John White should be one of the most famous men in
the history of Montana, for he discovered the fabulously rich
placer gold mines on Grasshopper Creek in Beaverhead County. It was
his discovery in the summer of 1862, that started the rush to
Bannack and made the Beaverhead the cradle of Montana history. Instead he
is almost forgotten, relegated to a footnote at best, lost in the
melodramatic semi-fiction of writers about the Vigilantes and Sheriff
Picture in your mind the landscape of what is now Montana,
but try to imagine what
it looked like in the spring of 1862. It was still pretty much Indian country,
with the Blackfeet undefeated in the North, the Crows and
the Sioux in the East, the Shoshonis in the Southwest, and
the Flatheads in the Bitteroot. There were a few white men, mostly traders
and stockmen like Robert Dempsey,
the Stuart brothers, Granville and James, or
Johnny Grant of Deer Lodge.
By the summer of 1862, there were at least two white women, Mrs. Martha
Vail, and her 20-year-old single sister, Electa Bryan. They had arrived
by steamer, landing at Fort Benton on June 17, 1862. Electa later
became Mrs. Henry Plummer in one of the first wedding ceremonies
performed in the territory (June 20, 1863). However, the big influx of
whites had to await the exciting strike by John White on July 28, 1862.
In 1861 some rich gold strikes had been
in the north central Idaho region -- Florence, Salmon River, Pierce
-- and there were miners coming up from Colorado and others from California
heading to these strikes. Those coming by way of the Lemhi in Idaho found an
impenetrable wilderness in front of them when they came upon the Salmon
River, and some turned east over what is now Chief Joseph Pass into the
Big Hole basin.
The Lott brothers hit pay dirt in
the Big Hole basin in July, and sent a party back across to Fort
Lemhi to bring in wagons. This party of wagons, perhaps the first
to enter the Big Hole basin, passed right by Grasshopper without
finding pay dirt.
John White was a "Colorado man," as opposed to a "California man,"
having come up from the south. He had heard about the strike in
the Big Hole, and was searching for the Lott diggings when he panned
dirt from the Grasshopper, finding rich colors. News travelled fast,
and by the end of August there was a sizable camp named Bannack, or
Bannack City. The first big gold rush into Montana was on, and John White
had led the way.
In his HISTORY OF SOUTHERN MONTANA, Al Noyes
writes the following about the White discovery:
And in THE HISTORY OF BEAVERHEAD COUNTY, Dr.
Dale Tash adds the following information:
|On the old records, of White's
District, we find the following: John White has recorded one discovery
claim, known as the first
discovery on Grasshopper Creek. Said claim is situated at a point known
as Cedar Tree Point, August
30th, 1862. Discovered July 28. |
|R. T. HARRIS, Recorder. |
The term "road agent" as used by Dr. Tash and most other Montana
historians is a code word for "member of the Plummer gang," so that
one is led to believe that Henry Plummer, the elected sheriff
of Bannack, was somehow involved in the murder of John White.
it is easy to demonstrate that Sheriff Plummer was not involved in White's
This fact can be proven by establishing
the date and location of the death of John White, and the name of the
killer. We will also see that the so-called "Plummer gang" had all been
lynched by the Vigilantes by the time John White was murdered. Fortunately
there are Probate Court records from Madison County (still in Idaho Territory
at the time) which shed light on these matters.
|However, Bannack's history was not to really begin until almost 55 years
after Lewis and Clark, when John White and party discovered gold,
July 28, 1862. White staked his claim on a sandbar a few miles upstream from
the point at which Grasshopper Creek empties into the Beaverhead River.
White, who was looking for Mort Lott's Pioneer Creek discovery, filed
the first recorded mining claim. Unaware of the Creek's previous name
they christened it "Grasshopper Creek" because of the dense 'hopper
population in the area. Like many "original" gold strike discoverers,
White did not benefit from his find and was killed by road agents
several months later.
Noyes quotes from the original Madison County
Of interest in the Noyes quote is
Temple's sworn statement that he saw John White "about the first of February, last." That is
about February 1, 1864. The first vigilante lynchings took place on January 4,
1864, Henry Plummer was hanged on January 10,
and by January 26, twenty men had been hanged. There only remained
a weak and sick Bill Hunter, hiding in Gallatin County, who was found and
hanged on February 3. John White was still alive when the vigilantes finished
off their 21 suspected road agents.
The first matter for probate was the petition of Maria V. Slade,
on April 14th, 1864, for the probating of the will of J. A. Slade.
Mrs. Slade did not appear, having left the Territory, taking the
will with her and probably $7,000.00 or $8,000.00 in valuables.
The second matter was the estate of John White, the discoverer
of Grasshopper, April 29th, 1864.
