Saturday, March 9, 2013

First Discovery of Gold in Montana

The credit for the "first discovery of gold in Montana" has long been a source of controversy, partly deriving from a campaign by Granville Stuart to get the legislature to declare him to be the discoverer and to grant him a pension for this signal service to the State. (See Delaney, P. 296, fn 74).
 Granville's version of events is celebrated in a monument at the mouth of Gold Creek that was erected in October 1917, a year before his death (below left), and his tombstone is emblazoned with the claim that he was the "Discoverer of Gold in Montana."
Shirley Thomas at Gold Creek monument

James and Granville Stuart first prospected Gold Creek in 1858, on the Powell County side of a large placer district shared with Granite County. During 1857, while travelling east through southern Idaho from California, where they had been prospecting and mining, the Stuarts heard from Fred Burr that a party led by him had during the previous summer found gold panning in a stream known as Benetsee Creek. (Historical Sketch and Essay on the Resources of Montana, 1868, pp. 41-42).  The Stuarts decided to avoid the "Mormon war" then in progress and travel north into Montana where they wintered with a number of mountain men in the Big Hole Valley (Bancroft p. 615). Among these mountain men were several, including Robert Hereford, who had panned gold in Benetsee Creek during 1856. Indeed, Hereford had found a small nugget which he gave to the chief Hudson Bay Co. trader, Richard Grant. 

Gold had first been found there by Francois Finlay, AKA Benetsee, in 1852; this appears to be one of several places gold was panned in Montana around that time, including in Henderson Creek near Maxville, where in 1849 it seems Angus McDonald of the Hudson Bay Co. sponsored an prospecting party that ran afoul of hostile Blackfeet Indians, and on February 15, 1852 near Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley, where John Owen noted some gold had been found in a branch of the Burnt Fork. The report on Henderson Creek is by Major William Y. Graham, a founder of the Montana Historical Society, and that the Flint Creek watershed yielded the first gold in Montana is confirmed in an account by Angus McDonald himself.  Henderson Gulch, a  tributary of Flint Creek and entirely within Granite County, should rightly be regarded as the site of the first discovery of gold within the future boundaries of Montana.  

Even earlier reports, such as Father de Smet reporting to his brother that he had seen the bed of a stream covered with golden sand, are believed by us, and others, to be erroneous. Gold has a very high specific gravity and is generally far too dense to be laying on the surface of a streambed. Even at the richest placer discoveries,  like Virginia City, the first prospectors did not find a streambed covered with gold - digging was necessary to get at the gold and panning was necessary to find it. Other minerals like mica can have a golden color and are light enough to cover a streambed. 

But Father De Smet provides strong evidence confirming the early prospecting of Flint Creek. In an 1865 letter to General Pleasanton, he tells of a story told him by an old Salish Indian of gold at "Pointed Arrow Creek" (which must be a allusion to the "Arrow Point"/Henderson Creek location discussed by William Graham). De Smet had also related a similar story to a prospector named Harkness who met Father De Smet at Great Falls in 1862. Harkness then prospected Flint Creek, referring to it as "Father de Smet's El Dorado". Relating Harkness' journal to geography, it seems he panned colors at Henderson Gulch, before running into impassable down timber and boulders in Boulder Creek, as he worked his way upstream.

In De Smet's version, the story grew into an exaggerated rumor of a streambed covered with gold, possibly in part from translation problems as De Smet did not speak Salish and relied on interpreters. De Smet does not say when he heard this rumor of gold, but in reconstructing the timeline of his travels it can only be in 1859, when he rushed to Fort Benton and missed his travel connection east. The fact that he heard the story from a Salish source indicates that, contrary to the popular image, tribal members were well aware of gold in the region. We would not be surprised if the first party to pan gold in Montana was a mixed group of Salish and fur traders such as Francois Finlay who knew the process of gold prospecting. 

