Baby, It’s Cold Outside

We’ve a cold snap or two this winter, and it made me think of how our forbears endured winter in Montana’s Gold Country during the Vigilante era. When you step into a nice hot shower on a frigid morning, think of them.

If you’ve read the books in my “Vigilante Quartet,” you’ll find the people breaking the ice on the water buckets in order to get a drink of water at night. Washing in the morning was usually confined to faces and behind the ears because they had to find water and tote it home in buckets. Many people drank the water from the creeks, and used it to wash themselves and their clothes. Dan Stark, the hero in my four novels, has dug his own well, but to have water in the house he pumps it out of the ground and carries it into the house. Once the water is in the house, his wife Martha, boils it to be sure it’s clean.

Men either shaved in icy water or they heated it on a fire or stove before shaving. They coated their faces with lather from soap, or special shaving soap – if they could find any, or if they could afford it.

People recycled water. They had a system of buckets for clean water, once-used (gray) water, and slops. Slop buckets were emptied anywhere in the yard, as were the gray water buckets when they grew too dirty.

Winters were colder then, started earlier in the year, and lasted longer. The stories you’ve heard about sewing children into their long underwear for the winter may have been true in many cases, but the sad fact is that before central heating, the only warm spot in a room was in front of the fireplace or the stove. If you faced the heat source, your back was cold. If you turned your back to the heat, your front was cold.
It took a brave person to take a complete bath when the outside temperature hovered around thirty-below. Or colder. Mercury freezes at -37.894 F and -38.83 Celsius. Accounts of life in Gold Country during the winters of 1862 through 1865 often refer to mercury freezing in the thermometers, so people did not really know how cold it was.

The old Christmas poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” refers to “Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap.” People covered their heads at night, and often slept with bed socks on, too.

Parents of small children rose several times in the night to be certain the little ones had not come uncovered, and it was not unusual for babies to sleep between their parents for warmth before they moved to a bed with their older siblings. Again, stories you might read or hear about children sleeping 8 to a bed arose from the need to keep warm.

One very brave woman, Anna Gould Hough, was married to the Rev. Asahel Hough, the first Methodist missionary to Montana. A story about her reveals her determination and courage. When the Methodist bishops offered her husband an opportunity to carry Christianity to Montana Territory, they told Rev. Hough he could not bring his wife with him. The region was considered no place for a decent woman, and in fact, the bishops said, “There are no decent women in that place.” *

When she heard that, Mrs. Hough replied, “Then it is high time there was one.” She refused to be separated from her husband.

The men had no choice but to yield.

The Houghs founded a Methodist congregation in Virginia City and built the Methodist church at the foot of Jackson Street. The cold winters defeated Mrs. Hough, though, and her health broke. She developed a “pleurisy of the ear.” (Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, the lining of the chest cavity and the lining around the lungs that makes breathing painful and difficult.) Her hearing was damaged, and her general health was affected so that after four years, the Houghs moved to Los Angeles, where he helped to found a Methodist college now known as the University of Southern California. Mrs. Hough (1829-1919) was an older sister of Jay Gould (1836 – 1892), known as “the robber baron’s robber baron.” He was also very generous to his sisters and brother, however, and helped them and their families financially whenever they needed it.

*Had they known about that remark, Mary (Mrs. Sidney) Edgerton and her nieces, Harriet (Mrs. Wilbur) Sanders and Lucia Darling, would have been insulted.

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.