Sunday, February 3, 2013

James Stuart - A Founder of Philipsburg

James Stuart, detail of mural in Deer Lodge P.O.
Due to various circumstances, history does not always credit individuals with their accomplishments. James Stuart was among the greatest of southwest Montana's pioneers - a founder of Philipsburg and an original incorporator of Deer Lodge. He was also a key player in the establishment of mining and ranching in the region.
His 1863 expedition along the  Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers was an important exploratory venture, and introduced Sam Hauser, a member of the expedition, to the Yellowstone county. Hauser later explored the headwaters of the Yellowstone with the Washburn expedition, and became an important advocate for the founding of Yellowstone National Park.   

Hopefully this synopsis will help to elevate the memory of James Stuart to the level he deserves, following the trail blazed in a 2006 dissertation by T.M. Delaney, "My Destiny to Wander": the Odyssey of James Stuart  (Clark University), from which much of this post is derived.

James was the first child born to Robert and Nancy Curran Stuart on March 14, 1832 in Harrison County Virginia (now West Virginia). When James was four the family moved to Bureau County, Illinois and in 1838 they moved to Muscatine, Iowa. During this period the family grew to four boys: James, Granville, Samuel and Thomas. Father Robert spent considerable time away from the family and the communities he settled in were primitive and located in Indian lands. Because of his upbringing, James was comfortable with Native Americans; loved to explore; hated farming; had a lifelong interest in medicine; was always looking for the next Eldorado and was extremely close to his brother Granville.

In 1849 Robert Stuart followed the goldrush west to California and returned home in 1851. By 1852 Robert desired to return to California with James. James refused to go unless 16 year old Granville was allowed to accompany them. The party of three joined with others and made it to the Sacramento valley on September 28, 1852. Robert returned to Iowa in 1853 leaving James and Granville to their own explorations. After numerous mining failures, lessons in life and the failures of man the brothers left Yreka, California in the spring of 1857 to return to the states in the company of Reece Anderson and eight other young prospectors.

Due to Granville becoming ill and the numerous dangers on the trail the group ended up spending the winter of 1857-58 in the Beaver Head Valley on the Big Hole River. They became friends with the mountain men also camped there, such as Jacob Meeks, a man named Ross, the LeClaire and Grant families and L.R. Maillet.

From these individuals they learned the art of trading with Indians and the wagon trains. Buying worn out animals from the trains and fattening them up for resale to the next years trains was the beginning of their own cattle and horse herd plus a good income.

During 1858 James, Granville, Reece and Ross explored the Flint Creek Valley and built a horse corral at the mouth of Fred Burr Creek and near present day Maxville.  James and Granville are depicted prospecting the Deer Lodge valley during 1858 in a mural by Verona Burkhart above a door in the post office in Deer Lodge (above). 

In the winter of 1858-59 they wintered at Henry's Fort on the Green River where Indians and trappers rendezvoused. During this period, James had demonstrated his leadership abilities and would continue being the explorer, developer, investor, supervisor, manager and accountant of the numerous mining, real estate and business ventures he was involved in during the next nine years. 

By the fall of 1860 the group had moved their cattle over to the Deer Lodge valley and located at the mouth of Gold Creek. In 1861 they found some good mining prospects and began to settle down in that area. They called the small settlement on their ranch "American Fork", though the next year the name was changed to "Gold Creek." 

James led a group to explore the Three Forks area in 1862; led an expedition into the Yellowstone in 1863 and 1864 (MHS Contributions Vol  I); and was elected sheriff of Missoula County, Washington Territory on the 14th of July 1862 (the first election held west of the Rockies north of Colorado). 

As Sheriff-elect, James soon had to deal with a incident involving horse thieves from Idaho. Three "monte sharps" by the names of Spillman, Jernigan, and Arnett showed up at American Fork, and hot on their trail were two men (known to Stuart only as Fox and Bull) from whom they had stolen horses. Bull was in fact the notorious crooked gambler and gunman John Bull. Fox and Bull requested help apprehending the trio. When confronted, Arnett went for his gun and was killed. James Stuart later reported that Arnett gripped his cards so tightly in one hand, and his gun in the other, that they could not pry them loose, so he had to be buried with them! The miners’ court acquitted one of the surviving card sharps, and convicted and hanged the other, C.W. Spillman, reported by Stuart to have been a personable young man of 24, and by Purple to have been a "mere boy" of 18. 