Finlay was a fur trader associated with the Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Connah in the Flathead Valley. Historian Tom Stout described him thusly :
Francois Finlay, or Benetsee, after exchanging his colored clothes, beads, powder, lead, and what-not (perhaps whiskey) with the red wanderers of the west, for furs and buffalo robes, became so prosperous that he bought a large drove of horses in California and brought them to Deer Lodge Valley.  How many years passed in such occupations, history recordeth not; but it is known that Benetsee went to reside in that pleasant place in Montana sometime prior to 1850.
Francois was the son of the famed explorer and fur trader Jocko Finley. The Jocko Finley family tree is large and very complex. Perhaps Francois' mother was Susan, a Salteaux Indian from Canada. If so, both his mother and paternal grandmother were of Native American stock. His grandfather James G. Finley was a Scot who was involved in founding the Northwest Company, and who had a partner named Francois who was his grandson's namesake - thus, the common misperception that Francois Finlay must have been of French extraction.

Journalist Greg Strandberg dug up an interview with Benetsee's son which is perhaps our best source on his appearance and personality.

He was a very intelligent man and could read and write and the Indians of this western country, all of whose languages he could speak, trusted him implicitly.  “Benetsee” was always called upon to settle disputes, for they recognized him as being fair and square in all things.
He was a big man in every way, about six feet in height, with piercing dark brown eyes that could flash fire at times, although he was of a gentle nature.  He had shaggy hair and eyebrows like his Scotch ancestors, and a deep, broad chest.  He had a mustache, but no beard.  His appearance was always neat and he kept us that way when he was around, yet he was always kind and considerate, if firm, and was a hard worker and a mighty good provider.
I was but a year old when my father went to California to seek his fortune in the gold diggings.  Of course, I do not remember anything about those days, but it was there he had his first experience in placer mining.  He did not make much of a stake and soon returned to the land of the open range – the land of his fathers.
I was but four years old when he prospected for gold, as he did as often as he took the notion.  He found some in 1852 on what was then called Benetsee creek – now called Gold Creek – more gold than he was ever given credit for, for it was kept as much of a secret as possible, as I have mentioned before.  He took it to Angus MacDonald, who at that time was engaged in the fur trade, and, like all the fur traders, feared that the news of the discovery of gold would bring in a horde of whites and thus ruin his business.  He urged my father to keep the matter quiet, which he did.  How much he got out of MacDonald I do not know, nor did he ever tell me, but it must have been quite a grubstake.
My father did return to his diggings and washed out more gold.  Some of it he traded for supplies at Fort Owen and the rest he left with the company.  It must have amounted to over $1,000.
He tired of his labor in the placer diggings, however, and returned to the life he really loved, guiding and packing, and spending the rest of his time with the Indians he loved and who loved and adored him.
I was about 27 or 28 years old when father dropped dead at the home of my sister Ellen [Moran] near Frenchtown.  They had a ranch there.  He dropped dead on the way from the house to the barn.  I am not quite sure, but I believe this was in 1876.
A booklet by Granville Stuart written in 1865 is our earliest source for the information that Finlay found gold at Benetsee/Gold Creek in 1852. Perhaps this was during a trading trip though other sources indicate Finlay set up a trading camp at Benetsee Creek and lived there for extended periods of time. In any event, after his initial discovery he returned to Gold Creek to mine more seriously,  grubstaked by Angus McDonald, the operator of Fort Connah. Angus McDonald emerges from history as an important financier of early Montana prospecting, grubstaking two of the earliest efforts to mine gold in Montana, at Benetsee (Gold) Creek and at Henderson/Arrow Point. 

While Finlay's discovery is sometimes represented as "mere colors" or "float gold", it is possible that he found some "easy pickings" in the previously untouched and unexplored channel and panned quite a bit of gold. Finlay family oral history unearthed by Kim Briggeman states that the discovery of gold was a family affair with the first nugget noticed by his daughter Sophie. We think it likely that Finlay had learned to dig and pan for gold on a trading trip to California and that Sophie may have picked a nugget out of his gold pan. 

In any case, it seems Finlay panned more gold than "mere colors", possibly a lot more. According to correspondence in the New Northwest in 1875, a man named John Silverthorne showed up at the trading post in Fort Benton in 1856 with about $1500 worth of gold (several pounds of gold) he said he mined in the mountains somewhere to the southwest. The location of Silverthorne's mine is a long-standing mystery but it appears Silverthorne was married to another of Finlay's daughters, Losett. Soon after marrying her in 1856 he was at Fort Benton looking to sell gold for supplies. It's a reasonable supposition that Silverthorne either mined the gold with Finlay, obtained the gold from Finlay in trade, or was selling the gold on his behalf.  

