Hell Gate

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.

St. Mary's Catholic Church

St. Mary’s is the oldest building in Montana, constructed in Hell Gate in 1861 and moved to Old Fort Missoula, where it stands today.

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.

In the Beginning of Montana …

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:

James Stuart
Granville Stuart
Robert Hereford
Nathaniel P. Langford
Mr. and Mrs. J. M. “Buz” Caven
Mr. and Mrs. B. B. Burchett
Henry Plummer
Charles Reeves

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.