A Narrative of the Montana Gold Rush, 1862-1863
by Edwin Ruthven Purple
Edited by Kenneth Owens
At age seventeen, New Yorker Edwin Ruthven Purple (1831-1879) headed to San Francisco, one of a generation of young men lured to the West during the California gold rush. After nearly a decade in an unsuccessful quest for wealth in the mining camps and boomtowns of northern California, Purple moved to Salt Lake City in 1861 to manage the local office of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. But he had not shaken the gold bug completely. The following spring, when vague reports reached Salt Lake City of new gold discoveries somewhere in the northern Rocky Mountains, they proved enticing enough to convince Ed Purple to cancel other plans and organize a wagon train expedition to search for rich diggings in the high mountain country.1
Purple likely kept a journal of his sojourn in Montana gold country, and later, in the tranquility of his New York home, he relived his adventurous youth, writing an account of his travels, which he intended only for family reading. Purple's previously unpublished narrative begins in 1862, when various reports reached Salt Lake City about rich gold discoveries along the Salmon River, part of a region that would soon be organized as Idaho Territory.
In June 1862 Purple and a partner, C. L. Tisdale, purchased twenty-five oxen and three heavy wagons and filled them with trade items. Carrying flour and other staple foods, hand tools, and locally made cheap whiskey, they joined forces with a small collection of other adventurers and took the trail north from Salt Lake City, heading for a land that few white Americans had yet seen. After making a brief side trip to the former site of the Mormon Church's Fort Lemhi mission--on the Lemhi River about two miles north of the modern town of Tendoy, Idaho--Purple and his companions changed their destination from the Idaho mines to Deer Lodge valley, close to the Continental Divide in what later became western Montana. As Purple explains, they needed to halt before winter arrived, and they were impressed by the possibilities of finding gold in that region.
On the road to Deer Lodge, as chance would have it, Purple almost joined a prospecting party headed for one of the tributaries of the Beaverhead River. Because he and his fellow travelers did not know these men, Purple and his companions continued on the Deer Lodge trail with their wagons. Doing so they missed the big bonanza that was every gold hunter's dream. Among the seven-man prospecting party, which Purple chose not to join, were John White, Charles Reville, and William Still who found rich placer deposits on Grasshopper Creek, where Bannack City soon arose, initiating the gold rush to western Montana during the late summer of 1862.
Purple, meanwhile, settled briefly in the Deer Lodge valley, established a store with the goods in his wagons, and began the tedious, muscle-straining labor of working the placer gravels along Gold Creek. But the gold deposits soon played out, while stories of richer discoveries from Grasshopper Creek and other new diggings lured away most of the camp's residents. After a brief, unrewarding trip to a prospective new gold camp in the Big Hole region south and farther west, Purple returned to Gold Creek and remained there through a dull fall season. He then finally joined the migration to Bannack City, where he set up a store in December 1862 directly across the street from a saloon that was headquarters for the camp's roughest element.
With this move, Ed Purple became a firsthand observer of Bannack City's development during its boom era, a period of high expectations, reckless living, and intense social turmoil. For all of the 1863 mining season he remained at Bannack City, running his store and taking part in a few speculative ventures. The location of Purple's store provided him a front-row seat to the preliminaries that led to the organization of a vigilance committee of men from Bannack, Virginia City, and Nevada City on December 23, 1863, to rid the area of the unsavory segment of its population. Shortly before the committee formed, ill health forced Purple to leave Bannack City and return to New York City, where he arrived in February 1864. Although Purple originally intended to remain in the East only for a month or two, his health never permitted him to return to Montana.
The Montana Historical Society Press has recently published Purple's manuscript in its entirety under the title Perilous Passage: A Narrative of the Montana Gold Rush, 1862-1863 , by Edwin Ruthven Purple and edited by Kenneth N. Owens. The following excerpts from Purple's narrative describe some of his impressions of the Snake River Ferry, which he encountered early in his journey on the trail to Fort Lemhi, and of Bannack City, where Purple lived in the town's first year of existence.
July 6th . To day we reached Snake River, and camped near the Ferry, which Jack [Jake] Meeks had just established, a short distance above old Fort Hall, having traveled about 18 miles from our last camp.
Our route across the bottom, from our last camp on Ross Fork, was through a luxuriant growth of Sage Brush, four & five feet in height. The Road was dusty and the day hot and sultry, and our poor cattle, enveloped in the clouds of dust that nearly stifled them, with lolling tongues bowed their necks with increasing energy, in their yokes, as they approached the River, in which they soon quenched their raging thirst.
We found at the Ferry some twenty or thirty wagons awaiting an opportunity to cross. The Ferry having been just established by Jack Meeks and Harry Richards [Rickards], was not yet in good working order. Finding that we could not cross at once, we Corralled our wagons, and awaited with patience our turn to go over.
