In the beginning of Montana, there was no Montana. The eastern slope of the northern Rocky Mountains was geographically included in the Pacific Northwest, an enormous region without political divisions. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain agreed to divide North America at the 49th parallel, despite a belligerent American campaign slogan: “54-40 or fight!” Two years later, the U. S. recognized its part of that agreement south of the 49th as the political entity, “Oregon.”
In 1853 settlement north of the Columbia river and west of the Rockies had grown so that Oregon Territory received its current boundaries, and Washington Territory was all the rest. On a contemporary map of the Pacific Northwest, Washington Ty. curves around Oregon and flows eastward from its eastern boundary. Nobody in Washington, D. C., expected to change boundaries for at least another 50 years.
Almost by accident, people, however, changed the politicians’ minds.
The Stuart brothers, James and Granville, left California in 1857 to visit their family in Iowa. When they neared Utah, they were warned not to go near the Great Salt Lake valley because the Mormons threatened to “send to hell” any “Gentiles” they caught.
Rerouting northward, Granville came down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. James and another traveler, Reece Anderson, stayed with him for the seven weeks he lay ill. When he recovered enough to travel, they made for the Bitterroot Valley, which people had recommended as a habitable place with mild winters.
There they met Robert Hereford and his wife, a Bannack woman who died of smallpox during the winter. Together with other early settlers they spent the winter.
That first winter started out mild, although later, driving winds and deep snows made game scarce, so that for weeks they ate, as Granville put it in his diary, “meat straight.” How they staved off scurvy he does not say.
When the weather softened enough to dig into the ground in 1858 the Stuarts and Anderson started prospecting. They had seen some flakes of free gold floating in Gold Creek and occasionally in other places. These sightings made them want to see more. Word spread that this region had wealth for the taking if you could find it.
Suffering from an economic depression in Minnesota, people welcomed the rumors of gold in the Far West. Lieutenant John Mullan, on the surveying party with Gov. Isaac I. Stevens in 1853, had seen the potential for a road from Fort Benton on the Missouri River to Walla Walla on the Columbia. Lewis and Clark had not found a “Northwest Passage,” but a wagon road linking the two great rivers would do the job nicely, Mullan thought.
People could travel upstream on the Missouri to Fort Benton, then by wagon to Walla Walla, and downstream on the Columbia all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Congress agreed, but in its usual fashion delayed over one thing and another (including the “Mormon War” of 1857-1858) so that it was not until June 1859 that work got underway.
The Mullan Road was completed in 1860, with improvements being made well into 1862 on account of damage done by winter snows and spring floods.
The new route enabled people to dream big.
They envisioned fortunes made in gold fields, of course, but even more, they began to see the entire region as pivotal in placing the United States within the family of Pacific nations. For land-locked Midwesterners, these dreams fueled their desire to go there.
In 1862, James Liberty Fisk led his first expedition, aiming for the gold fields of the Salmon River in Idaho. Besides the military guard that came along for protection, travelers in his train numbered 117 men and 13 women, including some who later figure in the Vigilante story: Nathaniel P. Langford; J. B. “Buz” Caven and his 17-year-old wife, Henrietta; Emma and George W. Biddle (dentist); James L. Fergus; George Brown; the Dalton family.
The train started on June 16, 1862, from St. Paul and traveled along the route surveyed by Gov. Isaac Stevens northward. At Fort Abercrombie, west of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, it followed along the Missouri, then the Milk River, until turning south to the Missouri River and on to Fort Benton. A large group of passengers left it in the Prickly Pear Valley to prospect for gold. When the train reached the Deer Lodge Valley about September 25, most of the other passengers, including Langford, Emma and B. B. Burchett, and Henrietta and J. M. Caven left the train. The Dalton family stayed behind at Hell Gate, on the Mullan Road three miles below present Missoula.
On September 18, Granville Stuart notes that he and Frank Woody met two young men named Henry Plummer and Charles Reeves. Reeves and Plummer were probably on their best behavior, for Granville wrote in the diary that Woody and he “liked their looks”. They had left for the Beaverhead diggings by September 21.
By October 1862, these people, among others, had met in Deer Lodge Valley:
Nathaniel P. Langford
Mr. and Mrs. J. M. “Buz” Caven
Mr. and Mrs. B. B. Burchett
In September 1862, there was still no Idaho Territory, or Montana Territory. The gold discovery at Bannack (the “Beaverhead Diggings”) would change the political makeup of the region for good.
The Mormon War. A Study of early Utah-Montana Trade, p. 26)
Granville Stuart, Forty Years on the Frontier, p. 129.
Mullan surveyed and planned the road so well that U. S. Highway 10 and later Interstate 90 between St. Regis, MT, and Coeur d’Alene, ID, follow much of the route of the old Mullan Road.
Helen McCann White, Minnesota, Montana, and Manifest Destiny, Helen McCann White, Minnesota History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June 1962) pp. 53-62. p. 54
Helen McCann White, ed. Ho! For the Gold Fields: Northern Overland Wagon Trains of the 1860s. MN Historical Society, St. Paul, 1966.
Granville Stuart, Forty years on the Frontier, p. 223.