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.
Virginia, the chief of the hamlets, has since developed into an organized city, and the capital of the Territory. Its site was certainly not chosen for its natural beauty. Along the main gulch are the mines,—huge piles of earth turned up in unsightly heaps. At one side of the mines, and up a ravine which crosses the gulch at right angles, lies the city. In shape it was originally like the letter T, but its later growth has forced new streets and houses far up the hillsides. Not so much regard was paid, in laying the foundations of the new city, to its future greatness, as Penn gave when he planned Philadelphia. The miner only wanted a temporary shelter, and every new-comer placed a log-cabin of his own style of architecture next the one last built. Where convenience required a street, lo! a street appeared. There were no gardens, for beyond the narrow centre of the ravine only sage-brush and cactus would grow. But the mines thrived, and also grew and thrived the little city and its vices.
Gradually a better class of buildings appeared. What were called hotels began to flourish; but it was long before the monotony of bacon, bread, and dried apples was varied by a potato. And for sleeping accommodations, a limited space was allotted upon the floor, the guest furnishing his own blankets. A theatre soon sprang up. And either because of the refined taste of some of the auditors, or the advanced talent of the performers, the playing was not the broad farce which might have been entertaining, but was confined to Shakespeare and heavy tragedy, which was simply disgusting. This style of acting culminated in the debut of a local celebrity, possessed of a sonorous voice and seized with a sudden longing for Thespian laurels. He chose the part of Othello, and all Virginia assembled to applaud. The part was not well committed, and sentences were commenced with Shakespearian loftiness and ended with the actor's own emendations, which were certainly questionable improvements. Anything but a tragic effect was produced by seeing the swarthy Moor turn to the prompter at frequent intervals, and inquire, "What?" in a hoarse whisper. A running colloquy took place between Othello and his audience, in which he made good his assertion that he was rude in speech. Since then, Shakespeare has not been attempted on the Virginia boards. "Othello's occupation's gone"; and all tragic efforts are confined to the legitimate Rocky Mountain drama. "Nick of the Woods" has frequently been produced with great applause, though the illusion is somewhat marred by the audible creaking of the Jibbenainosay sails triumphantly over the cataract.
Sunday is distinguished from other days in being the great day of business. The mines are not worked and it is the miners' holiday. All is bustle and confusion. A dozen rival auctioneers vend their wares, and gallop fast horses up and down the street. The drinking and gambling saloons and dance-houses are in full blast, all with bands of music to allure the passing miner, who comes into town on Sunday to spend his earnings. The discoverer of Virginia is the miner par excellence,—a good-natured Hercules clad in buckskin, or a lion in repose. All the week he toils hard in some hole in the earth for this Sunday folly. The programme for the day is prepared on a scale of grandeur in direct ration to the length of his purse. The necessity of spending the entire week's earnings is obvious, and to assist him in doing so seems to be the only visible means of support of half the people of the town. The dance-house and the gambling-saloon, flaunting their gaudy attractions, own him for the hour their king. His Midas touch is all-powerful. I must confess, with all my admiration for his character, that his tastes are low. I know that the civilization of the East would bore him immeasurably, and that he considers Colt, with his revolvers, a broader philanthropist than Raikes with his Sunday schools. But he is frank and open, generous and confiding, honorable and honest, scorning anything mean and cowardly. Mention to him, in his prodigal waste of money, that a poor woman or child is in want of the necessaries of life, and the purse-strings open with a tear. Tell him that corruption and wrong have worked an injury to a comrade or a stranger, and his pistol flashes only too quickly, to right it. Circumstances have made him coarse and brutal, but below all this surface beats a heart full of true instincts and honest impulses. I am certain the recording angel will blot out many of his sins, as he did those of Uncle Toby. His means exhausted, he abdicates his ephemeral kingdom, and, uncomplaining, takes his pick and shovel, his frying-pan, bacon, and flour, and starts over the mountains for new diggings. Yet he gains no wisdom by experience. The same bacchanalian orgies follow the next full purse.
