Thomas J. Dimsdale (1831 – 1866) is most famous as the author of The Vigilantes of Montana, the first book to be written and published in Montana, in 1866.
Sometimes people dismiss him as the “apologist” for the Vigilantes, as if his contributions to Montana Territory as newspaper editor for The Montana Post (1864-1866) were a bad example of partisan journalism. The word “apologetics” means to “defend.” To many, though, it means to apologize, but while Dimsdale defended the Vigilantes’ actions, he never apologized for them.
To him, they were “Montana’s Righteous Hangmen,” as former Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court Lew L. Callaway called them decades later.
He became editor of The Montana Post on September 17, 1864, and held the job until ill health forced his resignation August 30, 1866. He used his position to defend causes he believed in: the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, the rule of law and order, and honest government. He was Montana’s first historian of his own time, and he gave to future Montanans an invaluable picture of those times as they were happening. He apparently hired a reporter to cover the First Legislative Assembly (meeting December 12, 1964 – February 9, 1865), and reprinted news from the Eastern war front as it came in. He also announced upcoming bare-knuckle prizefights, and cultural events – formal balls, stage plays, and concerts.
No newspaper can survive without advertisements, of course. They tell as much about Virginia City as the articles do, with fluctuating prices of wholesale produce, exchange rates for greenbacks and gold dust, and stray livestock.
Nothing in his early life would have predicted any lasting fame for him. He was born into a wealthy family in Thirlby, Yorkshire, England. He described himself as the “runt of the litter,” and his frail physique destined him for a career as an Anglican priest rather than the Army, the Navy, or the family iron business. He attended Rugby, and went on to one of the colleges of Oxford University. Sometime in his second year, his family lost all their money because of a bad investment, and he had to leave Oxford with no idea of how to earn his living. Emigrating to Canada, he taught school for some years before joining one of the expeditions to the Montana gold rush, arriving in Alder Gulch in 1863.
That year he opened a school at $2.00 (or $58.84 in 2017 dollars) per week. In early 1865 he resigned to devote full time to editing the Post and writing The Vigilantes of Montana. The book ran in the Post from August 26, 1865, through March 24, 1866.
As editor, he lobbied hard for an educational system in the Territory. The First Territorial Legislative Assembly met from December 12, 1864 through February 9, 1865. Two days before the end of the legislative session, Governor Sidney Edgerton signed the Montana’s school system into law. The Governor appointed Dimsdale the first Superintendent of Public Instruction on July 10, 1865.
During the legislative session, Editor Dimsdale received reports from a writer known only as “Franklin,” who wrote juicy accounts of legislative infighting, back-room deals, and the progress of legislation. “Franklin” spiced his articles with sarcasm at the expense of the legislators. On January 7, 1865, for example, he wrote that one of the legislators “asked me to-day if I had any idea who that ‘vile scribbler’ was. I could not relieve him from his dilemma…. ” “Franklin’s” identity is still not known, at least to me.
Although he rode long distances to get stories from the newspaper’s circulation area, Southwest Montana, Dimsdale was not strong. He had been suffering from consumption for some time, and it would appear that only his strength of mind and his faith in God prevented him from giving up.
As a devout Anglican, though he was never ordained, he founded the Protestant Episcopal Church in Montana in Virginia City on Christmas Day, 1865.
His staunch Unionist sympathies made him political enemies, but he had many good friends of both political persuasions. His best friend was Wilbur F. Sanders, ardent abolitionist, nephew of Gov. Sidney Edgerton, and a leader in Republican politics.
On September 22, 1866, Sanders visited his friend. When Dimsdale began to cough, Sanders lifted him up to a better position. Dimsdale coughed again, and died in Sanders’s arms.
He left behind a widow, Annette Hotchkiss Dimsdale, the first white woman to settle in Virginia City. They had been married only since May.
The Post reported that his funeral was a grand affair, conducted by his brother Masons, and crowded with grief-stricken friends. He was buried in the Virginia City cemetery. The eulogy praised his “generous nature, kind heart, and highly cultivated mind. (He was) favored alike by nature and culture, with a well disciplined mind and ripe scholarship … a wise counsellor, an intelligent lecturer, and a most affable and genial companion.”
After his death, the newspaper publishers rushed his book into print, advertising its coming sale and inviting pre-orders, much as Amazon does now. When the book went on sale, a rival newspaper pronounced it the most atrocious job of typesetting and proofreading ever seen. (It was later cleaned up and republished with less haste.)
For a man who lived only 35 years, he left a lasting imprint on Montana history. In the Post, he chronicled the early development of the Territory. The Vigilantes of Montana is still in print after 151 years.
Whether or not a historian or history buff believes the Vigilantes were justified, no one can ignore The Vigilantes of Montana. Montana’s history as a territory and later (1889) as a state begins with Dimsdale’s book.
Larry Barsness, Gold Camp: Alder Gulch and Virginia City, Montana. 1962.
Thomas J. Dimsdale – Montana’s First Newspaper Editor, Robert J. Goligoski. Unpublished thesis for Master of Arts, Montana State University (now UM), 1965.
The Montana Post. August 17, 1864 – December 29, 1866.