When US 20 leaves the western bounds of Yellowstone Park, it passes through the small southern tip of Montana for about ten miles. Montana therefore deserves a spot of recognition in this tale. Let’s focus on the gold rush to Montana during the Civil War, and on two Yankees and a Georgia Unionist who played interesting and important roles in its history.
John Bozeman was from Pickens County in north-central Georgia, near the part of Tennessee that was Unionist in sentiment during the Civil War — the county raised a battalion to serve in the Union army. In 1860, a year before the war began, John, twenty-three, left his wife and children to go west to Colorado to prospect for gold. In 1863, he was in western Montana shortly after the discovery of gold in what came to be the Bannack area.
Bozeman, like others, felt there was more money to be made supplying the needs of the miners than in panning for gold flakes. He went south to Denver, and returned with a wagon full of supplies and tools. Instead of going west and then north along the Oregon Trail to Montana, he opted to head straight north along the now Wyoming-Nebraska boundary, through Sioux treaty lands. He managed to evade both the Army and the Sioux, and brought his supplies into the goldfields from the east, creating what was called the Bozeman Trail. He was successful in showing that an easier route lay in going around the Yellowstone plateau to the east than by taking a longer western route.
The next year, 1864, he brought a whole wagon train of emigrants along his trail in a contest with Jim Bridger, a mountain man and guide, to see which way, east or west, around the Yellowstone plateau was the fastest. They both reached the goldfields within hours of each other, but Bozeman’s disregard for treaty territory set off Indian attacks against the small Army posts along the Bozeman Trail.
Bozeman led a group that platted a new town, which was named after himself. He was killed in 1867, while going south into Indian territory once again to search for a better route. His partner in this survey said he was killed in a Sioux ambush, but there were strong rumors that Bozeman had been paying too much attention to the man’s wife, and might have been murdered. In the end, Indian hostility put an end to the usefulness of the Bozeman Trail, even though the Army opened three new forts near the route. They were inadequately garrisoned, however, and both the potential users of the trail and the Sioux knew that.
Nelson Story was born in central Ohio to a New Hampshire Yankee couple who had moved west to find better land. In 1863, when he was twenty-five and an experienced “bullwhacker,” driving wagons from Kansas City to Denver, he heard of the gold finds in Montana. He purchased some ox teams and mules and took them north to the goldfields, where he sold them for a good profit. Then he struck it rich with a gold find, and in 1866, with the Civil War over and the South devastated, he took his money, went to Texas, and bought somewhere between one and three thousand head of longhorns to take to the railhead in Arkansas, bound for the Chicago market.
Story changed direction when he was told that jayhawkers, a pro-Union gang that preyed on Confederate-sympathizing people of the area around the railhead, were robbing the cattle drovers as well. Instead, he headed toward Montana, where in 1867 he sold his herd for ten times his cost. Then he got involved in the grain business, started a bank, and became Bozeman’s leading citizen. His son added to the family fortunes when he became a property developer in Los Angeles CA.
Finally, there was a Mainer Yankee, Henry Plummer. He was born into a seafaring family, but because of his slight build and his having a “touch” of consumption, or tuberculosis, the family felt he was not fit to follow the family trade. In 1852, at age nineteen, Plummer left home to try his luck in California. Like many others, Plummer sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and then caught a ship north for San Francisco. In the goldfields, he soon prospered, owning a ranch and shares in a gold-mining venture. He sold his shares and used the money to buy a bakery in Nevada City, then the third-largest city in California.
In 1856, residents encouraged him to run for sheriff, and he won, becoming, at twenty-four, the youngest sheriff in the state. Then things went wrong. He discovered he had a talent with the ladies. Plummer was accused of paying too close attention to the wife of a local miner. They fought a duel, and Plummer won. He was convicted of second-degree murder, but served only a few months of his ten-year term when fellow residents petitioned the governor for a pardon on health grounds. and he was released.
He then began visiting the Nevada City brothels instead of taking care of business, went broke, and joined a gang of stagecoach robbers. One robbery was attempted, but went wrong, and Plummer was arrested, but not convicted for lack of evidence. Then he got into a fight over one of the “professional ladies” and was convicted of murder. A friendly local helped him escape, and, in late 1861, he turned up in Oregon. Then it was on to Idaho, where, in 1862, he joined a gang that robbed miners’ families. Plummer then killed a barkeep who had thrown him out of his saloon. He managed to escape a lynch mob coming to revenge their business associate.
Plummer headed into Montana, where he hoped to catch a Missouri riverboat going east, toward his family and home. He was too late in the season, however, and there was no passage available because of ice. He signed on as a ranch hand, where he met the sister-in-law of the owner, who responded to his charm. This was not appreciated by a rival, and when the two were drunk in the mining town of Bannack, his erstwhile rival began to call him out for the dirty deeds he had done. The rival missed his shot, but Plummer did not. Again, he escaped retribution, since the rival had publicly threatened him.
It doesn’t stop. In May 1863, Henry and a local baker were rivals for the job of sheriff in Bannack. The baker won, but Henry came after him, issuing threats while holding a shotgun. The baker got out of town; Plummer was, once again, a sheriff. His lady friend came to Bannack to marry him, but it lasted only three months before she went home.
Meanwhile, crime in the goldfields went from bad to worse, and word started to filter out that the new sheriff was less than effective in controlling it, despite his California experience. Then, in late 1863, men from Bannack and Virginia City formed a vigilante group and began lynching some of the bandits they caught. One such pointed at Henry and said, “That’s him,” identifying the sheriff as the leader of the robbers. A short time later, the sheriff joined the two dozen victims of the vigilante group and the crime wave subsided. Henry Plummer, the Yankee master criminal, would never see home again.
Plummer’s demise at the hands of vigilantes is one part of the story on which there seems to be agreement. That he was a master organizer of a large ring of robbers and murderers seems a bit farfetched. In any case, Montana’s early years were rough and ready. Organized and elected justice was far away, and the Civil War both drowned out local incidents and hardened people to violence.