The Road Agents came to the new city from Bannack increased in strength and boldness. Long impunity had made them scarcely anxious to conceal their connection with the band. Life and property were nowhere secure. Spies in Virginia announced to confederates on the road every ounce of treasure that left the city, and sometimes reports came back of robberies of the coaches, sometimes of murder of the travellers, and still more frequently the poor victim was never heard of after his departure. There were no laws or courts, except the miners' courts, and these were powerless. Self-protection demanded vigorous measures, and a few good men of Bannack and Virginia met together and formed a Vigilance Committee, similar in all respects to that which has had such a beneficent influence in the growth of California. It was, of course, secret, and composed of a mere handful. It must be secret, for the Road Agents had so overawed the people that few dared acknowledge themselves as champions of law and order. They had threatened, and they had the power to crush such an organization at its inception, by taking the lives of its members. But moving stealthily and unknown, the little organization grew. Whenever a good man and true was found, he became a link of the chain. At last it tried its power over a notorious desperado named Ives, by calling a public trial of the miners. It was a citizens' trial, but the Vigilantes were the leading spirits. Ives confronted his accusers boldly, relying on the promised aid of his confederates. They lay in wait to offer it, but the criminal was too infamous for just men to hesitate which side to take, and the cowards, as always in such cases, though probably a numerical majority, dared not meet the issue. Ives was hanged without any attempt at rescue.
The proceedings thus vigorously commenced were as vigorously continued. The Road Agents still trusted their power, and the contest was not settled. The Vigilantes settled it soon and forever. One morning their pickets barred every point of egress from Virginia. A secret trial had been held and six well-known robbers sentenced to death. Five of them were one by one found in the city. The quickness of their captors had foiled their attempts at escape or resistance, and their impotent rage at seeing every point guarded sternly by armed Vigilantes knew no bounds. They were all executed together at noon. It was a sickening scene,—five men, with the most revolting crimes to answer for, summoned with hardly an hour's preparation into eternity. Yet they are frequently spoken of with respect because they "died game." All of them, drinking heavily to keep up their courage, died with the most impious gibes and curses on their lips. Boone Helm, a hoary reprobate, actually said, as the block was being removed from him, "Good by, boys! I will meet you in hell in five minutes." Harsh measures were these, but their effect was magical. One of the leaders had been hanged at Bannack, and the others as fast as found were promptly executed,—perhaps thirty in all. A few fled, and are heard of now and then among the robbers of Portneuf Canon; but under the sway of the Vigilantes life and property in Virginia became safer than to-day in Boston. For minor offences they banished the guilty, and for grave offences they took life. As their history is now recounted by the people, there is no man who does not praise their work and agree that their acts were just and for the public good. The first courts were held in December, 1864, and the Vigilantes were the earliest to support their authority. They are still in existence, but as a support and ally of the courts, and only appearing when the public safety demands the most rigorous dealing.
Virginia can never be a pretty city, but in many respects it is a model one. The earlier log-houses are now giving way to substantial stores of granite; and the number of gambling and tippling shops is steadily decreasing, the buildings being taken up by the wholesale traders. An organized city government preserves strict police regulations. Two thriving churches have grown up, and very recently the principal merchants have agreed to close their houses on the Sabbath. The old residents are bringing in their wives and children, and society constantly gains in tone. Erelong, it will compare favorably with the steadiest town in the land of steady habits.
Eight miles above Virginia is Summit. Its name sufficiently designates its location, which is at the head of the gulch and among the highest mountains. The sun is not seen there till a late hour in the winter, and the few who make it their home burrow closely as rabbits from the bitter cold and deep snows. The placer diggings are at their greatest depth here, but exceedingly rich. Here also are the richest gold lodes of the Territory. All the quartz seems impregnated with gold, sometimes in little pockets of nuggets, sometimes spattered by the intense heat of old into all forms of wires and spangles.
Quartz mining is yet in its rudest form. The gold is buried in solid rock, and requires heavy crushing-mills and cumbrous machinery, which must be built and transported at immense expense by capitalists. It is a question with such capitalists how certain is the promise of returns. The uncertainty of mining as shown by the results of ventures in Colorado, has naturally deterred them. Under the old process of crushing the quartz to powder by stamps, and then separating the gold by amalgamation with quicksilver, but twenty-five per cent of the gold is saved. After the amalgamation a practical chemist could take the "tailings" of the Dacotah ore, and produce almost the full assay of the original rock. Very much depends in the mountain territories upon the success of experiments, now in operation, with the various new desulphurizing processes. This success established, the wealth of the territories is incalculable.
