Author Archives: Carol Buchanan

About Carol Buchanan

I write historical Westerns about the Vigilantes of Montana, who were forced to make dangerous decisions where ruffians ruled and murder was tolerated. They discovered a widespread criminal conspiracy during a murder trial and went on to hang the criminals. When the region was safe, they maintained law and order until a Territorial Government was in place. I'm at home in NW Montana, surrounded by national forests, wilderness areas, and close to the Spine of the Continent.

Women’s Strength, Women’s Courage

We need our fathers and grandfathers, our brothers, our sons — in short, we need our men because they are not like us women. They have admirable qualities we don’t, and yes, they have less admirable ones, too. But so do we.

We are all in this human condition thing together.

Most of the time, that is.

Sometimes women are forced to do without the men they depended on.

I’ve heard hair-raising stories of Montana women’s courage from their descendants, their grandsons and granddaughters, about the astonishing courage of their grandmothers.

Elizabeth Ledford Williams, for example, married James Williams, the Executive Officer of the Montana Vigilantes. They had seven children. Driven to despair, probably by his inability to save the cattle starving by the thousands during the dreadful winter of 1886-1887, Williams committed suicide. We’ll never know how much he may have suffered from what we now call PTSD, brought on by the actions he and the other Vigilantes took during the winter of 1863-1864. But they made the region safe for the law-abiding.

His widow carried on, running the ranch with the help of her children. She also taught school to help pay the bills.

One of her great-granddaughters told me that her grandfather, Elizabeth’s youngest child, said, “It was a good thing there was fish in the river, or we would have starved.”

Another descendant, a great-great grandson, wrote, “The courage of Elizabeth is unimaginable.”

The Virginia City Water Company — part 2

Depending on the source, perhaps in North Carolina, or more likely in Jonesboro, TN, a baby girl was born in slavery. Given the conditions in which slaves were maintained, it is not difficult to understand why the child’s birthplace is so difficult to establish. Her parents may not have been allowed to marry; in some places, African Americans were prohibited by law from marrying. The date of this little girl’s birth is not known for a certainty. Historian Ellen Baumler gives the day as Christmas Day, and the year as 1852, 1855, or 1856. Other sources are more certain that she was born in 1852. She was named Sarah, and her mother’s owner – and therefore her owner – may have been John Blair III, a Tennessee landowner who died in 1863. Settling his estate may have been the cause for selling both Sarah’s mother and father, Dr. Baumler suggests. At any rate the parents were sold, Sarah later told people, and she never saw them again.
We can only guess at the lifelong heartache this must have caused both the parents and their daughter.
Sarah went to live with her aunt and uncle, who were both free blacks after slaves were freed by the Civil War. She changed her name to Gammon, her aunt’s surname.
At this point the circumstances of her life become more clear. In 1871, she traded passage to Virginia City, Montana Territory, in return for looking after the children of John Luttrell Murphy, the newly appointed associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court for District One in Virginia city. Although Murphy remained in Montana, Sarah stayed until the end of her days, in 1931.

Sarah Gammon Bickford

Sarah Gammon Bickford


In 1872 she married a successful African American miner named John Brown, who became abusive of Sarah and the children, two boys and a girl. The boys died of diphtheria, and Sarah fled. In November 1880, she divorced Brown. Montana had provided abuse and abandonment as just causes for divorce since the first legislative assembly in 1864, and Sarah had ample cause. She also had an able advocate in Samuel Word, who was widely known and respected as having been among the first settlers in Alder Gulch. Eventually, John Brown died.
Moving to Laurin with her daughter, Eva, she went to work as a housemaid in the Adaline Laurin household. Not long after, she moved back to Virginia City, where she opened up her own restaurant, the New City Bakery and Restaurant. An advertisement in the Madisonian on May 29, 1880, attracts boarders with lunches “at all hours” and cakes, pies and confectionary constantly on hand. (A boarded paid a monthly fee that covered all the meals he or she ate. A lodger both ate and slept at an establishment, but there is no mention that Sarah took in lodgers at any time.)
In 1882 Eva died at the age of nine. Her heartbroken mother married again In 1883, this time uniting with Stephen Bickford, a white miner and farmer who had come to Montana during the 1863 gold rush. They had four children. In 1888, the couple bought a two-thirds interest in the water company, and for two years Sarah kept the books. As a side business of her own, she ran a truck garden from which she sold garden produce and poultry to local customers.
After Stephen Bickford died in 1900, Sarah bought the last one-third piece of the Virginia City Water Company, becoming sole owner. Having no education in managing a business concern with all its assets and debts, and employees, Sarah took a business correspondence course. (Correspondence schools were the equivalent of accredited online education before the Internet.) She coped single-handedly with all the problems a business must face. Among other problems, she handled complaints about water quality, delivery of an inadequate supply, and disputes about bills. Human nature being what it is, undoubtedly people complained about a woman – and a black woman at that – owning a utility company. But she persevered, despite everything, including even business turndowns such as the Panic of 1893, and those of the early twentieth century.
One serious problem involved deteriorating water pipes. To build the water lines in the fall of 1864, tree trunks were augured out to form pipes. By 1920, she had replaced many of them, and no doubt replacements had to be made after that. (Elmer Bickford, her son, did much of the day-to-day maintenance.)
Eventually, she bought the “Hangman’s Building,” where the Vigilantes had hanged the five road agents from a single beam on January 14, 1864. One report mentions that she cut a trapdoor into the attic so people could peek at the beam for a small fee. It was the headquarters of the Virginia City Water Company at least until Sarah Bickford’s death in 1931.
Sarah Bickford’s example reminds us all of the strength of the human spirit, the strength of faith and will we can all call on in tough times. Woman or man, black or white, in all ages perhaps the single most important ingredient to success, and sometimes survival, is the courage to persevere. Sarah Bickford had these qualities in ample supply.