With good reason, some thought the penalty excessive - even Granville Stuart expresses some misgivings in 40 years on the Frontier - and the name “Hangtown” was “hung” onto American Fork, where it shows up on the 1870 Northern Pacific RR survey map. However, at least procedurally, the justice administered under the supervision of Sheriff-elect James Stuart is far superior to the later "justice" as administered by the vigilance committees. The accused had every opportunity to defend themselves in court, to present their side of the story, and to be accorded a vote of a jury. Much controversy in later Montana history would have been averted if such simple standards of procedure had been applied to accused highwaymen and rustlers. Though, given John Bull's character and later history, one has to wonder whether the theft of the horses may have originated in some kind of gambling dispute, which seemed to follow him wherever he went. The facts might well have been considerably more murky than presented in the Stuart account. 

James took a Bannack Indian wife in early 1863 whose name is unknown and she left him in June 1863. During explorations in 1863 James discovered "a large lake in the canon of Rocky Creek"  (Diary of James Stuart at Yale).

In February 1864, James took as his wife Ellen Lavatta. Her father Thomas was Mexican and her mother was Shoshone Indian. (Thomas is credited with building the first dwelling in what is now Deer Lodge city.) Born to James and Ellen were the following sons: Dick June 13, 1866; Robert April 24, 1868 and John December 26, 1869.

James was elected as Deer Lodge county representative to the 1864
Montana Territory legislature; commissioned in 1865 as lieutenant-colonel by Gov. Edgerton with the authority to call out and organize volunteers during the Blackfoot Indian threats; elected as senior warden of the Flint Creek Lodge of AF and AM (Philipsburg), and junior warden of the Grand Lodge of the Mason's of Montana.

As an entrepreneur, James developed and managed a store and bar with Frank Woody at Gold Creek (This included a blacksmith shop that Granville worked in) beginning in 1861-62; a general store in Bannack 1863 and Virginia City 1863-November 1865 under the name Dance, Stuart and Company; a general store in Deer Lodge in 1863 with a new store built in 1866; Dance Stuart and Company store at Philipsburg in 1867-1870. Higgins and Worden were also invested in Stuart's mercantile developments in Deer Lodge beginning in 1865. With Samuel Thomas Hauser, Stuart staked and bought numerous mining claims in Flint Creek, Argenta, Virginia City and Bannack beginning in 1865 and by 1866 was focused on the smelting operation at Argenta which was financed by the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company.

In 1866 Deer Lodge was chosen as county seat and Dance, Stuart and Company acted as contractors building the infra-structure of the town and county. James was also instrumental in securing the establishment of the Deer Lodge Penitentiary in 1867. He was president of the Deer Lodge Town Company and sold at least 40 lots to the government for the prison to be located on. The Town Company was heavily invested in real estate such as the Fred Burr and John Powell ranches. Also Stuart invested in water ditches and many quartz mining claims.

In 1866 James became a director of a new venture to develop silver mines in Montana Territory, beginning with the Argenta district near Bannack, where smelters were erected in a largely unsuccessful attempt to treat the ore. In June, Hector Horton brought James and Reece Anderson to the upper Flint Creek area and showed him his claims. James immediately began staking claims in the district and, with Sam Hauser, brought in the noted mining engineer Philipp Deidesheimer to look over the prospects. They soon put plans in motion to build a mill. In April 1867 the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company began work and by June, James was the on- site manager. A construction boomtown sprang up near the millsite, which the residents proclaimed to be "Philipsburg" after Philipp Deidesheimer, the designer of both the mill and the town. Based on their key roles in bringing Philipsburg to life, Philip Deidesheimer and James Stuart should be considered to be the founders of Philipsburg. 

On October 15, 1867 the James Stuart Mill was completed and began operation at the east end of Broadway in Philipsburg. A mill expected to cost less than $40,000 cost $75,000 at completion and at that time, James also took on the duties of superintendent of the Mill. James Stuart was heavily invested in its success.

Circumstances such as drought in the Deer Lodge valley, lack of money from St. Louis for smelting operations; ore being in short supply causing numerous mill shut downs; Stuart feeling obligated to pay the employees instead of servicing the mill debt and a general downturn in the mining and real estate economy created a downward spiral of debt for James. Delaney states "In many ways 1870 was a lost year for Stuart". In March Stuart did his last work for the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company. Debtors and the courts were busy through out the year and James signed about $15,000 worth of assets over to Granville. At some point the Territory of Montana  declared James bankrupt and the notice was published April 14, 1871.