All of the mining of Montana is now confined to the placer or gulch diggings. There are many of these, but probably none to compare in all respects with those at Virginia. At Bannack is found purer gold, at Biven's are larger nuggets, and many diggings at McClellan's yield larger amounts per day. But these are lotteries,—some claims paying largely to-day and nothing to-morrow, or one yielding enormously, while the next, after all the labor and expense of opening, gives nothing. They are called "spotted," while nearly every claim at Virginia has yielded with great regularity. How the gold came into these gulches is of little consequence to the miner. It suffices him to know that it is there, and his practical experience enables him to point out its location with great accuracy, though without any scientific knowledge of its origin. Most probably, far away in the Preadamite periods, when these mountains were much loftier than to-day, they were cloven and pierced by volcanic fires, and then into their innumerable vents and fissures infiltrated the molten quartz and the base and precious metals. Afterwards followed the period of the glaciers, and all the working of the seasons and chemical decompositions. Traces of the glaciers and the rotten burnt quartz of the volcanic periods exist everywhere. Thus washing and crumbling away in the waters and suns of untold springs and summers, the gold has come down the mountain gorges into the valleys below. The manner of gathering it is rude and incomplete enough. In all the gulches, at depths varying from six to fifty feet, is a bed-rock of the same general conformation as the surface. Usually this is granite; but sometimes before reaching the primitive rock two or three strata of pipe-clay—the later beds of the stream, upon which frequently lies a deposit of gold—are passed. Upon the bed-rock is a deposit, from three to four feet in depth, of gravel and boulders, in which the gold is hidden. This is called by the miners "pay-dirt," and to remove it to the surface and wash it is the end of mining. It is an expensive and laborious process indeed. The water has first to be controlled; and in mines of not too great depth this is done by a drain ditch along the bed-rock, commenced many claims below. In this all the claim-holders are interested, and all contribute their quota of the labor and expense of digging it. The district laws permit every person to run such a drain through all the claims below his own, and force every man to contribute alike towards its construction, on pain of not being allowed to use the water, even though it flows through his own land. The water controlled, the rest is mere physical labor, which only bones and sinews of iron can endure. In the shallow diggings the superincumbent earth above the pay-dirt is removed, and the process is called "stripping." In deep diggings a shaft is sunk to the bed-rock, and tunnels are run in every direction—and this is called "drifting." The roof is supported by strong piles, but these supports too frequently give way, and hurry the poor miners to untimely deaths. The pay-dirt, in whichever way obtained, is then shovelled into the sluice-boxes,—a series of long troughs, set at the proper angle to prevent the gold from washing past, or the dirt from settling to the bottom. Managed with the skill which experience has taught, the constant stream of water carries over the sand, while the gold, being seven times heavier, sinks to the bottom, and is caught by cross-bars called "riffles," placed there for the purpose. In the lower boxes is frequently placed quicksilver, with which the lighter particles amalgamate. During the washings the larger stones and boulders are removed by a fork. These boxes, after a successful day's work, are a pleasant sight to see, all brilliant with gold and black sand and magnetic iron. All is gold that glitters. The heavy sand and iron are separated by a more careful washing by hand and by the magnet. Of course, all this system is very rude and imperfect,—so much so, that it has been found profitable in California to wash over the same earth nine times.
The gold-dust thus obtained is the only circulating medium in the Territory, and is the standard of trade. Treasury notes and coin are articles of merchandise. Everybody who has gold has also his little buckskin pouch to hold it. Every store has its scales, and in these is weighed out the fixed amount for all purchases according to Troy weight. An ounce is valued at eighteen dollars, a pennyweight at ninety cents, and so on. It is amusing to notice how the friction of the scales is made by some men—particularly the Jews, whose name is legion—to work them no loss. In weighing in, the scale-beam bows most deferentially to the gold side; but in weighing out, it makes profound obeisance to the weights. The same cupidity has given rise to two new terms in the miners' glossary, trade dust and bankable dust. Bankable dust means simply gold, pure and undefiled. Trade dust is gold with a plentiful sprinkling of black sand, and is of three grades, described very clearly by the terms good, fair, and dirty. The trader, in receiving our money, complains if it does not approximate what is bankable, but in paying us his money pours out a combination in which black sand is a predominating ingredient. Many merchants even keep a saucer of black sand in readiness to dilute their bankable gold to the utmost thinness it will bear.
