A Montana History Lesson and Teaser About My Absurd Hotsprings Trip
by William Skink
What was supposed to be a nice getaway with the family after a difficult, emotionally draining week turned into a maddening endurance test of disappointment. Both kids were going to have ski lessons, but the oldest got an ear infection he’s still fighting, so skiing was out. We tried to find something to do in Butte, but that was a bust. The mine tour wasn’t open and we hadn’t really planned ahead, so drove around aimlessly with the kids screaming. We drove all the way to Philipsburg for lunch, which was delicious (UpNSmokin BBQ House!!!) but the high winds kept the kids from wanting to do anything outside, so after a few meltdowns, we got back in the car and drove back to the Hotsprings.
What happened next made the whole trip seem beyond absurd, but before I get to that, I’ve had a few hours today (thanks Grandma!) to dig into a few things that have come up, like how the territory that became Montana had strong confederate/secessionist sympathies during the Civil War. One interesting article explores how an argument can be made that the Civil War was won in Virginia City, Montana. The short of it? Gold.
I suggest reading the whole article. For the purpose of the post, I’ll start with this:
When the war began, Montana, then part of the Dakota Territory, was sparcely populated. As the war progressed (regressed would be more accurate), settlers of every variety and origin, including many from the South, moved in, first to the western slope of the Rockies (present day Idaho) and then to the eastern (present day Montana). The lure? Gold, of course. It was discovered in 1861 in the area of the Mullan Road in present-day Idaho, in 1862 along Grasshopper Creek near Bannack, Montana, and in 1863 in Virginia City (Alder Gulch), Montana, originally to have been named Verona City (a misspelling of Varina, Jefferson Davis’s wife), but named Virginia City by a newly elected miners’ court judge, Dr. G. G. Bissell, a Connecticut Unionist who could live with Virginia, but not with Varina.
With the settlers, who sought nothing more than a better life, came drunkards, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, robbers, killers and deserters from Union and Confederate armies. Just as they did in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, when silver was discovered there in 1881, they quickly established a culture of decadence, lawlessness and violence, a perfect condition for the emergence of a strongman or strongmen and counter-law-lessness, i.e. vigilantism.
To the Lincoln Administration, of course, it was absolutely imperative that all this gold flow into Federal coffers and that not a nugget find its way to the Confederacy. How much gold? In Virginia City alone, $600,000 worth of gold was being mined every week, according to quotes sent to Lincoln in 1864. In today’s dollars, that is $33 million per week or $1.7 billion a year and is in addition to the value of gold mined in nearby Nevada City and Bannack. The Federal Government thus took immediate steps to preserve this immense wealth. It established in the spring of 1863 a new political entity known as Idaho Territory, comprising the present states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with its capital at Lewiston in present-day Idaho. Lincoln then appointed W. W. Wallace as Governor of the new territory. As Chief Justice of the new territory, Lincoln appointed his friend, and one of the founders of the Republican Party, Sidney Edgerton. The latter arrived in Bannack on September 17, 1863, with his family and a nephew, Wilber Fisk Sanders. They were originally supposed to travel to Lewiston, but went instead to Bannack, which was only seventy-five miles from Virginia City and its gold.
Edgerton’s and Sanders’s problem was that they had to accomplish their purpose—the preservation of the gold for the Union—in what was essentially enemy territory, which is to say that the great majority of the Territory’s inhabitants were secessionists. They did so by arranging for the creation of a Vigilance Committee, also known as the Vigilantes, in Bannack and Virginia City. In the winter of 1863-1864, the Vigilantes eliminated any and all threats to the flow of gold to the Federal Government, which is a nice euphemism for saying they murdered a lot of people. It worked. Almost all the gold flowed to the Federal Government, thus maintaining the value of greenbacks at home and abroad and producing the means to accomplish westward expansion, i.e. to populate the west with Union sympathizers. The Homestead Act of 1862 had already begun the process. Later, Union-sympathizing emigrants to Montana Territory came in substantial numbers from St. Paul, Minnesota, protected by U.S. troops led by Captain James Liberty Fisk, who had also journeyed to Washington, with two gold nuggets from Alder Gulch, to impress upon Lincoln the importance of controlling the gold flow. This emigration was financed by the United States Congress for obvious reasons. The effect was the desired one.
Ok, so why am I quoting an article about gold, vigilantes and the Civil War?
I went looking for southern/confederate influences in the settling of these western territories because I think there was a KKK social at Fairmont Hotsprings this weekend.
I’m going to leave it at that for now. I’m working on a poem about the experience, what I saw, what I overheard. I’m also debating what to do with the picture I snuck of the guy talking about renewing efforts to get chapters up in Montana. He was from Wyoming.