Tag Archives: God’s Thunderbolt

“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.

The Vigilantes Organize

During the trial of George Ives (December 19 – 21, 1863) hundreds of people milled about the main street in Nevada City, sometimes listening to the evidence, or wandering off in search of beer or food.

As they moved around, they heard other people’s stories and began to tell their own. And it dawned on them that a lot of them had had very similar experiences, run-ins with the same armed robbers, warnings like that George Ives gave Anton Holter: “If you value your life, you’ll keep quiet.” Or, “It could go harder with you next time.”
Up to now, fear had kept them silent because they were mostly strangers to each other and did not know whom they could trust.

But safety in numbers gave them courage.

It did something else, too. They began to think past the general notion that ‘someone ought to do something.’

Two groups of men decided independently and unknown to each other that ‘something’ was up to them.

One group, perhaps led by John S. Lott, with his brother Mortimer, was in Nevada City, and the other was in Virginia City.

The Virginia City group began as an idea discussed privately between Wilbur Fisk Sanders and Paris S. Pfouts. Years later, Sanders wrote an account of forming the group that Thomas Josiah Dimsdale later dubbed “The Vigilantes of Montana.”

In his account, he recalls that he and Pfouts “on two occasions in November 1863, walked up Daylight Gulch in what is now Wallace Street above Van Buren Street, but which was then untrodden sagebrush” (p. 5).(1) They discussed the possibility of a vigilance committee. By then, Sanders writes, “…the trade (i.e., occupation) of blood was being pursued with increasing intensity as more and more the murders (i.e., murderers) counted on immunity from punishment for their crimes.”

God's Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winnerl

God’s Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winner

They talked over who might be willing to listen to the idea, and who might be opposed. Each man suggested a few names and agreed to broach the subject to them.
As Masons who believed in the rule of law, and despite their widely separate political views, both men found it difficult to consider a vigilance committee. An attorney, Sanders may have found it especially difficult, but continued threats and intimidation from the ruffians (or roughs as they were known) during and after the Ives trial convinced him that a vigilance committee was the only solution available.

Sanders recalls,

“Of course the objections to the movement were fully considered. The immunities which the constitution of the country and the laws of the United States and of the subordinate organizations of territories drew around the citizen gave no warrant to a movement of this kind, but it seemed that such movement was not in defiance of such immunities because neither the constitution or the laws were present to assert themselves or to secure to the citizens of this region that protection which they were meant to supply ….” (p.6) (Emphasis mine.)

Sanders is mistaken in saying the Constitution was not present, because it was reprinted in the “Organic Act” for every new territory that Congress authorized. However, given the formation of Idaho from other territories on March 4, 1863, Congress overlooked its duty to assure that the laws of one of these territories passed down to Idaho Ty.(2)

Because of that oversight, there was no legal code in Idaho Territory between March 4, 1863, when the Idaho Territorial Legislature was convened, and February 4, 1864, after the Vigilantes had taken control of the gold region.
Sanders writes,

We felt that the constitution and laws had abdicated their functions here and while no one was to blame therefor, the right to protect ourselves had returned in all its fullness. (p. 6)

Sanders here refers to the natural law that underlies the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That is, when Constitutional law fails to protect citizens because it is perverted by the powerful as in San Francisco during the 1850’s, or because it is absent as in the gold fields of Idaho/Montana in 1863-1865, people have the right to fall back on natural law and protect themselves.(3)

Sanders goes on to explain that Constitutional laws could not

“secure to the citizens of this region that protection which they were meant to supply and which was the consideration and motive of the community and citizen in surrendering the inalienable right to enjoy in freedom and peace the inalienable natural rights of man.” (Emphasis mine.)

When Sanders, Pfouts, John Nye, and one or two other frightened men met in Nye’s tin shop to form the Vigilance Committee, they put sheets of tin over the windows and huddled around a shaded candle. So powerful were the ruffians, the criminal element known as the “roughs,” that even Sanders, who had defied them all in open court, whispered.

With Ives hanged, the roughs’ rage burned white hot. They shook their fists and shouted that Sanders and others were dead men.

Yet the Vigilance Committee grew. They met again and elected officers. Some people reported that they took an oath of mutual loyalty and secrecy, and perhaps they did, but it was never written down.

Sanders writes,

“The Vigilance Committee proper kept no written account of its transactions, had no secretary, nor any ritual or other document reduced to writing.” (p. 18)

They had trained memories that kept track of people’s accounts of being robbed at gunpoint and nearly being killed.

At a subsequent meeting, probably on Christmas Day 1863, they wrote the bylaws, or “bye-laws” as it was spelled in the nineteenth century.

As this edition of the newsletter is long enough, I’ve decided to split it in two. Today’s article on the rationale for forming the Vigilance Committee will be followed on Nov. 16 by the article on the bylaws, and more information on who the Vigilantes were.

1*Sanders, Wilbur F. “Account of forming the Vigilance Committee,” Montana Historical Society Archives, MC53, 1903(?). Sanders’ recollection is corroborated by John Nye, in an account held in the Montana Historical Society Archives, MC53.Box 4 Folder 8.
2 For more information on the formation of Idaho Territory, see the website of the Idaho Historical Society: https://history.idaho.gov/territorial-history
3 There is, by the way, no record of Sanders having discussed this idea with his uncle, the Chief Justice of Idaho Territory, Sidney Edgerton, who would be named Governor of Montana Territory six or seven months later. Edgerton himself later denied any connection with the Vigilantes.