As might be expected, the courts were hardly opened before grave questions arose as to the construction of contracts based on this anomalous currency. Notes were usually made to pay a given number of "dollars, in good, bankable dust." But the laws recognized no such commodity as a dollar in dust. The decision of the court protecting a trickster in paying treasury-notes worth but fifty cents for the gold loaned by a friend, savored to the plain miner of rank injustice. To avoid even this opportunity for a legal tender, sometimes notes promised to pay a certain number of ounces and pennyweights with interest at a fixed rate. The question was immediately sprung as to whether such an agreement was to be construed as a promissory note, or was to be sued for as a contract to do a specified act, by setting out a breach and claiming damages for the non-performance. The miners listened to the long discussions on these points impatiently, and compared the courts unfavorably with the miners' courts, which unloosed all such Gordian knots with Alexander's directness.
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.
While thus cut off from all communication with the outer world, and buried in the dull town, there was little for us to do save to study each other's characters and talk the miners' language. In all new and thinly settled countries, many ideas are expressed by figures drawn from the pursuits of the people. Among the Indians, more than half of every sentence is expressed by signs. And miners illustrate their conversation by the various terms used in mining. I have always noticed how clearly these terms conveyed the idea sought. Awkwardness in comprehending this dialect easily reveals that the hearer bears the disgrace of being a "pilgrim," or a "tender-foot," as they style the new emigrant. To master it is an object of prime necessity to him who would win the miner's respect. Thus the term "adobe," the sun-dried brick, as applied to a man, signifies vealiness and verdancy. A "corral" is an enclosure into which the herds are gathered; hence a person who has everything arranged to his satisfaction announces that he has everything "corralled." A man fortunate in any business has "struck the pay-dirt"; unfortunate, has "struck the bed-rock." Everything viewed in the aggregate, as a train, a family, or a town, is an "outfit." I was much at a loss, on my first arrival, to comprehend the exact purport of a miner's criticism upon a windy lawyer of Virginia,—"When you come to pan him out, you don't find color." But this vocabulary is not extensive, and the pilgrim soon learns to perceive and use its beauties.
Helena, the second point of importance in the Territory, is one hundred and twenty-five miles north from Virginia. We travel to it over a fine, hard road, through the low valleys of the Missouri. The beauty and richness of these valleys increase as we leave Virginia, and everywhere the green spots are becoming the homes of thrifty farmers. On the divide near Boulder Creek are wonderful proofs of the gradual levelling of the mountains, in the huge blocks of rock piled up in the most grotesque shapes. Many of these are colossal pillars, surmounted by boulders weighing many tons. The softer rock and gravel have washed down the ravines, leaving these as monuments of the primal ages. The ravines penetrate the mountain on every side, and little by little wear the monster away. The beavers choose the prettiest nooks in them for their villages, and the miner, finding the water cut off, often learns that in a single night these busy architects have built a tight and closely interwoven dam up the stream, which it takes him many hours to demolish. Is it strange that, in speaking of a beaver dam, he should sometimes transpose the words?
We ride down the pleasantest of the ravines, till it develops into the Prickly Pear River, and past embryo cities,—at present noticeable for nothing except their rivalry of each other,—and hurry on to the Last Chance Gulch and the city of Helena. A few emigrants from Minnesota had been here for many months. They made no excitement, no parade, but steadily worked on amid their majestic mountain scenery, and asked no heralding of their wealth. On either side of their cabins grew tall pines straight as arrows, and in front spread a vast fertile valley watered by clear rivulets, marked here and there with the low cottages of the rancheros, and dotted everywhere with innumerable herds of cattle. Beyond the Missouri rose abruptly chains of snow-capped mountains, glistening in the sunlight and veined with gold and silver. Reports of these men came at times to Virginia,—reports always of a quiet and unostentatious prosperity. In the winter of 1864 their secret became known, and half the nomadic population of Virginia hurried to the new mines, and puzzled the slow-moving Minnesotians by their bustle and activity. Claims advanced rapidly in price, and the discoverers reaped fortunes. A city rose like an exhalation. Yet I never saw better order than in the earliest days of Helena, though I am afraid that Hangman's Tree could tell some stories of too much haste and injustice in taking the lives of criminals.
