Virginia City: Montana’s first Incorporated town (Part 1 of 2)

The Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City (Photo by the Rick and Susie Graetz)

The Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City (Photo by the Rick and Susie Graetz)

Returning home to Bannack from a gold-searching trip in the Yellowstone Valley, six tired prospectors were captured by the Crow Indians. Had it not been for the quick thinking of one of them, their consequent good luck wouldn’t have come about. Showing no fear and trying to prove to the captors he had special powers, Bill Fairweather placed a rattlesnake in his shirt. Impressed, the natives freed them.

For whatever reason, on May 26, 1863, the group paused in their journey to pan the gravels of Alder Creek. Before dark each of the men had enough “colors” in their pans to convince them that they had made a major find.

While replenishing supplies in Bannack, they caused a bit of attention and 200 other would-be hopeful miners followed them back to Alder Gulch, spawning the beginning of Virginia City and the largest of all of Montana’s gold strikes.

Long before these treasure-hunting intruders came along, Indian tribes lived in and traveled this country. The Shoshone were here before 1600; the Cree and the Bannocks and Sheepeaters came later. Native Americans didn’t make life easy for the first miners. Trails were closed, and would-be settlers were attacked on their way west.

Eventually, many of the Indians in southwest Montana made an effort to get along with whites, though the favor wasn’t necessarily returned.

Madison County Commissioner James Fergus in 1863 said, “There is no doubt that the Indians have murdered and plundered a great many whites, but so far as my experience goes during the past winter, the whites have been the aggressors and the Indians have behaved – themselves by far the most civilized people. Many of the rowdies here think it’s fine-fun to shoot an Indian.”

In July 1862, news spread of Montana’s initial big strike when prospector John White discovered gold in Grasshopper Creek. Bannack was born, and on May 26, 1864 it became Montana’s first Territorial Capital. The inaugural Territorial Legislature met there in December 1864, but the town’s political role was short lived.

By 1865, realizing the gold in Bannack was playing out, the politicians moved the capital to Virginia City in Alder Gulch, a distinction it would hold for 10 years. All records and furniture for the seat of government were hauled from Bannack across the mountains by wagon, although no building was ever constructed in Virginia City to house the territorial government.

Growth came quickly. On June 16, 1863, a miner’s court, which was in essence the initial government of the town, incorporated Virginia City, making it the first such city in the state. Fort Benton, established in 1883, holds the distinction of being Montana’s oldest continuing settlement, but it seems it wasn’t incorporated.

Before a year was over, an estimated 7,000 people were crowded into the narrow mountain gulch, and soon the population skyrocketed to more than 10,000. Other camp towns along the 14-mile canyon sprang up.

Of these other places, Nevada City, just a couple of miles down the road to the west, was the most prominent, claiming 2,000 citizens. Summit, Junction City, Central City, Union City and Adobe Town were much smaller. Only the sites of these latter places exist today. But none of the settlements came close to the civilized presence of Virginia City.

When commercial activity boomed to major proportions, more stately buildings grew from the original wickiups and tents the first miners used. Freight wagons loaded with supplies rolled in from the steamboats at Fort Benton and via the Bannack Trail from Corinne, Utah, and a trail from Walla Walla, Washington.

Culture also came in the form of the Montana and the People’s Theater and the Lyceum, a literary club. The founding of The Montana Post in Virginia City gave the state its first newspaper.

Growth and wealth in Bannack and Virginia City also attracted all sorts of ne’r-do-wells. Both places were as rough as any movie ever made the West look. Led by the infamous Sheriff Henry Plummer, outlaws controlled life in the mining communities. Robberies and murders were so prevalent that the victimized citizens organized and took the law into their own hands, dispensing what became known as “frontier justice.”

Rick and Susie Graetz | Department of Geography | University of Montana