Each day brought fresh arrivals of men and Trains, most of whom were from Pike's Peak, Colorado. I presume that during the seven days we were at the Snake River Ferry, there was at least a thousand to 1500 men crossed the River bound for the Salmon River Mines, and many who did not cross went down into the Boise country.
I had heard it reported at Salt Lake City that the Mormons who had settled at Fort Limhi, and were driven from their settlement in 1857  by the Indians, had discovered Gold, on Limhi creek in large quantities; but upon apprising Brigham Young of the fact, he had told the Discoverer to stop prosecuting his search for Gold, and leave it alone. Brigham always told his people to develop the agricultural products of the earth, and leave Gold & silver where God had placed it.2
It was our intention, when we started on our journey, to go to the Mines of Florence or Elk city, then in Oregon. A month prior to our leaving Salt Lake, some friends whom I had become acquainted with during my stay there, and who like myself were gentiles, had left for the Salmon River Mines, and expected to find a route by which they could reach Florence via Fort Limhi, to which place they directed their journey. The names of this party were Jack Mendenhall, Thomas Pitt, H. F. Morrell, Robert Meneffee, Thomas an Irish boy, and two or three others whose names I have forgotten.3 Having been told by [our guide John] Jacobs that it would be impossible to get through from Limhi to Florence with our waggons, I had determined, after consulting with my partner Tisdale, to take the Fort Limhi road, when we reached it, and go to that point, if in the meantime we should get no news from Mendenhall & his party. And if we found Jacob's statement correct, we would go over to Deer Lodge. Jacobs told us that the Stuart Brothers were digging Gold in Deer Lodge valley, and advised us to go there, although he could give no definite account of what they were doing in their mining operations.4
Meeks and Richards in establishing their Ferry had laboured under great difficulties to obtain proper materials for that purpose. Their Boat had been built over the Porte Neuf and hauled over to Snake River in waggons. Their Cable rope, stretched across the river, which at this point, owing to heavy rains, was fully 250 yards wide between its banks, was brought up from Salt Lake. Their blocks and Pulleys for attaching the boat to the Cable, were Manufactured on the ground, and as they rapidly wore out, gave employment to numbers of Mechanics among the passing Emigrants. [They] Being short of Rope to gear the Ferry Boat to the Cable, I sold them a large coil of inch rope I had brought along, for the purpose of using Myself for crossing Rivers. I also sold them a small Row Boat with which I had provided myself for the same purpose. I realized about $280 for what had cost me $40, and the purchasers were well contented with their bargain.
During our stay at Snake River, a number of Snake and Bannack Indians pitched their Lodges near the Ferry, and were employed by the emigrants in swimming over their horses and mules. These Indians are expert swimmers, and would take to the water as fearlessly as a New Foundland Dog, keeping just behind the stock, sometimes catching hold of their tails, and splashing water on the side of their faces to keep the Mules & Horses in the right direction, and invariably piloting them safely to the opposite side.
On the 9th of July a Horse race came off, between an Indian's Horse and one owned by one of the emigrants. It was a race of 100 yards for a purse of $20, and came near leading to a difficulty with the Indians. The Indian got the start [by] a few yards, and was ahead at the out come. By the Indian rule governing races, he had won. But the judges decided that as he did not come out further ahead than the distance he [had] started ahead of the white man's Horse, he had lost the race.
The money was paid to the white man, but the Indians managed to steal, within three weeks and 200 miles away from the Ferry, the winning mare from her owner.
Just before our arrival a man by the name of Holmes had been killed at the Ferry, by his partner with whom he had quarreled in reference to a division of the outfit they had started with from Colorado. The killing had been justified as an act of self defense, but I heard some of the men declare that it was not warrented by the such circumstances. Whatever may have been the truth of the matter, I could not determine it from the conflicting statements.
On the night of the 10th of July, as I was just getting asleep, I heard the report of several guns and pistols, and the voices of men running down the river, shouting and hallooing at some object which was being borne down its rapid current. It was the body of a young man by the name of Johnson, from Colorado, who with two or three others, had upset in crossing the River in the bed of a waggon. It was not an uncommon thing to use waggon beds in crossing, after being Caulked and pitched for that purpose. The party had overloaded their frail shell, and when in the middle of the stream it dipped water and Commenced sinking. Johnson, telling his comrades, none of whom could swim, to "stick to the waggon bed, boys," plunged into the stream and made for the shore. But the noble self sacrificing fellow had not properly estimated his own strength, and that of the rapid current that remorselessly bore him down, and resisting all his efforts for safety, engulphed him in its deep waters.
Persons went down the stream a number of miles the next day, hoping to find the body to give it burial, but were unsuccessful in their search. In a few days the circumstances were forgotten, save by a few friends, and the tide of emigration daily increasing rolled on, like the Broad River's current, as though no ripple of death had for a moment disturbed its on-ward flow.