The hundred ravines near Helena showed gold, and every one of them was soon claimed from mouth to source. Every night I heard the clattering hoofs of the stampeders for some new gulch, starting in the utmost secrecy to gain the first right for themselves and friends. A trifling hint induces these stampedes. A wink from one old miner to another, and hundreds mounted their horses to seek some inaccessible mountain fissure. The more remote the diggings, so much the greater the excitement. Half the people of Helena lately hurried, in the depth of winter, to diggings on Sun River (where many and many a brave fellow perished in the snows,) to learn that far richer mines had lain unclaimed for months within a stone's throw of their homes. The excitement over quartz lodes rapidly followed; and every spot on the mountains which showed any slight indications of auriferous quartz was claimed by the prospecters. Hardly a third of these can ever prove rich, but here and there is one of great value.
Helena, supported by the trade of the surrounding mines, already rivals Virginia. Perhaps in years to come it may have a larger population and a more reckless enterprise. One hundred and fifty miles north from Helena is Fort Benton, an old fortified post of the American Fur Company, and the head of navigation on the Missouri. Steamers have arrived here in the spring, but the uncertainty of the water will fix the terminus of travel at some point farther down. A town charter for such a terminus was granted to a party of Virginia speculators at the mouth of Maria's River. They called it Ophir, which friend of mine says is a very appropriate name and of poetic origin, being derived from Cowper's line,
"O for a lodge in some vast wilderness!"
On the first visit of the proprietors to their new site, every one of them was murdered and scalped by the Indians.
These regions are held by the Blackfeet, who, with their offshoots, the Bloods, Gros Ventres, and Piegans, are the most formidable Indians of Montana. They are polygamists, being in that respect exceptional among the Indians. But Catlin rather unsentimentally apologizes for this, on the ground that the chiefs are required to give expensive entertainments, in getting up which the labor of a hundred wives is no trifling assistance. Attempts have long been made to civilize and Christianize these savages by the Catholic missions under Father de Smet, and the government has furthered these attempts by establishing a fine farm on Sun River. The chiefs would sometimes be induced to stolidly witness the grain-planting; but Captain Mullan quietly describes all this waste of philanthropy in the words: "I can only regret that the results as yet obtained would not seem commensurate with the endeavors so manfully put forth."
The noble Indians of history and poetry do not exist among the Indians of to-day. You seek in vain for Logan or Pocahontas, for Uncas or Minnehaha. The real Indians are cruel and treacherous, lazy and filthy, crafty and ungrateful. Many of them live upon ants and grasshoppers, and at the best only know enough to preserve in the rudest manner a few of the commonest roots and berries.
These tribes have no history and no growth. They live a mere animal life. Even their few traditions are rude and disgusting enough. I am indebted to Mr. Stuart for a fair example of the Bannack superstitions, from which not even Longfellow could glean any poetry or beauty. Among the caves in the rocks dwells a race of fairy imps, who, with arrow and quiver, kill game upon the mountains, and sing boisterous songs on the cliffs in summer evenings. Whenever an Indian mother leaves her infant, one of these pleasant cannibals devours it straightway, and takes its place, crying piteously. When the poor woman returns and seeks to pacify her child, the little usurper falls ravenously upon her. Fire-arms, knives, and stones are all powerless; and when the screams of the woman bring the men to her help, the destroyer runs away and leaves her in a dying condition. She always dies before morning. When little children play at a distance from camp, these fairies seek to sport among them. Lucky is it for those timid few who, frightened at the long tail, scamper away from the intruder; for, when allowed to mingle in the sport, he suddenly seizes the fairest child, and hurries away to make a dainty meal off him with his little wives in elfin-land. To the Indian men the fairies profess a real friendship; and when they meet one near their dwellings they invite him in and feast him and press him to stay all night. He invariably declines the polite invitation with his thanks, and his regrets that he has killed an elk and must take it home before the wolves can eat it.
