First Time for Everything: A belated visit to Bannack

How I missed visiting Bannack for all these years I can’t really say.

I spent four years in Butte and Anaconda in the early 1980s, during which time I did manage to explore Virginia City and Nevada City, those two other early gold camps, but somehow I never got to Bannack. Blame it on my youth and my heedlessness, and the fact that I had a young child at home. I was also nearly always broke and the owner of unreliable cars.

This past weekend, my brother and I had to be in Bannack anyway, so I finally got my chance to tour the historic town.

A new series at Last Best News

This story is the first in what we hope will be an occasional series of articles under the heading “First Time for Everything.”

In it we will visit places, in Billings and around the region, that we probably should have visited a long, long time ago, since everyone else seems to have done so already. Stay tuned.

Bannack is a state park, owned by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and we were fortunate to have a guided tour by Park Ranger John Phillips, whom I had gotten to know when he was a Bureau of Land Management ranger at Pompeys Pillar National Monument in the mid-2000s.

Phillips first visited Bannack in 1993, having gone there in search of a master’s thesis project for his history studies at the University of Montana. He served an internship at the time and returned as a full-time ranger 13 years ago.

Bannack, if you don’t know or have forgotten your state history, is where the first real gold strike took place in Montana, in July 1862. News traveled fast, and by fall the population of the gold camp was 400; by spring it was 3,000.

It served as capital of the newly created Montana Territory, for part of 1864 and a very short part of 1865, before it moved east to Virginia City, by then the new center of gold fever in the region.

Bannack was a rough place. In his “Roadside History of Montana,” Don Spritzer quotes one of the town’s few female residents, writing in April 1863: “I don’t know how many deaths have occurred this winter but that there have not been twice as many is entirely owing to the fact that drunken men do not shoot well … bullets whiz around so, and no one thinks of punishing a man for shooting another.”

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That was not entirely true, as the fate of a rough character named Henry Plummer soon illustrated. In an early example of Montanans overlooking a political candidate’s violent tendencies, Plummer was elected sheriff of Bannack in the spring of 1863, even though he had done time in San Quentin for manslaughter and had been tried and acquitted of murder in Bannack itself.

He was thought to have been the head of a gang of desperadoes who called themselves the “Innocents,” and the historian K. Ross Toole wrote, in “Montana: An Uncommon Land,” that the gang was responsible for at least 102 murders between 1862 and 1864. The famous Vigilantes hanged Plummer and 23 of his associates between late 1863 and early 1864.

Toole was convinced of Plummer’s guilt, saying the record of his gang “was so bloody, and so plain for all to read that there can be little doubt of the rectitude of the stringent methods of the early vigilance committee.” A guidebook available at Bannack State Park, however, concludes that “the evidence is a little slim,” and Phillips said he is careful not to weigh in on the subject of guilt.

“It’s an open question,” he said. “You let the public make up their own minds.”

So that’s the main history: gold, bandits and vigilantes, with a thousand and one subsidiary stories about colorful residents, including miners, preachers and prostitutes, a variety of gold-mining techniques, ghosts and a hodgepodge of interesting architecture—from tumbledown shacks to a grand old courthouse.

John P.

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Our tour guide was Park Ranger John Phillips, a bottomless font of historical information.

What the visitor of today mostly experiences, though, especially on a fine day in early June, with the sun shining and the weather delightfully cool, with a steady breeze keeping the mosquitoes at bay, is a remote, quiet, wonderfully preserved collection of lovely buildings.

The park occupies a total of 1,600 acres, Phillips said, but the town is relatively compact, consisting of about 100 buildings, including shacks and outbuildings. Phillips said  the park, which is open every day of the year but Christmas and Christmas Eve, sees about 40,000 visitors a year, including regular contingents of students from as far away as Sandpoint, Idaho, and Chinook, Mont.

And because Montana is still Montana, there is almost a complete absence of rules and restrictions in Bannack. Visitors are free to tour the grounds on their own, with or without a guidebook, and they are welcome to bring their dogs, even into all the buildings.

Artifacts are everywhere, many found on site but others brought in by way of illustrating earlier times and customs, and apparently it is enough to ask visitors to leave them alone and hope for the best. The guidebook also asks people not to write on walls or carve in wood, but the universal urge to leave one’s name or some little drawing behind is evidently quite strong. Still, the graffiti artists tend to gather in a few discrete areas, with everything else left untouched.

Did I mention where Bannack is? It’s a little more than 20 miles west and a little south of Dillon, easily accessible on good roads. And getting there is half the fun: I had forgotten how huge and awe-inspiring the Beaverhead Valley is. There is nothing quite like it in Montana.

Bannack, by the way, was named for the Bannock Indians who frequented the area at the time gold was discovered. When the name was sent back to Washington, D.C., the “o” was mistaken for an “a,” showing how the smallest errors can endure for ages, and how the government, once it screws up, sticks to its guns.

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