It is often stated, quite inaccurately, that John Mullan or other members of the Stevens railroad survey in 1853 panned gold in Benetsee Creek, and, being ignorant of Finlay's discovery, named the creek "Gold Creek". Perhaps the history by Bancroft is the original source of this error, misreading the Stevens report. In fact, page 120 of the report from the Stevens expedition states that they heard from the Indians of a gold mine in a tributary to the Hellgate River (Clark's Fork). When Mullan later visited the area - which he does not name but which in context one can see is Benetsee Creek - it was too frozen and snowy to properly reconnoiter.  Mullan's later report on the construction of the Military (Mullan) Road indicates that Lander of the Stevens expedition did find gold in a creek they named "Gold Creek" but this creek was located in the vicinity of Bearmouth or Beavertail... given geologic conditions, it seems most likely that Mullan's "Gold Creek" was Bear Creek or a tributary of Bear. It certainly was not Benetsee Creek. In fact, Mullan's preliminary report on the Military Road in 1861 refers many times to "Benetzi Creek", showing he was well aware of Finlay's association with the gold discovery there. The fact that the Indians, Stevens, Mullan, and mountain men such as Burr and Hereford all knew of Finlay's discovery shows that the common report that he kept it secret is completely incorrect. The report of Mullan that they heard of a gold mine at the "head" of the creek may be taken as evidence that Finlay was somewhere near Pioneer (perhaps on Gold Creek proper), not down by the mouth (as speculated by Pardee), where showings are lean. 

Indeed, it would be at Pioneer that Montana's first industrial scale gold mining - complete with ditches and sluices - got its start in 1862. As previously recounted, in 1856 a party led by Robert Hereford panned at Benetzi/Gold Creek (Stuart fn p. 137), and told James Stuart of their prospecting (Delaney, p. 245).  During the Stuarts' prospecting trip with Fred Burr in the Flint Creek Valley in 1858, it appears that Benetsee visited their camp and discussed his find (Delaney, p. 245). No doubt Fred Burr chimed in based on his panning there. Doubtless spurred by these discussions, the Stuarts then left Flint Creek and traveled to Gold Creek. According to Granville Stuart (40 years on the Frontier, p. 136) they prospected up Gold Creek for about 5 miles, saw no previous diggings, and decided to dig a hole near the creek "near the foot of the mountains." Stuart later reported to the Society of Pioneers that this work was in "Pine Tree Gulch", which he stated was a mile upstream from the Northern Pacific Tracks (Anaconda Standard, August 23, 1912). He later marked the site with a board (Montana Standard, November 23, 1913). 

Stuart's one mile estimate from 1912 is difficult to reconcile with his other statements. Travelling south up Gold Creek, the first substantial hills begin to rise above the valley just past the mouth of Pikes Peak Creek, more than three miles from the railroad tracks. As we will shortly see, this is where Con Kohrs says that a miner nicknamed "Gold Tom" sunk a shaft in 1860, and Stuart reported that this shaft was only a few yards away from where they had worked in 1858.   

Stuart reports the gravel panned in 1858 produced about 10 cents worth of gold to the pan, which would be a good result.  In the fall of 1860 the Stuarts decided to return to Gold Creek and stake a claim right at the place they had worked in 1858 (Stuart, p. 155). This is apparently where they worked in 1861-1862, building ditches and flumes, and made their first commercial-scale effort to mine gold.  Stuarts' claim is likely the first mining claim staked within the boundaries of what would become Montana.  

However, in the summer of 1860, months before the Stuarts returned to Gold Creek, Henry Thomas AKA "Gold Tom" was prospecting in the vicinity. Perhaps he first prospected Gold Creek itself a mile west of Pioneer (Stuart, p. 161), though Stuart's directions are at times confusing. For example, he places Pikes Peak gulch two miles north of Pioneer (p. 212); Pikes Peak gulch is in fact east of Pioneer and even the confluence with Pioneer is northeast, not north.  In any case, Gold Tom made a concerted effort to mine gold on Pioneer Creek, only a few yards from the Stuart prospects (Stuart, p. 162).   This is considered by some to be the first actual gold mining in Montana and led to proposals that "Gold Tom" be considered to be the "Sutter of Montana". The location of these diggings, which included sinking a shaft and using several rough-hewn sluice boxes,  is stated in Conrad Kohrs' autobiography to have been at a point about  3 1/2 miles above the confluence of Gold Creek with the Clark's Fork and 2 1/2 miles below Pioneer,  which places "Gold Tom" a short distance above the confluence of Pikes Peak Creek and Pioneer Creek, on Pioneer. From reports at the time and from later attempts to mine in this place it is clear that while some gold is present, the diggings in this spot did not "pay wages".  According to Stuart (p. 162) Gold Tom only recovered about $1.50 worth of gold per day. 