“Water! Water!”

Virginia City had a water problem. You might not think that would be the case, considering that Bill Fairweather, Henry Cover, and their friends discovered gold right in Alder Creek on May 26, 1863. Within days a gold rush was on. A gold camp sprang up on its banks, and within a few months became a town.
The building boom and the gold rush, though, had competing interests in the water. Both brought in scores of people. Although they all came for the gold, they had opposite goals. Settlers built the town, and those who had brought their families made their homes there. Miners appear mostly to have wanted to dig the gold and take it home. Or they tried to, during the era of the Plummer Gang.
During 1863, few people appear to have thought about the necessity for clean water for drinking and cooking. (At least I haven’t found references to it in letters and diaries of the Montana Gold Rush.)
Early in 1864, however, a typhus epidemic struck. It was not generally known at the time that overcrowding, malnutrition, and foul water caused (and do cause) typhus. (In my novel God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, Martha McDowell and her friends Lydia Hudson and Berry Woman fight the typhus epidemic.)

God's Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winnerl

God’s Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winner


Nor did they generally know that the ultimate cause was explained by “germ theory,” now a central tenet of modern medicine.
Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye invading and reproducing in humans and animals can cause disease. Although germs had long been suspected as the causes of disease, germ theory was as debatable in the nineteenth century as are the causes of climate change now. That changed after Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist, proved it correct between 1860-1864 by identifying the cause (germs) of puerperal fever that killed so many women after childbirth.
The general public, including doctors, did not realize that bites from fleas, mites (chiggers), lice, and ticks transmit typhus bacteria. Or that unclean medical implements carry the germs, too. Symptoms of typhus include fever of 102˚or higher, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Other causes allow the disease to spread: overcrowding, poor diet, poor sanitation, and crowding. Those same conditions exist in war, and in areas of poverty.
And they existed in the Alder Gulch mining camps.
By the summer of 1864, an estimated 20,000 people lived in the “14-mile city” along Alder Creek, the primary stream, and along its tributary creeks, such as Daylight Creek that flows through Virginia City into Alder Creek.
The pressure on these sources of water must have been intense. Between the height of spring run-off and low water in the later summer and fall, miners claimed the water as their own.
Then came The Montana Post. It began publication on August 27, 1864, under the ownership of John Buchanan (no relation), who had brought his printing press to Virginia City. The September 8, 1864, issue announced the change of ownership and a new editorial direction – toward the Union. Daniel Webster Tilton had bought the paper and very soon installed Thomas J. Dimsdale as editor.
After publishing a puff piece about Virginia City on September 17 that mentioned “water good and wholesome” as one of the city’s attractive features, Dimsdale apparently changed his mind. Also, during this time, a group of men formed a water company and began to dig a ditch for laying pipes from a spring about a mile and a half up in the mountains.
On October 15, 1864, Dimsdale wrote an article headlined simply “The Waterworks.”
“Good water, and plenty of it, is a necessity as well as a luxury, and the most unthinking will prefer water conveyed in pipes, to the same fluid mixed with all the various and horrible impurities that the most casual inspection cannot fail to detect in the branch which is the main source of supply to the inhabitants of Virginia City.” (p. 2)
He continued, “The works are progressing rapidly. Four augers are at work boring the logs, and the ditch will be ere long completed. There seems to be a prejudice on the part of some of the miners against the undertaking, but a little reflection will … show it to be groundless….”
Miners considered that they owned the water in the streams, and said so plainly in the “Fairweather Mining District Laws,” which Dimsdale printed in the Post, October 22, 1864.
“Section 16: The water in any creek or gulch shall belong exclusively to the miners of the creek or gulch.”
If that weren’t strong enough, the miners backed up their claim to possession in Section 18:
“The interest of the holder or holders, of any creek or gulch claim is hereby declared to be a chattle (sic) interest, consisting of the right to the possession of the land and the water thereupon, inseparable and indivisible except by the consent of the party or parties in interest, made in due form of law, and then only to such an extent, as shall not impair or infringe the rights of others.”***
And finally, Section 19:
