Saturday, November 16, 2013

John Silverthorn's Secret Gold Mine

The mystery of John Silverthorn and his secret gold mine - one that bears directly on assigning proper credit for the first discovery of gold in Montana - was ably recounted by Dan Meschter in Flint chips No. 78.
"Everybody  in the mining camps liked to reminisce about who first discovered gold in Montana. Granville Stuart reopened the argument in the fall of 1875 when he wrote in the New Northwest how his old friend, Tom Henry or 'Gold Tom', as he was better known, first mined gold on Gold Creek in the summer of 1860. No one seriously argued that the first discovery in Montana was made by anybody other than Francois Finlay, or Benetzee: so that now the question zeroed in on who was the first to engage in actual  mining.
Lt. James Bradley of the 7th Infantry, stationed at Fort Shaw responded with a tale about John Silverthorne he had heard from Major Culbertson and thus started a legend that still is cited in the annals of Montana mining :
"It is probably generally known that  the  American Fur Company
founded by Mr. Astor and subsequently controlled by Pierre
Choteau had a trading post at or near the site of the present town
of Fort Benton from the year 1831 to the settlement of Montana.
Maj. Alexander Culbertson was for a number of years in charge of
that post and was at the time of which I have to speak, namely the
year 1856. In the month of October. a stranger appeared at the
Fort coming up the trail from the southwest. He evidently was a
mountaineer and his objective was to purchase supplies. Producing
a sack , he displayed a quantity of yellow dust which he claimed
was gold and for which he demanded $1,000; offering to take it all
in goods. Nothing was known at the Fort of the existence of gold
in the adjoining country and Maj. Culbertson was loath to accept
the offered dust, having doubts of its genuineness. Besides, even if
gold, he was uncertain of its value in this crude state. He was
about to decline it when an employee of the Fort, a young man
named Ray, came to the aid of the mountaineer and by his
assurances as to the genuineness of the gold and the value of the
quantity offered, induced Maj. Culbertson to accept."
The Mountaineer was reticent as to the locality where he
obtained his gold , but stated that he had been engaged in
prospecting in the mountains to the southwest . Receiving in
exchange for his dust a supply of horses, arms, ammunition,
blankets, tobacco, provisions and other supplies , he quietly left
the Fort on his return to the mountains. The following year he sent
the gold through the hands of Mr. Choteau to the mint and in due
time received as the yield thereof $1,525, the dust having proved
to be remarkably pure gold. (Condensed from the New Northwest, October 8, 1875).
It was not until years later , Bradley said. that he learned from a
certain Mr. Mercure, a resident of Fort Benton and an old-time
employee of the American Fur Company, that the old mountaineer
was John Silverthorne.
The next week, 'E' , a correspondent from German Gulch,
recalled Silverthorne:
"Sometime in the autumn of 1853, I happened in Shasta City,
Cal., and there met a Montanian, or at least one who claimed to be
geographically such, who was called Silverthorne and who had
some $1,500 gold dust. (Id. October 15, 1875)
Both Bradley and 'E' considered Silverthorne a man of mystery
and Bradley wrote that "for several years he remained in the
Territory, occasionally appearing at the settlements with gold in
abundance, but that he could not be induced to divulge the secret
of his diggings."
The prospectors loved this kind of tale. 'Lost' gold mines and
unknown prospectors had a special fascination for them and they
dreamed of solving such mysteries.
Stuart kept aloof from this tale, possibly because he knew quite
well that John Silverthorne had settled in the Bitterroot valley near
Fort Owen before 1860, married an Indian woman named Losett,
and was still alive there while all this was being discussed. True
to form, Stuart remained silent.
The tale of John Silverthorne was true enough and the historian
Michael Lesson quoted Bradley's letter in his 'History of Montana ,
1739-1885.' Like a good historian, however, Leeson probed
deeper and found that:
"This claim (that Silverthorne was Montana's first gold miner) is
founded on the facts set forth in Bradley's letter and might easily
be sustained had not Matt Carroll, himself one of the leading and
oldest settlers in Montana, who knew Silverthorne well, qualified
the statement by saying that the gold in question was found in the
Kootenai mine north of the boundary in Canada. (Leeson, 1885 p.
If anyone doubts the reality of John Silverthorne, he died in
Stevensville December 16. 1887 and is buried with his wife in
Maplewood Cemetery under a large monument that testifies
to his existence.
This telling of the Silverthorn tale should be qualified on several points. The information Leeson obtained from Matt Carroll seems unlikely, as the Kootenai Gold rush did not start until gold was discovered along Wild Horse Creek in 1863, years after Silverthorn had sold his gold. Also, in Bradley's Manuscript 2 published by the Historical Society, he states the dust in question contained $25 worth of silver. Given gold and silver prices in 1856, this means it was about 810 fine (81% gold and 19% silver). This is hardly "remarkably pure" but rather is below the fineness of most Montana gold including that of Pioneer - however the big mine on Gold Creek proper, to the west of Pioneer Gulch, is the Master mine, which is reported by Jeff Loen in his thesis on the district (see p. 86) to have gold ranging in fineness from 775 to 825 - a good match for the Silverthorn gold. Perhaps there were some "easy pickings" somewhere on Gold Creek proper that Finlay discovered and mined. Interestingly, an article in the Montana Standard 28 November 1937, Page 10, maintains that the remains of Benetsee's cabin are located on Gold Creek proper, a mile or so west of Pioneer. So there is at least some historical belief that Benetsee mined on Gold Creek itself. 

