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Story ID:4609
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 Two)

by Kathe Campbell

Beginning to feel the effects of his tuberculosis during the winter of 1862, Henry Plummer wanted to return home. Unfortunately. Montana's upper Missouri River at Fort Benton was frozen and closed to riverboat traffic. Planning to hold over for the winter, he went to work for a remote Indian Agency where he met the agent's sister-in-law, Electa Bryan. Teaching the Blackfeet children, Electa felt deprivation and lonliness -- until she met suave, handsome, Henry Plummer. Rejecting her sisterís warning, and after a torid two month romance, she married the stranger and moved with him to Bannack.

By the summer of 1863, there were more than 10,000 men hunting for gold along Grasshopper Creek, and the lawlessness had reached epidemic proportions. The frightened citizens of Bannack and Virginia City decided that the outlaws had to be stopped and they advertised for a sheriff.

Hank Crawford and Henry Plummer ran for the office, but Plummer was none too happy at losing, and soon went after the new sheriff with a shotgun. Having been warned, Crawford stepped outside his cabin, steadied a rifle on a log, and shot Plummer in the right arm. Undaunted, Henry immediately began to practice shooting with his left hand until his accuracy was deadly. When Crawford caught wind of this, he turned in his badge and left Bannack, never to return, and Plummer became the sheriff. Having the adverse desired effect for the town, crime increased dramatically, because in the next few months more than 100 citizens were murdered.

Henry and Electa settled into their log home, Henry pursuing his vision of turning a primitive territory filled with greed, murder and mayhem into a civilized state. But Henry was always away from home, and Electa was much neglected, blindly ignoring signs that Henry was not all he seemed. Several months later she left for her parents home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and would never see Henry again.

All kinds of people trekked across the country to this place where a person's ears were cut off for stealing - where hangings and murder were commonplace. The women and wives of the camps were rugged, and their perilous journeys brought them face to face with the hardest people and most backbreaking work of their lives. Most women had come along with their husbands, traveling for months in covered wagons, but some sent their men off alone. Eventually, some of the wives got tired of waiting for them to return home, so they packed their belongings and set off with their children in tow.

One such woman, Lucinda Mann, waited three years for her husband to come back before she decided to take her children to find him. When she reached Virginia City, she was shocked to learn that her husband had died four months before her arrival. Rather than go back east, she settled down and took charge of the store her husband had started. The following year, she married another miner and came to be considered a great success by the women of her time.

Sheriff Plummer's bunch of Innocents stepped up their efforts at robbing the gold-laden travelers from the Montana camps. They even helped him punish local villains on a gallows that Henry erected. Well organized, they killed anyone that might be a witness to their crimes, most of which were easily covered up. Blatant killings went unpunished, and local residents who suspected anything feared for their lives - and kept their mouths shut.

The citizens finally endured enough of the violence, and in December, 1863, men from Bannack, Virginia City, and nearby Nevada City met secretly and organized the Montana Vigilantes. Masked men began to visit suspected outlaws in the middle of the night, issuing warnings and tacking up posters featuring the mystic numbers "3-7-77." While the meaning of these numbers still remains elusive, the Montana State Highway patrolmen wear the "3-7-77" emblem on their shoulder patches today.

All hell broke loose when the ruthless vigilantes dispensed rough justice by hanging twenty-four men. Attempting to get the names of road agents, they looped a noose around the neck of suspect "Long John" Franck, and repeatedly hoisted him until the poor man gasped out names. They did the same to Erastus "Red" Yager who pointed the finger at Henry Plummer as the gang's leader. When a preacherís son expressed his outrage by shouting that pro-vigilantes were stranglers, his frozen corpse was found three weeks later dangling from the limb of a cottonwood tree.

The residents were divided on whether or not Henry was the leader of the murderous Innocents gang. But one night after heavy drinking in a local saloon, the vigilantes decided Henry was guilty and tracked him down. In January,1864, fifty to seventy-five men rounded up Plummer and his two main deputies. They were hung from the very gallows Plummer had erected, then entombed in shallow graves in nearby Hangman's Gulch.

Plummer's grave was broken into on at least two occasions. The first time by the local doctor who, out of curiosity, severed the right arm from the body in search of Hank Crawford's bullet that had struck Henry the preceding year. Reportedly, the doctor found the bullet, worn smooth and polished by the bones turning upon it.

