by Pastor Dan White
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In September 2013, My wife, Joyce, and I attended the Immersion Seminar sponsored by Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, Montana. We stayed at the Copper Springs Ranch and enjoyed the beauty of the Montana Rockies, relaxed, met new friends, and grew in our faith through the nightly seminars.
The Seminar included two days and a night in Yellowstone and free time. We chose to travel to beautiful Palisades Falls in the Gallatin National Forest and also spent a day at Alder Gulch touring Virginia City and the ghost town of Nevada City.
Gold was discovered on May 26, 1863, at Alder Gulch by William Fairweather and a group of men, including Barney Hughes, Thomas Cover, Henry Rodgers, Henry Edgar and Mike Sweeney who were returning to the gold fields of Grasshopper Creek, Bannack, Montana, from the Yellowstone River.
They had left Bannack, Montana, a gold rush town, to prospect in far away Yellowstone Country but were waylaid by a band of Crow Indians who held them captive. They were finally released and forbidden to return to Crow territory. They were tenaciously pursued by Crow warriors to make sure they were gone for good. Through a combination of some skill and even more good fortune, they survived. The prospectors endured hunger, tough weather, and being frequently lost on their long journey back to Bannack.
About 81 miles from Bannack, the prospectors decided to spend the night at Alder Creek. Of course, they did a little prospecting and William Fairweather found gold in the creek while the rest of the men hunted game for supper.
The men could hardly eat their roasted antelope waiting for daybreak in order to pan the creek for gold. They couldn’t believe their eyes as almost each pan contained specks and nuggets of the valuable metal. Their dreams and hard work had begun to pay off.
They returned to Bannack for supplies vowing to keep their discovery a secret. But, who can keep a secret like that?
Word soon spread and within three months, the population along Alders Gulch swelled to over 10,000. Virginia City and Nevada City were born.
Virginia City became the territorial capital of Montana on May 26, 1864, and was instrumental in the territory becoming a state in 1889.
Many Confederates left the South and emigrated to Alder Gulch to search for gold. They wanted to avoid the catastrophic War Between the States that left their homeland desolated. They had rather pan for gold in the cold Alder Creek than perish at Cold Harbor.
When time came to name the largest and most important town along Alder Gulch, the Confederates wanted to name it Varina in honor of President Jefferson Davis’ wife. But the newly elected miners' court judge, G. G. Bissell, was a stubborn Unionist. He banged his gavel and said, “Absolutely not!” It will be named Virginia City.” As a good politician, he came up with a compromise that satisfied the Unionists and the Confederates. Virginia was a Confederate State.
One of the southerners who sought his fortune at Alder Gulch was Georgian John Bozeman from Pickens County in the North Georgia mountains. He left his wife and three daughters to never return.
Bozeman never struck it rich in The Gulch and came up with a better idea to make a fortune. He turned to leading wagon trains through the Gallatin River Valley in the heart of Sioux and Cheyenne Indian hunting grounds. His trail cut off 400 miles of the Oregon Trail over which emigrants used to travel to the West and to Alder Gulch. Bozeman’s trail was a shortcut to Virginia City. He led over 1,000 emigrants in wagon trains heading to Virginia City to search for gold.
The Indians weren’t happy that white prospectors and settlers were passing through their land over the Bozeman trail. This eventually caused two years of war (1866-1868) led by Sioux Chief Red Cloud.
Bozeman also realized that the fertile Gallatin Valley would grow wheat which was in short supply and expensive in the fourteen towns that sprang up along Alder Gulch including Virginia City.
The Virginia City newspaper reported in April, 1865, the results of the flour shortage and inflated prices. “Almost fiver hundred men marched in file armed with revolvers, rifles, shotguns or carbines. This force was under a leader on horseback, displaying an empty flour sack as a banner.” They confiscated every sack of flour they could find from the merchants to give to the starving citizens.
Claims for land belonging to the Indians were filed in the Gallatin River Valley which infuriated the Native Americans. Ranches, farming, and mills sprang up. Bozeman called the valley “the oasis of the mountains.” On August 9, 1864 the first official town meeting was held and it was resolved that the town be called “Bozeman.” That autumn, he built the town’s first flour mill and was instrumental in building the town’s first hotel.
Fortunes were made from the gold found in Alder Gulch and the spin-off businesses that formed because of it. It was raw American capitalism in full regalia.
There are at least two lasting effects of the gold rush along Alders Gulch. One was the formation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, our first national park. Prospectors were always on the look out for another gold strike and many hoped to find it in the Yellowstone River. They didn’t find another Alder Gulch, but they reported on the natural wonders they saw. The Montana newspapers reported it, and word got back to the East. Soon, geologists from the east journeyed west to see for themselves the astonishing geothermal phenomenon that makes Yellowstone one of the most unique places on our planet.
