The Discovery of Gold at Alder Gulch
One of the Greatest Finds in History
BY GARY R. FORNEY
The morning of May 26, 1863, dawned bright and beautiful on the campsite beside the little lake in the Gravelly Mountain range. As the ragged party of six men awoke, each must have felt a moment of comfort in the belief that the worst of their ordeal was behind them. After leaving the mining camp of Bannack on February 4, the men had endured hunger, tough weather, and being frequently lost. They had also been held captive in a large Crow Indian camp and tena-ciously pursued by Crow warriors along the Yellowstone River nearly to the banks of the Gallatin. Through a combination of some skill and even more good fortune, they had survived, and now the likelihood of a safe return was more promising than it had been for several days.
A few days earlier, two of the men (Bill and Barney) had climbed to the summit of a peak the group had dubbed “Old Baldy.” From that peak they were able to confirm their proximity to a familiar landmark: the confluence of the Stinking Water and Beaverhead Rivers. Finally secure in the knowledge of their proximity to Bannack, and confident they were no longer being pursued by Indians, the men had taken time to rest themselves and their horses. They also used the time to secure elk and sheep meat to supplement their nearly exhausted supply of flour and, true to their nature, to do a bit of prospecting. Their party had been finding good quartz and small quantities of gold, but not enough to deter them from their intention to return to the relative comforts of Bannack.
Treasures like gold and other gemstones are of high value to gold buyers as long as you know where to sell gold for cash.
As the men contentedly ate their breakfast of dried elk meat and drank cups of thin coffee, their only matter of concern may have been the fate of their would-be companions. More than a month earlier the group had been shocked to discover that they had missed their appointed rendezvous with James Stuart. They subsequently followed the trail of Stuart's party across mountains and plains until their quest was abruptly thwarted by the Crow. Now their only clue as to the fate or whereabouts of Stuart and the others was that they had managed to get a little closer to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and at least hadn't been captured by the same band of Crow.
The men knew they could easily make Bannack within four days, so there was no sense of urgency as they broke camp and saddled-up for the day's ride. One of the men, Bill, took extra time to exam the leg of one of his horses. In crossing the rocky terrain a couple of days earlier, the horse had suffered a bad cut. Bill decided it would be best to ride his other horse, “Old Antelope,” as their planned course was down a long ridge and along a creek that he had sited with Barney during their mountaintop perusal. Bill took the lead and, as the party moved out from their lakeside campsite, all signs were that it would be a beautiful day. None of the little group, however, could possibly have realized just how brightly the sun was about to shine upon them.
The group enjoyed the day's ride noting the lush grass on the hills, several antelope, and the fact they continued to see lots of quartz as they followed the stream’s northwestward course toward the Stinking Water. It was about four o'clock that afternoon when Bill found a site he suggested would make a good campsite for the night. Since it was Bill and Henry's turn to prepare the evening meal and care for the group's horses, the other men walked back upstream to do some prospecting before dinner. After treating his injured horse, Bill crossed the creek to find a good spot to stake the horses for the night. He soon returned to the campsite, and urged Henry to help him prospect a site that looked like a promising location. After washing out only three pans of dirt, Bill and Henry had recovered nearly an ounce of gold. Rapidly losing daylight, they returned to their campsite only minutes before the rest of the men. The others had not found anything in their prospecting and began to grumble about the fact that Bill and Henry did not have dinner ready—and then Henry showed them the gold.
By dinnertime of the following day, working in teams of two, the men had discovered gold at several sites along the gulch and brought together nearly another ten ounces of dust and nuggets (an approximate present-day value of $9,000). And, continuing their streak of good luck, both Henry and Bill each shot an antelope to provide plenty of fresh meat for that night's celebratory dinner. Before continuing their trek to Bannack by midday on the 28th, the cheerful band of men had christened the little waterway Alder Creek, staked out twelve claims, and named the bar sites for those of their party who had made the original discoveries; Fairweather, Cover, and Rodgers. They also agreed to say nothing of their find, and planned to discreetly return to the site and work it in secrecy after re-supplying themselves at Bannack. As it was, though, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Within a few weeks, the banks of Alder Gulch were teeming with hundreds of hopeful prospectors, and nine new mining camps had begun to take shape with such names as Virginia City, Nevada City, and Adobetown. Just as quickly, the men who had made the original discovery began to drift apart and away from the El Dorado they had stumbled upon. At its zenith, as many as 15,000 people, famous and infamous, from many countries and all walks of life, may have been living in the Gulch. For the better part of the next twelve years, Alder Gulch— specifically Virginia City—would serve as the first capital of the Montana Territory and become not only the stomping grounds for many colorful personalities but the epicenter of an amazing confluence of economic, political, social, and cultural forces that would shape Montana's early years. Meanwhile, some of the prospectors, arriving too late to make good claims in the gulch, had fanned out far and wide and found such notable discovery sites as Last Chance Gulch, Emigrant Gulch, Ophir, McClellan Gulch, and Silver Bow. In terms of gold production, though, all of these later discoveries would be dwarfed by that of Alder Gulch.
While the exact amount of gold taken from the Alder Gulch during those early years can never be precisely known, it certainly ranks among the most significant gold discoveries ever made. Early reports from the United States Assay Office reliably state that at least $90 million in gold had been extracted before 1900, a figure that represents a present-day equivalent value of no less than $45 billion.
In the autumn of 1898, the era of the placer miner officially ended in the Gulch with the noisy blast from the steam whistle of the Maggie Gibson, the first of a fleet of steam and electric powered dredge boats. By the end of the dredge boat era, in 1922, several additional millions of dollars in gold had been torn from the stream bed, the landscape forever scarred, and the remnants of the once thriving camps of the Alder Gulch were buried—the endless mounds of dredge piles serving as their tombstones.
Nowadays, except during summertime, the streets of Virginia City are usually quiet and relatively few visitors find their way to the 16 ton granite monument that marks the spot of that incredible discovery of May 26, 1863. There, sitting above the quiet little stream amid a stand of new-growth aspens, one finds memorialized the names of that rag-tag little group of six who first found the treasure of Alder Gulch: William H. Fairweather, Henry Edgar, Thomas W. Cover, Michael Sweeney, Harry Rodgers, and Barney Hughes. Today they are more commonly remembered as the Fairweather Party, although among their contemporaries they were usually referred to—with understandable deference—as the Discovery Men.
Gary Forney is the author of Discovery Men, the story of the Fairweather Party and early territorial Montana, and Thomas Francis Meagher: Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer. Forney lives and writes near Ennis, Montana.