James left his family and became Post clerk, physician and personal representative to Special Agent A. J. Simmons at Fort Browning in north eastern Montana, in 1871. In 1873 the Indian Agency split up the tribes and Stuart followed Simmons to Fort Peck. In June of 1873 he visited with his family in Deer Lodge and asked Granville to bring his body back to Deer Lodge should he die. He had been ill and diagnosed himself with liver disease. James did not drink, and it is possible that he suffered liver damage from exposure to lead and other heavy metals in his work around the Argenta smelters and other ore processing operations.  In August he had another attack and on September 18th became very ill. Below is a postscript he added to a letter that Major Culbertson sent to Granville from Fort Peck.

He suffered with great pain until he was found dead sitting in a chair with his head in his hands on the morning of September 30, 1873. 

Granville and Thomas Stuart and many friends, including John G. McLean of Philipsburg, picked up James body on October 24, and began the long 500 mile journey back to the city of Deer Lodge. The father of Deer Lodge was granted the honor he deserved at a grand service on November 12, 1873 performed by the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. Burial was in the Deer Lodge Hillcrest Cemetery.

In the resolutions passed prior to the funeral service is the following statement: "...And here in his home, in the town of which he was founder, amid those who knew him best and esteemed him most, beside the self chosen grave where his remains will rest, we do sincerely attest his virtues to the world, and with sad hearts consign his body to the earth." (MHS Contributions Vol. I p 59).

Ellen Stuart married H. Trahant on October 1872; Granville took Dick and Robert into his household and they continued working at his DHS ranch in later years. Robert married and had two daughters, who moved to California with Robert's wife when they divorced. There is no mention of the youngest child John according to Delaney or  Milner-O'Conner research. James may have had a girl whose mother's name was Isabel prior to marrying Ellen. Some documents speculate she may have been adopted by Johnny Grant. 

James' also had a son named James who contacted Granville in later years and carried on correspondence with him. 

He was a member of the Nez Perce tribe and older than the other known children. James was born to Susan Michel who probably left Stuart while he was on his Yellowstone Expedition of 1863. He is kneeling in the picture at left, with Chief Joseph in the center. Young James graduated from the Chemawa School at Salem Oregon in 1885 and was one of the first Nez Perce to "seek the white man's education." At the age of 26 in 1889 James worked for three years as the translator for Alice Fletcher, Anthropologist who was assigned by the U.S. Government to oversee the allotment of Nez Perce lands. His life was devoted to the Nez Perce tribe. James campaigned for the Dawes Act that was enacted to break up Indian reservations. He communicated with his uncle Granville during a visit to Washington D.C. in 1904 while he was petitioning the Federal Government for $20,000 owed to the Nez Perce tribe (Lee Library BYU). He believed the Indians should be allowed to function as taxpaying citizens and contribute to the paving of roads and other national improvements. James served as a surveyor, real estate agent, judge of the tribal courts, president of the Nez Perce Home and Farm Association (a group that established a new tribal council in 1927), served for many years as the legal head of the Nez Perce Tribe, and published an open letter campaigning for Indian rights and involvement in October 20, 1919. He was known to his tribe as "Roosevelt of the Nez Perce", stated the  Spokane Chronicle 10-20-1929.  James died on October 1, 1929 at the age of 67 on the Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, Idaho after a long illness. He had been in charge of the Forestry Department of the reservation until 3 years before his death. James had "amassed a fortune in real estate" according to the Helena Independent October 2, 1929. There is no record of children and his obituary stated his widow (un-named) survived him.


  1. I'm trying to trace James' Children & am particularly interested in knowing more about his daughter Mary. I also recall seeing a picture of her online, about 6 years old. Any information will be greatly appreciated. Please contact me at In advance, thank you very much.
    Anita Grant Steele

    1. Two years late, but if you're still interested Professor, Dr. T.M Delaney, writer of the Dissertation: “‘My destiny to wander’: The Odyssey of James Stuart” which this is based off of, might know more. Here is a link to his website

    2. Dr. Delaney came to Philipsburg and was a presenter at our Granite County Historical Society Seminar in 2013. He does not have any information about the descendants. Good to see that readers are involved.