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Story ID:4592
Written by:Kathe M. Campbell (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Local History
Location:Bannack Montana USA
Person:Sheriff Henry Plummer
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From Gold To Ghosts (Part One)

by Kathe Campbell

On our many jaunts over the mountains and prairies of our beloved Montana, my husband and I never passed up a history lesson or photographing old buildings. I used oils to paint this family dwelling in 1985 and called it "Somebody's Palace."

What remains of this home still stands out on the prairie upon a knoll, it's vintage boards and memories weathering near Bannack, the first capitol of Montana. There was a mule-powered saw mill nearby that provided slabs of wood for siding, floors, and roof, and it's said several additions were added as the family grew.

The house was built by Samuel Henderson in the Idaho Territory hey day of the mid-1800's. His second wife, Ella, a teacher from Ohio, bore him six more children for a total of thirteen. Taking advantage of the Homestead Act, Henderson flourished as a blacksmith and farmer on 160 rich acres of streams, timber and tall grass. But the family's peaceful existance was soon changed by emerging dramatic events about as old west as the oaters portray them. So come with me for some fascinating history . . . .

Considered one of the last frontiers, gold was discovered in the creek waters where Bannack stands today, bringing to pass both Bannack and Montana. The creek was originally named Willard Creek by the Lewis and Clark Expedition when they came through in 1805. But due to the large grasshopper population, in 1862 it was renamed Grasshopper Creek, and remains so today.

Prospectors filed one of the first gold claims in Idaho Territory that year. News of the strike traveled fast and led to the greatest surge to the west since the California Gold Rush. Springing up overnight, a mining camp was built with most of the miners living in tents, caves, dugouts, shanties, huts, wagons, and an occasional one-room log cabin.

The women who lived in the camps found life miserable as the miners moved from claim to claim until they settled on a site they knew would be productive. Only then would a simple one room log cabin be raised with a dirt floor and no windows. Nothing was expected to be permanent along the Grasshopper, and these rough conditions eventually sent most women into the looming roughhewn town. For the few wives staying in the camps, dances were their only social activity and relief from domestic duties.

As in surrounding mining towns, Bannack’s population consisted of mostly men, barkeeps, saloon girls and "painted ladies." The women who weren't out looking for gold had their choice of permanent jobs. Those who took on the chores of washing and cooking for the men were highly paid. Eastern women, disgruntled over low wages, were encouraged to come out west where cooks could make as much as thirty dollars a day. Women who washed clothes could often make twice as much.

By normal 1860 standards, this was big money, but not in gold country where the big strikes were necessary for survival. At one point, a dozen eggs cost ten dollars, and one potato or one onion went for a dollar each. The miners often struggled to support themselves, for saving enough to get back home seemed impossible - never mind being lucky enough to strike it rich.

Word spread quickly that Bannack’s gold was unlike other gold. Grasshopper Creek’s gold was 99-99.5% pure, compared to most gold at 95%, and miners continued to flood the area. Bannack quickly became known as the New Eldorado of the north, and soon the camp was called home to more than 400 prospectors.

The people who rushed to Bannack were not only miners, but deserters of the Civil War, outlaws, and businessmen intent on profiting from the newcomers. They arrived by wagon, stagecoach, horse back, steamboat, and even by foot in search of their fortunes. Not anticipating the harsh Montana winter, many came ill-prepared, and lacking supplies great hardship befell many.

The settlement gained some 3,000 residents by 1863, so the town fathers applied to the U.S. Government for the name of Bannock, named for the neighboring Indians. However, Washington mistakenly spelled the name with an “a” – Bannack, which it retains today.

Said to be the most stealthy and slovenly people, occasionally the Bannack Indians invaded the town in search of anything free, usually with enough wampum to buy liquor. Even in the 1860's, the pioneer women held public used item sales that were either traded or bought for little. The Indian women waited until nearly all was sold, then bartered their beads and handmade wool, bark, and reed wares for anything of use.

Their homes, clothes, and moccasins were made from animal skins and furs from deer, elk, moose and rabbit, brought down with bow and poisoned tipped arrows. They were peaceful people for the most part, and built several cabins, but were mostly teepee dwellers.

In addition to its gold fame, Bannack also quickly gained a reputation for lawlessness. The roads in and out of town were besieged by dozens of road agents, and killings were frequent. In 1863, Henry Plummer arrived in Bannack, and a few months later was elected sheriff in hopes that he might bring some peace to the lawless settlement. What was not known by the citizens of Bannack was that Plummer was the leader of the largest gang of road agents called the "Innocents."


Born in Addison, Maine in 1832, Henry was the youngest of seven children. The men were all sea captains, and he was expected to follow in their footsteps. However, he was slight of build and consumptive, making the rigors of sea life intolerable.

When Henry was a teenager, his father died and the family began to struggle financially. Two years after the California Gold Rush, Henry promised his widowed mother that he could help the family by making his fortune in the west.

Within a year after his arrival in California, documents show that Henry owned a ranch and a mine outside Nevada City, California. Some twelve months later, he traded some of his mining shares for a bakery in Nevada City. By 1856, the local residents, so impressed by the young man, persuaded him to run for office, and at the age of 24, he became marshal of the third largest settlement in California.

The young marshal, well liked and respected for his promptness and boldness in handling his duties, easily won re-election in 1857. But shortly after his election he was said to be having an affair with the wife of a miner. When he was confronted by the angry husband, the two competed in a dual which Henry won.

Plummer was arrested and tried in the sensational, emotionally-charged case that went twice to the California Supreme Court. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in California's infamous San Quentin Prison. Among his comrades behind bars was Cyrus Skinner, serving time for grand larceny, and who would later be connected with Plummer again. The local residents quickly petitioned the Governor for a pardon, claiming that Henry had acted in self-defense. He served time for only a few months before being released, and instead of romancing the local wives, he became a devoted patron of the many brothels.

But trouble always followed Plummer, and soon he was caught up in a brawl over a "painted lady." After shooting the man, he was once again arrested, this time escaping prison by bribing a jailer before he could be tried, and Henry fled to Oregon.

Along the way he met another bandit who had allegedly killed the sheriff of a neighboring town. Being wanted men, word was sent to California newspapers that both Plummer and the bandit had been hanged in Washington. It had the desired effect, halting the need for the desperados to continually look over their shoulders for pursuing posses.

In January, 1862, Plummer landed in Lewiston, Idaho with a woman companion, and registered at the Luna House. Working in a casino, he soon ran into his old cellmate, Cyrus Skinner, and other individuals destined for the gallows. Forming a gang, the like-minded men began to rob the local families of the area mining camps, especially targeting the gold shipments on the roads from the mines.

Plummer killed again, this time a bartender who had kicked him out of his bar. Henry abandoned his mistress, a woman with three children who had to resort to prostitution to feed herself and family, and finally died an alcoholic in one of the seedier brothels. When some of the citizens formed a lynch party, Plummer hightailed it out of there and headed east to Montana.

"Somebody's Palace"

Bannack City

Miner's Row

Sheriff Henry Plummer

Bannack Jail