Purple left Meeks and Rickards's ferry on the Snake River on July 13 and continued to the Deer Lodge valley, where he settled briefly before traveling on to Bannack City, arriving there on December 31, 1862. At Bannack City Purple was reunited with acquaintances who had preceded him to the rich placer deposits on Grasshopper Creek. In the following passage from his narratives, Purple graphically describes Bannack City and some of its inhabitants.
With a retrospective view of the history of Bannack and vicinity on Willard's Creek, from the time John White's party first Commenced Mining after our Meeting on the Divide Creek Aug. 3d, I shall allude to such events as came directly under my notice from this time, during my stay in this region. . . .
[Bannack] was the first permanent settlement in the region now known as Montana Territory. Three-fifths of the people who wintered here in 1862-3 were from Colorado, one fifth were Minnesotians, and the balance, making in all 5 to 600 persons, was made up of Oregonians and former Gentile residents of Salt Lake City.5 (All persons not members of the Mormon church are called Gentiles, at Salt Lake City.)
In the absence of such restraints as the law imposes upon the old communities, it might be supposed that among the people of this new settlement would be found those ready and willing to infringe upon and violate the rights of their fellows, whenever self interest or wicked desire should prompt them to such action. But the history of Bannack City for the first four months of its existence was one of order, peace, and good fellowship among her citizens. The turbulent spirits that had come with the first wave of emigration were too few in numbers to mar the general harmony. The work in inaugurating that carnival of crime, highway robbery, assassination, and murder which is a part of the early history of Montana had not yet commenced. A few of those who rose to their bad eminence of infamy afterwards were here, but quiet and reserved, attending to their labour and mingling (with as yet only half formed notions of evil) with the better classes. . . .
In the month of October 1862, Charles Benson, H. Porter, E. Porter, and C. W. Place discovered a ledge of Gold bearing Quartz rock a mile below Bannack, and some 500 yards north of the creek. They found large deposits of Gold in a free state, which had crumbled from the rock, and mingled with the earth around it. This was the first Gold Quartz Ledge that had been found in the country, and was named the Dakota, after the Territory within whose boundaries it was then located. Following this and immediately after, Wilson Wadams discovered another Ledge, named after himself the Wadams, situated south of [the] Dakota on the high hill across the creek.
Then commenced the furor for hunting Quartz. The finding of the Yorkshire and many others rapidly followed. Andrew Murray at a point six hundred feet west from the Dakota Discovery struck a vein of Gold Quartz which exceeded in richness anything the oldest miners in the Country had ever seen. Murray would frequently obtain $75 to $100 of Gold from a small sack of the earth and rock, which at night he would carry from his claim to his cabin, pound up in a wooden mortar, and wash out. Whenever a new discovery of Quartz was made, the most intense excitement was manifested by everybody. Men might be seen running as though their lives depended upon reaching the point, across the creek, up the steep hills, panting for breath, never stopping an instant, on they go, with two wooden stakes ready to stick in the ground to mark the bounds of a Quartz claim they believed was to give them possession of millions. Of this they never tired; and every day in the week if occasion presented, they done the same thing over. . . .
On the 2d day of Jany. , George Edwards, a teamster employed by Wm. Butts to bring the stock of merchandize purchased by him of Capt. Wall at [Little] Black Foot to Bannack, left the town for the purpose of hunting up and looking after his Cattle. He started up the creek through the deep snow, and was never seen afterwards alive. After two days had elapsed search was made by Budd McAdow and others of his friends, who feared he had lost his way and frozen to death in the snow. A week after a man by the name of Duke, a partner of Jimmy Spence, who was herding Cattle up the creek, found Edwards' clothes done up in a bundle, perforated with bullets, frozen and bloody, and thrust into a Badger's hole. This made it apparent he had been murdered by white men, as had Indians done the work they would have taken the dead man's clothing. It was suspected by some that a man by the name of Cunningham [Jack Cleveland] had committed the deed, for the purpose of robbery, as Edwards had $130 on his person New Year's day, while Cunningham, who was dead broke before the murder, was flush immediately after. Whatever became of the Horse and saddle Edwards was on the day he left town always remained a mystery.6
The death of Edwards was the first of a long series of cruel, cold blooded, fiendish murders, coupled generally with highway robbery, that shed a gloom and terror over the country for more than a year, and carried sorrow and mourning to many a distant fireside.
Before Edwards's death, Ed Purple had left Bannack City for New York City. As he made his long-delayed journey home, he missed the start of the now-famous Montana vigilante movement that unfolded in Bannack City and Virginia City between mid-December 1863 and early February 1864. Only later did Purple learn of the secret efforts of some of his Bannack friends and business associates along with other determined townsmen, to destroy a gang of road agents and drunken rowdies headed, as they believed, by Sheriff Henry Plummer. During the first few weeks of 1864 the vigilantes hanged more than twenty men, including Sheriff Plummer, who died January 10, 1864.7
Purple remained interested in Montana affairs, welcoming old friends from Bannack City whenever they appeared in New York, but his seasons of travel and exposed outdoor labor were behind him. He died in New York at the age of forty-eight in 1879.
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