Simon Grump Takes Tom Hogg to Court — Miners Court, That Is

The novels of the Vigilante Quartet

The miners in the Grasshopper diggings formed the Bannack Mining District on July 28, 1862. In Alder Gulch, miners organized the Fairweather Mining District on May 26, 1863, and three other mining districts came into being by December 1863. First was the Nevada District next door and downstream from Fairweather, then the Junction District downstream from Nevada. A fourth, the Summit mining district organized upstream, near the headwaters of Alder Creek.

In mining districts, the miners’ meetings made the rules for the district, set the terms of lawsuits, and decided penalties and sentences for those found guilty in trials.

They made laws based on the necessity of the moment. Because placer mining depended on a plentiful supply of water to wash the gold out of the gravel, making sure each miner had enough water was most important. During spring runoff, the snow melted and filled the streams or overfilled them, water was plentiful.

Alder Creek in summer

Alder Creek in summer. (Photo courtesy of Bret Bouda)

Then came a period when the water supply was sufficient, but by August, water dwindled. In summer and early fall, sharing the limited water equally became especially important.

In the Fairweather District, miners meetings hammered out agreements on the width of the sluice each claim could use. (The sluice carried water to wash the dirt away from the gold.) A violation meant someone was using more water than allowed, and deprived his downstream neighbors. Likewise, if a miner sued a neighbor for encroaching on his claim, the designated officer would measure both claims to be sure each man had the proper boundaries.

It was the season of low water. Simon Grump thought his neighbor, Tom Hogg, was using a 10-1/2″ sluice when the rules only allowed 10″.

Abandoned mine shaft on the bank of Alder Creek

Abandoned mine shaft on the bank of Alder Creek. (Photo courtesy of Bret Bouda)

Simon called on Dr. G. Gaylord Bissell, the judge of the Fairweather District, and told him he wanted to file a suit against Tom. Dr. Bissell summoned the sheriff to post notices around Virginia City calling for a miners meeting, with the date and time.

Not all miners chose to attend, but when the meeting began, more than 100 men came to watch the fun. Among them were the friends of Tom Hogg. Simon Grump didn’t have many friends because he was, well, a grump. When the meeting opened, the judge declared that they wouldn’t know the truth until they had seen for themselves. Everyone saw the sense in that, so Judge Bissell and the sheriff’s deputy went with the plaintiff and the defendant to Tom’s claim to measure the sluice that routed water from Alder Creek through his claim. After measuring as carefully as they knew how, Judge Bissell announced to the crowd of miners who had trailed along that the sluice measured 9-3/4 inches.

Then he called for the question. “Is Tom Hogg guilty or not guilty?”

By now the trial had acquired more onlookers. The new men didn’t know what it was all about, but they chimed in with their opinions all the same. Some shouted, “Guilty!” But more men shouted, “Not guilty!”

So Tom Hogg went free, but Simon Grump lost. The “jury” awarded damages in the amount of $50 to Tom Hogg as punishment to Grump for trying to besmirch his good name and causing him to lose three hours of daylight when he could have been working. For inconveniencing the court, the jury of miners voted a hefty fine, $100. all told, $150 was six weeks’ wages for a working man, which meant that Grump, being cash poor, had to sell his mule, saddle, and bridle to pay the fine.

Although this account is fictional, it’s based on accounts of genuine miners court trials. These trials had several characteristics that cause us to shake our heads. They probably caused lawyers like Wilbur Sanders and judges like his uncle Sidney Edgerton to shake his head, too. (Edgerton was the Chief Justice of Idaho who later became Montana Territory’s first governor.)

1. Anyone could attend the trial and be on the “jury,” called the “jury of the whole.”
2. There was no requirement to hear all of the evidence or be present for the entire proceedings.
3. Anyone could vote on the verdict most of the time. There no requirement for sobriety.
4. A knowledge of the law was not a requirement for a judge or an advocate. If a defendant or a plaintiff did not like lawyers, he didn’t have to hire one. Educated men were respected, however, and because doctors were among the most educated, they frequently were elected to positions of leadership. Dr. Bissell in the Fairweather district and Dr. Don Byam in the Nevada district were two notable examples.
5. Sometimes the miners court opted for a formal jury of 12 men. In the case of the Ives trial, Wilbur Sanders had the bright idea of a formal “advisory” jury consisting of 24 men, 12 from the Junction district and 12 from the Nevada District (which shared jurisdiction) to come up with the verdict. The jury of the whole would then vote.
6. A mining district was like a small country with its own laws and jurisdiction. You’ll see how this played out in the George Ives trial.

Before then, another miners court trial in June of 1863 stayed in men’s minds and influenced future events.

Next: The Dillingham Trial