep drifts over the hills, and the roads became almost impassable. A few hardy prospecters braved them in the search for quartz lodes, but many perished, and others were brought back to the city with frozen limbs. The mines lay idle, and the business of the city, dependent upon them for support, was completely stagnant. It was humanity living a squirrel life among its little garners of roots and nuts. But as usual, the reason of humanity fell far behind the instinct of the squirrel. Before spring came, the supply of flour at Virginia failed, and the most hideous of all calamities was threatened,—a famine. The range on the Salt Lake road lay utterly impassable under more than fifteen feet of snow. No mails had arrived for three months. The fear of famine soon became a panic, and flour speedily rose from twenty dollars per sack of one hundred pounds to one hundred and ten dollars in gold. A mob was organized by the drones, who would rather steal than work; and the miners were wrought upon by statements that a few speculators held an abundance of flour, and were extorting money from the necessities of the people. The Robespierres of the new reform drew the miners into passing a resolution to place all the flour in Virginia in the hands of a committee, with authority to distribute it among the most needy, at a fair and reasonable compensation, payable to the owner. A riot followed, and the flour-merchants quietly awaited the mob behind barricades of their own flour. The County Sheriff stood at the front of these with cocked revolver, and threatened to kill the first who advanced. The thieves knew that he did not threaten idly, and, though a hundred were ready to follow, not one was bold enough to lead. The riot failed for want of a courageous leader, and towards night slowly dwindled away. Another mob followed in a few days but the merchants had sold their flour at sacrifices, and the booty was only a few sacks. The want of this staff of life caused great suffering. All other vegetable food was rapidly consumed, and for six weeks the poorer classes were forced to live on beef alone. The effect was in all cases an inability to labor, and in some cases serious sickness.

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