Half of the earth's geothermal features, are in Yellowstone, and the Park holds the planet's most diverse and intact collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. With more than 300 geysers, Yellowstone contains over one half of all those found on earth.
The other lasting effect was the economic impact Alder Gulch gold had on the Civil War’s Union victory. It has been said that "Virginia City gold won the Civil War for the North.”
Even though secessionist Southerners dominated the politics and population of Alder Gulch and the surrounding area, Alder Gulch gold would finance the Union’s war against the South. On June 22, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Sidney Edgerton governor of the Montana Territory to make sure it went to the Union’s benefit. He was a Radical Republican and Congressman from Ohio. To say he disliked the South is putting it mildly.
In turn, Edgerton was hated by many loyal Confederates living in Montana. They felt little loyalty, if any, to the United States, and some celebrated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those who flew the American Flag were often threatened with violence or death including Edgerton.
Montana gold backed the paper money issued by the Union assuring its continued value and acceptance by industrialists in the North and abroad. The prevention of that gold going into the coffers of the Confederacy led to its paper money becoming notoriously worthless since the government had very limited gold reserves. Thus, the gold from Virginia City had a pivotal effect on the economic stability of the North and its victory.
The discovery of gold in Alders Gulch certainly ranks among the most spectacular and significant gold discoveries ever made in the world. The present day equivalent value of gold that came out of the Gulch is $8 billion.
So, what happened to the men who struck it rich? Bill Fairweather spent most of his time emptying bottles of liquor. He squandered his fortune. His body wasted away from alcoholism, he died at age 39 at an inn called Robbers Roost in 1875.
Tom Cover made another fortune in orange gold. Looking for a new life, he bought a ranch in southern California in 1868 and planted naval oranges. However, the gold fever itch never left him. In 1879, he disappeared into the California desert searching for a legendary gold field. His body was never found.
Barney Hughes took his fortune to San Francisco and got rooked in a real estate deal. He returned to Virginia City without a penny and spent the rest of his life in Montana looking for another big gold strike. He died in a bed above a mercantile store in 1909. His worldly possessions consisted of only two horses, a pick, a gold mining pan, a shovel, and a few camping utensils.
Henry Edgar lost his fortune through a series of failed business ventures. He then homesteaded a little farm and would go out to the hills every spring after planting time to prospect for gold. In 1910, he died at age 85 from pneumonia.
Henry (Harry) Rodgers moved back to Nova Scotia, Canada, from where he left to go to the Montana gold country in Bannack and the subsequent Alders Gulch gold discovery. He died in his son’s home. Details of his post-Montana life are sketchy.
Mike Swinney joined an unsuccessful mining expedition to British Columbia, Canada, in 1868 and then spent many years traveling throughout the Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Washington, and Dakota territories prospecting for another Alder Gulch. He moved to Butte, Montana, in the late 1870’s and found work as a freighter and wood hauler. He moved to North Dakota in 1883 where he farmed until his death at age 96 in 1925.
And what of the Georgian John Bozeman? He and Tom Cover left Bozeman April 17, 1867, on horseback with a packhorse carrying bedding and provisions headed for Fort C. F. Smith on the Yellowstone River. They were going to see about an order from the fort for flour from their mill. On April 20, four Blackfeet Indians surrounded them. They shot and killed Bozeman, slightly injured Tom Cover, and stole the horses and most of their supplies.
These pioneers were rugged, hard working, risk taking individuals along with thousands of others who left their mark on the West and America.
The gold prospectors heard the stories of men who hit it big at Alder Gulch. They went with enthusiasm and anticipation. Many found their fortune and rejoiced. Their desire for wealth caused them to go through Indian territory where the Indians had turned hostile to protect their land. They were greeted by harsh Montana winters and lived in tents and shacks that barely kept out the bitter winter winds. They suffered privation and hunger in the hopes of striking it rich in the Alder Gulch gold rush.
We too have heard a story - the old Gospel story. With great anticipation and excitement we go with enthusiasm to our eternal destination where gold is so common that the streets are paved with it. We will live and rejoice in the presence of our Lord forever. Along the way, we go through hostile territory and often meet adversity at every turn. And like the determined pioneers of old, let us persevere by the grace of God until then. †
This weary world with all its toil and struggle
May take its toll of misery and strife;
But until then my heart will go on singing,
Until then with joy I'll carry on
Until the day my eyes behold the city.
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Your historical sketches give us a look at parts of our nation's life that we might have never paid much attention. Have you thought of putting these together in a very readable overview-introduction to history? I also like your about-face conclusion, comparing the lives of the prospectors to our life as followers of Jesus. Thanks once again for the interesting stories you write!