Category Archives: historical Western

“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.
*“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.

Thomas J. Dimsdale, Author, Educator, Editor

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.

A Friendship Forged in Danger: Neil Howie and John Featherstun

Thomas J. Dimsdale in his book The Vigilantes of Montana tells how Henry Plummer recruited likely members of his gang of road agents. Plummer stopped to exchange the time of day with a miner named Neil Howie who was working his claim. Howie, mud-crusted and cold from standing in icy water, his back aching from digging down into the creek bed, was polite but not over-friendly. He knew Plummer.

Sitting his horse, Plummer said, “That’s mighty hard work for damn little return.”

“I know it,” said Howie.

“There’s a way you could make a lot more money without killing yourself.” Plummer acted the part of a genial fellow letting another in on a good thing, much as one man might tip another to a fixed horse race, or which saloon had the best beer.

Howie, being smart, said he didn’t think he’d take Plummer up on his suggestion just now: he hadn’t got to the end of what he might find in this claim.

Plummer acted unconcerned. “Have it your own way.” And then his manner changed from affable to menacing. “Keep this conversation to yourself if you know what’s good for you.”

“Don’t worry. I will.” As he watched Plummer ride away, Howie didn’t only shiver from the cold water.

He had arrived in Bannack on September 8, 1862, with the Woodmansee freight train carrying provisions that saved the miners from starvation.

In the fall of 1863 he went to Salt Lake City and bought a freight outfit of his own, loaded it up with supplies, and returned to Alder Gulch.

On the return trip, late in December, Howie met Ben Peabody, of Peabody and Caldwell, owners of the first stage line in Alder Gulch. Their stage had been robbed in October, and Peabody was now headed for Salt Lake “with a cayuse pack train for goods.” (The Vigilantes were not yet fully organized after the trial of George Ives, December 19-21, 1863.)

Peabody filled Howie in on recent events, including the robbery of Leroy Southmayde in late November and the attempted armed robbery of Milt Moody’s train in early December.

The Moody robbers had been identified as Dutch John Wagner and Steve Marshland, and every freighter on the road to Salt Lake had been warned to be on the lookout for Dutch John, who had escaped and was heading south with an Indian companion. Every man in three nearby trains promised to lend a hand in capturing him.

Dutch John had been shot in the upper chest during the Moody robbery, but had made his way to Bannack, where his wound was taken care of. Attempting to flee Bannack on foot with an Indian companion, he carried his saddle, intending to steal a fine, fast horse pastured at a ranch on Horse Prairie.

People talk. Word of Dutch John’s intentions came to the ears of the horse’s owner, who gathered some men and stopped him before he reached the ranch. They “confiscated” his saddle and gave him an old mule to ride, and two blankets.

Not long after this encounter, Dutch John and his companion came in sight and were recognized. But not a man would help Howie capture him, even though they outnumbered Dutch John considerably, and carried an arsenal of revolvers, shotguns, and rifles. In his effort to be fair, Dimsdale admits that Dutch John was not a man to be trifled with. He was about six feet tall and strongly built, with a gunman’s reputation.

Which probably put him on even ground with Neil Howie, who had a similar reputation with a pistol.

When Dutch John met the first train – Peabody’s – he carried a rifle, but even so, he must have made quite a sight riding bareback on the disreputable mule. When he asked for tobacco, the men told him they had none, but that a large train down below might have some. Howie, who was with them, could not persuade anyone to help arrest him.

After Dutch John rode off, Howie mounted his horse and went after him. He caught up to Wagner, made an excuse about borrowing a shoeing hammer from that next train, and rode on.

With Wagner behind him and armed with a rifle, Howie’s back felt prickly, but he rode to the train where he asked for help. And got none.

The same story played out at the third wagon train. Among all three trains on the road that day, not one of perhaps thirty men would help Neil Howie apprehend the dangerous fugitive.

So he decided to go it alone.

Neil Howie walked up to a desperate man armed with a rifle and no compunction about using it, together with a friend who carried a full quiver of arrows.

Howie disarmed Dutch John. Dimsdale attributes that to Howie’s own reputation for speed with his revolver.

Then John Featherstun, whom Howie had not met before, offered to help take the outlaw back to Bannack. Where Henry Plummer was Sheriff. Howie did not like Plummer, but at this point he may not have been aware of Plummer’s role as the leader of the outlaw gang that had been terrorizing travelers for nearly a year.

Together the two men rode toward Bannack with Dutch John, who made two unsuccessful attempts to escape. By the time they reached the town, Howie and Featherstun had become fast friends.

At Horse Prairie, just above Bannack, Howie suggested that he would go into town and make sure it would be safe to bring in Wagner. Featherstun agreed to wait an hour, and built a fire to keep himself and Wagner warm.

By now, from Dimsdale’s account, the Vigilantes had organized in Nevada City and Virginia City, and a contingent had ridden to Bannack to organize a group there that very evening. That would explain Neil Howie’s failure to return to the camp. He was participating in organizing the Bannack Vigilantes under the leadership of Wilbur F. Sanders.

But after waiting two hours, Featherstun rode into Bannack with Dutch John. They put up the animals, and sought a warm place to wait. Featherstun was unacquainted in Bannack, but he was smart enough to be wary of turning Wagner over to anyone but Howie. He and Wagner walked to a saloon, where they sat down to wait until Howie could find them. They played cards and drank some beer.

From this point, the story seems to have become a deadly comedy of errors, with Howie looking for Featherstun, who was determined to hold onto his prisoner, while the road agents Ned Ray and Buck Stinson (who were Plummer’s deputies and members of the gang) gathered forces to rescue Dutch John, and the Vigilantes got organized in Bannack, and everybody – Vigilantes and road agents – came and went from one saloon to another.

At last, thanks in part to John Featherstun’s courage and intelligence in picking out whom he could trust, and Neil Howie’s return with other Vigilantes, Dutch John was apprehended and kept prisoner until the Vigilantes could try him according to the rules in their by-laws.

They hanged Dutch John Wagner on January 11, 1864.


Howie and Featherstun remained life-long friends after their Vigilante days.

According to The Montana Post (February 17, 1866) they served together as officers in the Second Montana Volunteers, Howie as Colonel and Featherstun as Major.

Howie played the more prominent part in Montana’s early history of law and order, becoming Sheriff of Madison County and later, U. S. Marshal, naming both John Featherstun and John X. Beidler as Deputy Marshalls. In the early 1870’s, Howie sought a warmer climate, and moved to Florida, where he died of a fever in 1874.

Featherstun went into partnership in the Hotel Tremont in Virginia City. In the March 2, 1867, issue of The Montana Post the editor remarked that as “chief of the hotel calaboose” he also served dinner to two inmates. On June 15, 1867, his arrival in Virginia City after a trip “looking well and hearty” is the last reference to him in the Post. After that, his later career, as well as the dates of his birth and death are unknown.

Have you anything to add to this story? Feel free to respond in the comments. I’d enjoy hearing from you.