Backtracking a little from my previous post, “In the Beginning,” by early fall of 1862, the little settlement of Hell Gate had been established as a trading stop for travelers heading east or west along the Mullan Road. The wagon train led by James Liberty Fisk stopped there on the way from Minnesota to the Salmon River (Idaho) gold fields. Captain John Mullan’s bright idea, linking the Missouri and Columbia Rivers by a wagon road, paid off for settlers in (then) Washington Territory.
Hell Gate never had much of a population. Historians number only 14 permanent residents, but it was important in early Montana history, because some notable names at one time or another during its brief life stayed there for varying periods.
Typical of Montana settlements, it had a saloon (owned by Peter J. Botte), a blacksmith shop, and Worden & Co.’s general store, owned by Christopher P. Higgins and Frank L. Worden.
Atypically, however, it also had a church. Father DeSmet founded St. Mary’s in 1861.
You can see the log church, the oldest building in Montana, at Old Fort Missoula, where it was moved to prevent it from rotting away or being demolished by the growth of population spreading out from modern Missoula. A gas station now stands on the site of Hell Gate.
The names “Hell Gate” and “Missoula” come from the same Native word meaning an opening to a mountain pass or canyon and implying to a place of dread or darkness.
With the nearest post office at Walla Walla (450 miles west), and the seat of government for Washington Territory at Olympia, nearly 800 miles away (as roads went in 1862), people in the Hell Gate region were pretty well left on their own to administer justice if conflicts arose.
Conflicts did arise. One resulted in the first trial in what would be Montana.
Adolphe Dubreuil, aka “Tin Cup Joe,” accused Cornelius C. “Baron” O’Keefe of malicious destruction of property and animal cruelty for shooting his horse. Two versions of the case differ in what the horse did, but they agree that the animal ate grain or hay that O’Keeffe needed for his own use. One version says that O’Keeffe, an Irishman of uncertain, quick temper, drove the horse out of his barn with the result that the panicked animal fell into a partly dug root cellar and died of its injuries before it could be hauled out. The second version has O’Keeffe blasting away at the frightened creature.
A jury of 12 men was empaneled in Botte’s saloon, the only space large enough to hold a trial. O’Keeffe defended himself, saying that he shot the horse in self-defense. Frank Woody represented Tin Cup Joe, and painted a horrifying picture of how people would be frightened away from the region for fear of desperadoes like O’Keeffe.
Not surprisingly, O’Keeffe with “blood in his eye” (according to McAdow), attacked the judge, Henry R. Brooks. O’Keeffe demanded, “Say, old Brooks, who in hell made you Judge?”
Brooks said that he had been commissioned by the authority of Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory.
McAdow reports that O’Keeffe called Brooks a “fraud,” and said, “You’re nothing but a squaw-man living with two squaws at the present time. You and Frank (Woody) are a disgrace to the community and should be driven out.” There was more, but Woody started for O’Keeffe, intending to break a chair over his head, and the fight soon involved every man in the place until the saloon owner, Peter J. Botte, managed to make himself heard. (A club may have helped quiet things, too.) The trial proceeded. Judge Brooks instructed the jury to go quietly to the shack behind Higgins’s and Worden’s store, examine the evidence carefully, and bring in a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
O’Keeffe, restored to his usual bonhomie, treated everyone to a drink on him, but it had no effect. He was fined either $40 or $10 (depending who tells the story) and costs (perhaps for broken furniture) of the trial.
Neither account of the trial mentions James Stuart, Granville’s older brother, who had been elected sheriff of Missoula county.
In the fall of 1862 word spread by word of mouth, or bush telegraph, that a group of men led by John White had made big gold strike on Grasshopper Creek, in the Beaverhead country, almost 200 miles due south of Hell Gate.
There a settlement named Bannack, for the Bannock Indians that claimed the ground, mushroomed like most mining towns. As word of the gold strike spread, men left the Bitterroot and rushed to Bannack.
Hell Gate settled down, but nearly two years later, it was the scene of a much larger drama, involving the Vigilantes of Montana.