During 1861 the Stuarts established a small settlement at the mouth of Gold Creek they called American Fork. No doubt the Stuarts named their town in honor of Sutter's discovery of gold in California on the American River, and hoped to evoke Sutter's success. 

Like much of the early history and geography of the area, the exact location of American Fork is not easy to ascertain, because it was apparently abandoned in 1863 when the Stuarts and other miners moved to the boomtown at Montana's greatest gold discovery, Virginia City. Granville Stuart says that they located at the "crossing" of Gold Creek. A November 12, 2013 post on this blog revises our original notion of where the town of American Fork was located to better conform to survey notes and local information (Shirley Thomas). 

The Stuart brothers definitely deserve credit for drawing the attention of prospectors to the area in 1861 and 1862, and they set up a store and blacksmith shop to capitalize on the modest influx of miners. However, pioneer journals and accounts, (especially of the Stuarts, Kohrs, McAdow, Blake and others) and well as detailed scholarly study of papers and diaries (especially Delaney's 2006 dissertation "My Destiny to Wander: the Odyssey of James Stuart) provide a clear picture of the sequence of events on Gold Creek during 1861 and 1862, and demonstrate that gold was first mined commercially not at Stuarts' claims, which were some distance upstream from American Fork, but even further upstream, near where the town of Pioneer would eventually be established. All the diggings were far upstream from the monument near the railroad tracks.  

In the spring of 1862 the Stuarts began mining, apparently at or near this same place, but their results were also poor, only ten to twelve dollars per week for the work of their entire party of five or six men, insufficient to pay wages for even one man, though on May 21st they did find a nugget weighing about half an ounce. They were all "disgusted" and ready to quit (Delaney, p. 310 and 311). Stuart later reported that the entire party only recovered $359.50 worth of gold for an entire summer's work. Meanwhile Perry McAdow and Abraham Sterns Blake, working several miles upstream, were showing promising results - twenty cents a pan. The spot on Pioneer where they were mining, just above the confluence with French gulch  (also in Kohrs) was not a bonanza, but definitely commercial, with each man soon earning ten or twelve dollars per day. So the Stuarts moved up and staked claims immediately below McAdow and Blake. This sequence of events demonstrates that McAdow and Blake made the first well-documented, commercial gold discovery in Montana.  McAdow certainly saw himself and Blake as being the first successful gold miners on Gold Creek, if you read his account "Perry McAdow and Montana, 1862-1863", which was contained in a 1908 letter he wrote from retirement in Florida and published in the January 1952 Montana Magazine of Western History. Nonetheless, the true "Sutter of Montana" is Francois Finlay, who discovered gold - likely a substantial amount of it - along what at first was rightly known as Benetsee Creek, a decade before McAdow and Blake, which spurred the later prospecting and mining there. Nonetheless, the historical record makes clear that an even earlier discovery was made at Flint Creek/Henderson Gulch, as chronicled by Angus McDonald, William Graham, and Father Pierre De Smet. 


  1. MY Great Great Grandfather lived in Gold Creek along with Granville & James Stuart and Frank Warden in 1862. I have his journal where he writes about his days in Gold Creek as they are happening. He was also there when they hung Charlie Spillman, " the very first hanging in what would laer be called Montana". Are you an historian of Gold Creek? I am visiting Montana and would love a tour of Gold Creek if you know anyone interested in giving it? PLease give me a call @ 406-465-5667, Jacoby. My email adress is

    1. I just so happens that the Mullan Conference is in Deer Lodge on the 19th and 20th of May and Ted (Co-author) is doing a presentation at the supper on the 19th and the two of us are doing a field trip to Gold Creek etc along the Mullan Road all day Saturday the 20th.
      Would love to read your great great grandfathers journal. Will e-mail you
      Loraine Bentz Domine