Henry Coppock, being duly sworn, deposes and said: I know
John White, by sight. I went with Mr. Temple to White Tail
Deer Creek, to bring his body to Virginia City, for burial. We
found the body, he had died from effect of wounds. We brought
his body from where we found it, to my camping place, and kept
it there about four days. I saw his body searched for papers, and
other things. No will was found on his person, and no property
of any value, or money.
John Temple, sworn and says: I was well acquainted with
John White in his lifetime. I saw him at Virginia City, about the
first of February, last. After I heard of his death, I went with
Coppock to bring in his body for burial -- found the body and
recognized it. While at Virginia City, he boarded, and was out
prospecting, at the time of his death. I don't think he left a
will. If he had, I should have known it. I understand he was
a married man, but don't know them (presumably the family).
John M. Fletcher sworn and says: I was well acquainted with
John White for the last four years. He had a wife and child
living in Illinois. The child is about five years old. He had, at
the time of his death, two horses. He had a one-third interest in a
mining claim, in Bannack. I should say his interest was worth
$100.00. I heard him say he also had a quartz lode in Bannack.
He had no relatives in this country, or part of the country. The
horses are worth $75.00 each. He owned lode claims in Colorado,
in Park county. Don't know what they are worth. Know of no
The truth about the murder of John White is not nearly as romantic as Dr. Tash
leads us to believe. Instead of being "killed by road agents
several months later," he was murdered over 18 months later, and not by road
agents, but by an itinerant criminal who thought
he could get away with murder and robbery.
Nathaniel Langford in VIGILANTE DAYS AND WAYS, published in 1890, tells the story
in great detail. John White and a friend had first helped a young traveller
named Kelley, but when it was discovered he was a
horse thief, they decided to go after him.
They succeedeed in capturing
Kelley but he broke loose, grabbed John White's gun, and shot both White and
his companion. Kelley then escaped.
Langford, however, cannot refrain from blaming this on Henry Plummer, even though
Plummer had already been dead for over a month. Here is what Langford says:
There are two main sources for events that occurred during the early days of the Montana gold camps:
VIGILANTES OF MONTANA, by Dimsdale, written first as a series of newspaper articles
starting in August of 1865, and published as a book in 1866; VIGILANTE DAYS AND WAYS, by
Langford, published in 1890. Both of these books are available in electronic form
on the web site http://montana-vigilantes.org. Dimsdale and Langford were writing to
justify the bloody spree of vigilante lynchings that started on January
4, 1864, with a secret interrogation, and secret hanging of the first two victims,
Red Yeager and George Brown, two young men who may or may not have been guilty of
association with criminals. The first flush of hangings was over by February 3, 1864,
but lynchings continued until at least 1867. Some were positively bizarre.
For example one victim was lynched for murdering a man who was not even dead, but only
injured in a fight.
|This was one of the earliest and most brutal tragedies in the newly discovered gold regions; and,
happening when they were populated mostly by Eastern people, and before Plummer and his band of
ruffians had been arrested in their grand scheme of wholesale slaughter, it produced a profound
sensation throughout the country.|
Dimsdale was paid to write the articles justifying the extra-legal actions of the
vigilantes, and was, in all probability a vigilante himself. The threat of legal
action against the vigilantes was always present after Montana became a territory
on May 26, 1864, when federal judges arrived. Author Art
Pauley provides the following information about attempts to hold vigilantes
responsible for their actions:
To this day, Montana historians glorify the bloody-thirsty and
extra-legal activities of the vigilantes while relegating a true
pioneer like John White to a mere footnote. In this they are following Dimsdale,
mentions John White once, in Chapter V, of his book:
|This was true of the residents in my home town [Deer Lodge] after Bill
Bunton was hung on the gate frame in front of the Demorest home.
An early day editor of the New Northwest, a local paper, called
some executions diabolic, and at the time Justice George Symes,
who replaced Justice Lyman E. Munson, threatened to impanel a
grand jury to indict some of the vigilantes on a charge of murder.
By then it was 1870; many of those who would have been charged
had left the territory. Others who had long since abandoned the
organization, denied they had ever been participants or members of
the so-called "Dark Lantern Clique" and so the threat never
We see that even in this brief mention of White,
Dimsdale was wrong. White was alive and well "around the
first of February" (1864), and his body was found on a trail on White Tail Deer Creek,
not on the road from Virginia City to Helena. Presumably Dimsdale had access to
the probate court records at the time, but he was concerned more with demonizing
Sheriff Plummer than with accuracy.
This town [Bannack] originated from the "Grasshopper Diggings," which were first discovered in the month of
July, by John White and a small party of prospectors, on the Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the
Beaver Head. The discoverer, together with Rudolph Dorsett, was murdered by Charley Kelly, in the
month of December, 1863, near the Milk Ranche, on the road from Virginia City to Helena.