The Murder of Nicholas Tbalt

One fine day in December 1863, Mr. William Palmer, owner of a saloon in Nevada City, had arranged to deliver a keg of beer into the valley of the Stinking Water, that lay beyond Alder Gulch. (Alder Creek flows into the Stinking Water river, the Passamari in Shoshone, but it has been renamed the Ruby River.)

After he delivered the beer, Palmer was happy because it was a fine day, more like October than December, and the temperatures, mostly below freezing, were ideal for bird-hunting. He decided to treat himself to a little grouse hunting on the way home. Palmer was a decent sort, from all accounts. He had owned or worked in a pub in his native country, England, before he decided to improve his circumstances in America. His saloon did a good trade, his beer was good, and he was not known for putting his thumb on the scale pan.

God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

When he saw a likely spot, he stopped the wagon, picketed the horses, and took his bird gun into the brush. Soon he flushed a covey of grouse, and let fire.

Most of the birds flew on, but one fell into the brush. Having a hunch it was not dead but wounded, he went after it.

He found it lying on a dead man’s chest.

Horrified, he went for help at a wickiup about a quarter mile away. There he found Long John Frank, who refused him, saying, “They kill men every day in Virginia. Why should I care about this one?”

Shocked and angry, Palmer went back to the days-old frozen corpse and managed the horrid task of loading it into his wagon by himself. When Palmer managed to lift it up, he saw that the man had been shot in the back. Even worse, the throat showed marks of a rope, and the dead hands clutched twigs of sagebrush. Palmer figured, and later examination agreed, that the victim had been dragged while still living into the brush farther off the trail. The face was mostly gone, because magpies and small animals had eaten the eyeballs and the soft parts. Still, Palmer hoped someone would be able to identify the poor man. He could not just leave him there.

He drove the wagon back up the trail, stopping at every settlement to see if anyone could identify the body.

Not until he reached Virginia City did he find anyone to identify the corpse. Then the less squeamish among the onlookers emptied the pockets, and a grocer named Thomas Baume recognized the pocket knife he had loaned to Nicholas Tbalt the last time he saw him

Outraged and grief-stricken, Nick’s friends recalled him as a genuinely good young man. The sources I’ve read, either in the archives or listed below, do not say how old he was, although references to him might put his age at somewhere between 17 and 22.

He had immigrated to the United States with his parents. How long they were here before joining the migration West is not known, but the sources report that his parents were both killed in an Indian raid on their wagon train. Sometime afterwards, he joined up with William Clark, who apparently regarded him as a foster son. What impressed everyone who knew young Nick was his refusal to hate those who had killed his parents. Instead, he forgave them.

Clark and his partner, George Bertsche (sometimes spelled Burtchy or Burtschey), had sent Nick to a ranch to retrieve a span of mules pastured there. Thomas J. Dimsdale and Nathaniel P. Langford both write that Nick had sold the mules to the partners and took a poke (a deersking pouch) of gold dust with him when he went to retrieve the animals. The poke held about $400, the price of the mules and enough to pay for their board. When he failed to return, both authors write that Clark and Bertsche believed that he might have stolen the money and the mules and kept on going. One modern historian, Mark C. Dillon, writes that Clark had been seen hunting high and low for the youth during the eight or nine days between setting off on his errand and when Palmer found his corpse.

Mules and money were both gone.

Once Nick was identified, Clark and Bertsche formed a posse to hunt down the murderers. They decided to start where the body had been found — with Long John Franck.

Next: Finding Nick’s Murderer