Beyond the main chain of the Rocky Mountains are the Deer Lodge and Bitter Root Valleys, celebrated for their great grazing capabilities. I rode through these valleys in June, passing up the Pipestone Creek, whose waters flow into the Missouri, and down the Silver Bow, whose waters flow into the Columbia. At the highest point we could almost see the springs of either river, flowing on the one hand to the Atlantic, on the other to the Pacific. How widely are these children of the same mother separated! Summer sprinkles all the ravines with innumerable wild-flowers, which make a rich carpet even up close to the white line of the snow. I found among them wild varieties of the harebell, larkspur, and sunflower, and many pansies. Upon the Silver Bow Creek is a city of the same name, built in the winter, when it was hoped that spring would prove the richness of its mines. From a distance it looked like a large town; but upon riding in, we found only here and there a straggling inhabitant. Other mines proved richer, and any purchaser can buy its best house for less than the cost of drawing the logs to build it. At Deer Lodge in this valley,—almost equal in extent and fertility to that of the Gallatin,—old Johnny Grant lived for many years a life of patriarchal serenity among his wives and concubines, his flocks and herds. By constant presents of beads and whiskey, and many a warm meal when on the war-path, he had raised himself high in the esteem of the savages, and had a favorite squaw from almost every tribe among his wives. When the Flatheads passed by, no woman appeared at his hearth but a Flathead; when the Blackfeet came, the sole wife of his bosom was a Blackfoot. Thus for many years, almost the only white man in these solitudes, he lived at peace with the natives, a sharer in all their spoils and arbiter in all their quarrels. And when the patriarch was gathered to his fathers, he left cattle on a thousand hills to his son. Young Johnny is a mere repetition of his father. He cannot read or write, and in conversation his nominatives are not always true to his verbs; but he has all the slyness and craftiness of the Indian. I heard that he was immensely disgusted at the white immigration. He acknowledges that his beeves are of greater value, and he has no small admiration for dollars and cents; but he fears that his moral and intellectual standing will suffer.
Passing down the Deer Lodge River,—
"In the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
Save his own dashings,"—
We came to pass through the mountains, called Hell-Gate by the Flatheads, because through it rode the scalping parties of the Eastern tribes. Beyond is the sunny valley of the Bitter Root. It has long been settled by hardy trappers and hunters, and by comfortable farmers with well-stored barns and granaries and fenced fields. There is a charm about this isolated life, and a freshness and exhilaration about these Daniel Boones, that one meets nowhere else. Many of them are old army officers, men of education, who left the exploring parties to which they were attached to make their homes among the wild allurements of this fascinating valley. It is pleasant to hear their stories of life among the Indians, and their accounts of the strange features of the mountains, their animal life, their flora and minerals. Most of them have squaw wives, and are rearing large families of ugly pappooses, and many have amassed wealth by their long trade with the fur companies. The great Hudson's Bay Company has for many years had a station in this valley, and drawn from it large quantities of costly furs and skins. Here and farther west is spoken the famous Chinnook jargon, invented by the Company to facilitate its trade with the Indians. It borrows words from the English, from the French, from all the Indian tongues, and works them all into an incongruous combination. It has an entire lack of system or rule, but is quickly learned, and is designed to express only the simplest ideas. The powerful influence of the Company introduced it everywhere, and it was found of indispensable utility. Ardent Oregonians are said to woo their coy maidens in its unpronounceable gutturals. The white man is called "Boston" in this tongue, because the first whites whom the Oregon Indians met came in a Boston ship.
The best Indians of the mountains dwell in this valley,—the Flatheads and Pend' d'Oreilles. Many of them are devoted Catholics, but liable at times to lapse into intoxication. The Jesuits have a thriving mission among them, with a neat church, whose clear ringing bell sounds strangely enough in the mountain recesses. The strict asceticism of the fathers, their careful nursing of the sick and wounded, and their cordial co-operation in all objects of philanthropy, have enabled them to wield an immense influence among the Indians. The white miners also, who have often lain sick or frost-bitten in their hospitals, except these zealous priests in their too common sneers at religion. Captain Mullan quite reflects the universal sentiment when he says: "The only good that I have ever seen effected among these people [the Indians] has been due to the exertions of these Catholic missionaries."
I have hurried over the points of interest in the early days of Montana. But any picture of its shifting life can only be a view of one of the combinations of the kaleidoscope. The discovery of new mines, and the abandonment of old ones, the fresh advent of gold-seekers and the exodus of the winners of fortunes, the increase of facilities for travel and of all the comforts of life, are daily and perceptibly working out new combinations. But while welcoming all changes tending towards refinement and a higher civilization, the careful observer of the life of these remote people can point to some qualities among them which he would have unchangeable as their grand old mountains,—their frankness and honesty of purpose, their love of justice, and their sturdy democracy.
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