“No person, or persons or company shall have the right by pre-emption, or otherwise to claim and hold an exclusive right or privilege in or to any portion of the water in any creek or gulch in the district, except as herein provided, and any ditch, pipe, channel flume or other means of conveyance … which may hereafter be made by which the water in any creek or gulch in the district shall be diverted from its original channel … without leaving in the creek or gulch the quantity of water belonging to each claim, is hereby declared to be a public nuisance….”****
Dimsdale also came down hard on the necessity of water to put out fires “in our town of wood,” as he wrote on November 12, 1864.
“Without this (water) being on hand in quantity, buckets are about as useful as thimbles to thirsty men.” He goes on to advocate several other modes of dousing fires, all of which sound not much more useful than buckets, but would only work even marginally if the water source were not close by.***** (p. 2)
The Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly would not meet until December 12, 1864, and there were no laws in effect in the territory. Created on May 26, 1864, from Idaho and Dakota Territories, Montana had no laws of its own because Congress did not stipulate that Idaho law passed down to Montana Territory. The only effective law in the Territory that pertained to the Alder Gulch region was this mining code.
Nonetheless, the water company pressed on.
In a lengthy article on November 19, Dimsdale reported, “The water is now brought close to the Shakespeare restaurant on Idaho Street.”
He describes the necessity for good water as a public health measure:
“We are firmly of opinion that more than half of the sickness in this town is traceable to carelessness in the selection of water for drinking and culinary purposes. Any person may satisfy himself of the correctness of our ideas on the subject, who will take a walk around the town and examine the condition of the pools and streams from which a large number of our citizens are in the habit of obtaining their daily supply. The water is not in a condition for any human being to drink. Regard to health being thrown out of the account, pleasure and taste must be both out-voted, or no one could think of imbibing the turbid and impure element.”
On November 26, he reported,
“The pipes for the supply of water are now being laid in Main street, and another week’s labor will see the whole city supplied. Any one wishing to have the water conducted into his or her house, can have it done by applying to the proprietors of the water works.”
The cost for having water brought into one’s house was $2.00 per month, which Dimsdale considered reasonable, although a high wage for the time was $30 per month.
In addition, he noted that having an adequate water supply in town would be a benefit in case of fire.
The miners did not give up. They petitioned the legislature on December 10 to grant no charter to the water company. Dimsdale lapsed into editorializing when he wrote,
“…the opponents … are actuated by a desire to run their own grindstone at the expense of the health of the entire body of the citizens.” (Montana Post, December 10, 1864)
The petition failed, and Virginia City soon had a water company.
~~~~~~
In March I’ll publish part 2, of this “Water” story. In 1890 a remarkable person became owner and manager of the Virginia City Water Company.
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Notes
*“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” So goes a famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1789 as one of the Lyrical Ballads, which changed English literary history.

**The tree line in that high desert country is the reverse of what it is in wetter places. In a desert country, trees do not grow on hillsides lower than a few thousand feet above sea level, where they can get enough moisture. The trees around Virginia City are of the shorter varieties, juniper. Hardly trees at all (at least compared to the towering pines at higher elevations).

***Chattel (not chattle) property is any property, whether movable or immovable, except real estate and the buildings on it. (Its use in this context separates a mining claim form real estate. Later on, a dispute arose in the Legislature over whether or not to consider claims as real estate. The implications of that aren’t clear to me. Yet.)

****Pre-emption is the right of ownership to a piece of land by virtue of being the first to claim it. After the Civil War, and into the 20th century, people often moved onto a piece of land and build shacks or houses on it, claiming ownership to it by right of pre-emption, or being the first to live on it. Many of them later filed for ownership on the land as theirs under the Homestead Act of 1862, and the courts in the local areas upheld their claims. (It’s now spelled preemption.)

*****Those of you who are acquainted with Virginia City, can imagine putting out a fire anywhere above Wallace or Idaho streets along Jackson or Van Buren streets. Picture passing buckets up the hill from either Daylight creek or Alder creek. By the time the first bucket had reached the fire, the building might well have burned to the ground.