The second grave robbery was by two men who, after spending several hours in a local bar, decided to dig up Plummer's grave. To prove they had done it, they severed the head and carried it back to the Bank Exchange Saloon, where it remained on the back bar for several years until the building burned, along with all its contents.


By May, 1864, Sidney Edgerton, the territorial Chief Justice, decided that with the exploding population, they needed a new territory. Edgerton convinced President Lincoln, and on May 26, 1864, it was made official with Edgerton named as the governor. Bannack became the first territorial capitol, and the legislature of Montana met in Sidney Edgertonís cabin.

By the fall of 1864, nearly ten thousand people crowded along the area hillsides, living in tents, shacks, lean-tos, and eventually sturdier housing. Settlements were so numerous and scattered that people called the area the "fourteen-mile city." But for thousands of people, the gold was already getting harder to find.

The female population grew as well, and luck played a major role, for those who came to the settlements were more likely to be professional gamblers. At night, and on Sundays, the men wanted recreation, and great piles of gold dust were frittered away at the gaming tables. The women who dealt the popular card game of Monte were making their own fortunes without getting even one speck of dirt on their gowns.

And, of course, the prostitutes never went out of style. Some of these women dressed as men and traveled around the camps by mule to make their living. Only in the mining towns of Bannack or Virginia City could a woman become fabulously wealthy enough to move on to elegant living elsewhere.

By 1866, Virginia City in Alder Gulch was large enough to take the title of territorial capitol away from Bannack. It remained there for only a year, then was permanently moved to Helena.

In the meantime the vigilantes continued their antics and three years after Sheriff Plummer was hanged, they virtually ruled the mining districts. Finally, leading citizens of Montana, including Territorial Governor, Thomas Meagher, began to speak out against the ruthless group. In March, 1867, the miners issued their own warning that if the vigilantes hanged any more people, the law abiding citizens would retaliate five for one. Though a few more lynchings occurred, the era of the vigilantes was past.

In August, 1877, the new Beaverhead County Courthouse played a role in the most exciting event of it's history when word arrived that Indians were on the warpath and headed straight for Bannack. People from around the area gathered in the dwindling town to seek protection. Two lookouts were built on the highest points of the hills on either side of Hangman's Gulch for early warning. The local water supply was barricaded, and women and children gathered in the brick courthouse, the children hiding in the safes. Although the Indians killed four settlers on Horse Prairie, they never came close to Bannack.

At the time there was no church in Bannack, and a Methodist circuit preacher named William Van Ordsdel, used the Indian scare to convince the townspeople to build a church in thanks for God's deliverance. The church and courthouse still stand there today.

Bannack lost it's county seat status to nearby Dillon, so the courthouse sat vacant until 1890 when it was remodeled as a plush hotel, and where there still remains stories of ghostly activity. The Hotel Meade opened and closed sporadically through the years with the ebb and flow of mining activity, and for awhile even served the community as the school and hospital.

Cold spot apparitions of a teen-age girl, and sounds of crying children are often reported by those who visit the old building. The first sighting of a young girl was well over a hundred years ago. The teen is said to be that of a girl named Dorothy Dunn who drowned in a dredge pond along the creek. Shortly after her death, she made her appearance to the friend who was with her at the time of her death.

Since then there have been multiple sightings of the girl wearing a long blue dress on the second story of the old hotel. These reports often come from children, one stating that the ghost of Dorothy Dunn tried to talk to her. The seven-year-old could see Dorothy's mouth moving, but no sound came out. Passersby on the street below say they have sighted Dorothy standing in an upstairs window, and still more sightings have been reported and photographed throughout the town of ghostly women dressed in their best finery.

Bannack was revived for a time in 1895 when the first electric dredge was invented, and Grasshopper Creek supported five of them over the next ten years. Unfortunately, it was these same dredging operations that destroyed much of the creek's landscape, along with several hundred buildings erected during the gold boom. Finally the businesses and socal community left and very few people remained, so the school was closed, and Bannack became a ghost town.

Bannack survives due to the good graces of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, saving the town from the elements and vandalism by making it a state park in 1954. Today over sixty structures remain standing, most of which can be explored. The staff preserves, rather than restores the buildings, allowing visitors an opportunity to relive the gold and ghosts of the American west.


Skinner's Saloon

Methodist Church

Courthouse/Hotel Meade