Montana’s First Politician
Intrigue and Election Fraud From the Get Go
BY GARY R. FORNEY
It was October 24, 1864, and the sweet scent of democracy was in the crisp autumn air of Virginia City. Of course, it may have been a bit overpowered by the aroma of thousands of unwashed miners and thousands of horses, mules, and oxen. This was the day that men were gathering at polling sites for the first general election of the new Montana Territory. As we similarly gathered this November of 2010, it seems an appropriate time to look back at the excitement generated by the first election and the man most responsible for creating that excitement.
Sidney Edgerton was forty-seven years old when he arrived at Bannack in September of 1863, although, with his full white beard and head of white hair, he could have been easily mistaken for a much older man. Commonly dressed in a black top hat and overcoat and wearing a grim expression, one could be excused for thinking him to be an undertaker. In fact, he was an attorney by profession, a Radical Republican in his political philosophy, and had served two terms in the House of Representatives from the state of Ohio. In the spring of 1863, President Lincoln appointed Edgerton to serve as a federal justice for the Idaho Territory. Instead of traveling to the territorial capital in Lewiston, however, Edgerton halted his westward journey at Bannack.
Rather than assume his duties as judge, Edgerton appears to have occupied himself with a small cabal of influential residents who had big plans. Although the ink was barely dry upon the Act that had created the Idaho Territory, there was already an active movement to divide that territory. Despite the brutally cold weather in mid-January of 1864, Edgerton volunteered to travel to Washington, D.C., to call upon some of his former colleagues. In preparation for the journey, Edgerton was provided with a unique form of insulation sewn into his overcoat—gold nuggets valued at more than $2,000 (a present-day equivalent of $145,000). Whether the gold was intended to pay for his travel expenses or to grease some wheels in Washington isn't certain, but in May, following some interesting machinations, Congress ingeni-ously carved the Idaho Territory to establish the Montana Territory. Edgerton would later admit that during the debates on creating the territory he would casually place a badly misshapen bar of Alder Gulch gold on the desk he was permitted to use on the floor of the House, and did nothing to dissuade the open rumors that it was a gold nugget. Perhaps to no one's surprise, Sidney Edgerton was appointed to serve as Governor for the new territory.
Among Governor Edgerton's first actions upon returning to Bannack was to authorize a census of the new territory for the purpose of determining legislative apportionment. Edgerton, however, essentially disregarded the census and made his own apportionment when the tally revealed that the Virginia City area was entitled to virtually all of the legislative seats. The date for the election was set and the mudslinging began in earnest.
As the political campaign began to take shape, it became clear that there were minority factions with each of the dominant parties. Within the Republican (also known as the Union) Party were the far-right Radical Republicans (including the Governor and his out-spoken nephew, Wilbur F. Sanders) who took a hard line approach toward the Southern states. Similarly, within the Democratic Party was a faction known as the Copperheads. The Copperhead Democrats were strongly pro-Southern in their sympathies, and probably represented, in number, followers equal to that of the Radical Republicans. Regrettably, and unnecessarily, Edgerton set a turbulent course for territorial politics by painting all Democrats with the same brush.
Edgerton accused anyone who supported Democratic candidates as being traitors to the cause of the Union and being little more than “uncultivated savages.” Wilbur Sanders, a candidate for the coveted post of Territorial Delegate, warned that “if the so-called Democrats get into office, not even a breath of air would go untaxed…and [one] would not be able to go [from Virginia City] to Nevada [City] without encountering a toll-gate.” Unmistakably Republican in its support, the recently estab-lished Montana Post editorialized that, “There are, in reality, but two questions to be presented and acted upon by the coming election. Shall we…remain free as the God-given air of the mountains…or shall we…vote to aid and comfort the enemies of our government?”
Those who cast their vote on October 24, 1864, chose a third option.
In what had to have been a bitter disappointment to Edgerton, the election returns resulted in only a one-seat majority for the Repub-licans in the territorial Council (Senate), a one-seat majority for the Democrats in the House, and the election of Democrat Samuel McLean as Territorial Delegate. Moreover, perhaps validating Edgerton's apportionment fears, all of the Democratic candidates from the Virginia City-Alder Gulch area were convincingly elected.
Governor Edgerton did his best, however, to grasp victory for his nephew. Edgerton withheld certifi-cation of McLean's election until returns from a precinct he claimed was affiliated with Madison County were filed. Remarkably, Edgerton subsequently announced that approximately 2,000 ballots—unani-mously supporting Republican candidates—had arrived from Fort Union, thus overturning the election of McLean and the Madison County legislators. Much to their credit, Nathaniel Davis and James Tufts, Republicans who would have been seated, met with Edgerton and protested what they firmly suspected was an attempt at election fraud. The Governor relented, and the election results were certified as prior to the questionable Fort Union ballots. It was later determined that, at no time during 1864, was there ever more than 300 persons living at Fort Union and that the settlement was actually located outside the territory's boundary. As history would unfold, this wouldn't be the last time there would be “irregularities” in a Montana election.
Consistent with his legal prerogative, Governor Edgerton selected Bannack as the site of the first legislative session. Edgerton would fan the flames of discontent among the legislators by demanding each man sign a “Loyalty Oath” before being seated, and later vetoing an Act to expand the number of legislative seats that would lead to a deeply controversial paralysis of the territorial government.
One decision Edgerton could not contradict was the legislature's absolute authority to select the first territorial capital, and they selected Virginia City. Considering the investments he had made in Bannack properties, this must have been another bitter pill for Edgerton to swallow. Personally and politically exasperated by his time in Montana, Edgerton handed the reins of government to the recently arrived Territorial Secretary, Thomas Francis Meagher, and rode out of Bannack in late September of 1865—almost exactly two years to the day of his initial arrival. Edgerton would never return to the territory that he played such an integral role in creating. Adding insult to injury, the third session of the territorial legislature (by this time wholly in control of the Democrats) would change the name of Edgerton County to Lewis and Clarke.
Edgerton returned to his home in Akron, Ohio, and the practice of law. He was formally dismissed as Governor of the Montana Territory in February of 1866, and never again sought public office. He would, however, maintain an active interest in politics and, surprisingly, would later join the Democratic Party. Following an extended illness, Sidney Edgerton died on July 19, 1900.
Just as today, certainly not everyone appreciated the efforts of these early politicians or the incursion of “civilization” into Montana. James Morley undoubtedly expressed the opinion of many early residents when he wrote in his diary: “Today a collector made his appearance in the [Alder] gulch to 'stick' us for a four dollar poll tax, as he said, to raise $5,000 to build a jail. I more than half wish…that Uncle Samuel would let us severely alone, for it is a fact that miners can make their own laws so as to get along smoothly with each other, better than government laws enforced by such men.”
Author sources: Letter of Sidney Edgerton to William Hunt; Sanders, H.F. A History of Montana; Montana Post, October 1 & 22, 1864; Miller, Joaquin, An Illustrated History of the State of Montana; Plassman, Martha Edgerton, Biographical Sketch of Sidney Edgerton, Contributions to the Montana Historical Society; Diary of J.H. Morley, entry of May 22, 1864. Montana Historical Society.
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.
Editor’s note: Our curiosity piqued by Gary Forney’s excellent article, we present an evolving and startling account related to Edgerton’s actions on behalf of Lincoln and Montana’s ties to the Confederacy; see pages 18 and 24.