Lastly, Granville Stuart did not remain silent on the controversy. Granville was single-minded in making the case that he - Granville - should be regarded to be the first "real" discoverer of gold in Montana.  Decades later, when pioneer Robert Vaughn was preparing a book on Montana history, he wrote to Stuart laying out the case for Silverthorn. Stuart replied as follows:

...  Upon learning of Bradly's statement about Silverthorne's
gold and which was a surprise to a considerable number of old
timers, myself included, who were intimately acquainted with
him (Silverthorne), I took steps to ascertain where that gold
came from and the late W. F. Wheeler and myself found in
the journals kept by John Owen at Fort Owen in the Bitter
Root vallev since the year 1852 the evidence that John Owen
brought that gold dust up from the Dalles in Oregon, and sent
Silverthorne over to Fort Benton to buy goods with it to trade
with the Flathead Indians, and besides all the old timers knew
that "Silver," as we used to call him, never owned that amount
of gold in his whole life (he's dead now, rest his soul), and
never knew of nor worked any secret mines because there
never were any in Montana, and we who well know "Silver"
could readily imagine the pleasure it gave him to stuff the
American Fur Company's men at Fort Benton (none of whom
knew anything about mining) with his yarn about his secret
mines, etc., etc. Very truly yours,
Granville Stuart.
But this story of Granville's also has the flavor of a "yarn", one of several he spun to bolster his own claim to be "The Discoverer" of gold in Montana. The Owen Journals were edited by Paul Philips, a professor of history at Missoula, and published in 1927. The book is well indexed and John Silverthorn, a friend and associate of Owen, is frequently mentioned in the Journal.  No story of him getting gold from John Owen and taking it to Fort Benton appears.  In fact, Philips wrote an article for the Montana Standard (April 3, 1929) in which he makes the case that Silverthorn got the $1525 worth of gold dust from Finlay, modifying the position taken earlier in his career, when Philips was dismissive of both Silverthorn and Finlay, and championed Granville Stuart's version of the first discovery of gold in Montana. Overall, the connection between Silverthorn and Finlay seems sound and strongly bolstered by other evidence as we will shortly see.

Granville's Stuart's companion on his research trip to Fort Owen, W. F. Wheeler, Montana's third U.S. Marshall and librarian of the Montana Historical Society, makes yet another appearance in the Silverthorn story. Tom Stout's 1921 history of Montana contains a section titled "Silverthorn no longer a mystery". In this section, Wheeler is quoted as saying that the gold was obtained from Francois Finlay and amounted to only $15.00 worth of gold. Other historians such as Helen Sanders assert that this version of events was obtained from Silverthorn personally, by Wheeler, and a Wheeler manuscript references a narrative by Silverthorn.  This narrative is  excerpted in a footnote to Oren Sassman's 1941 thesis on the historic mining in Beaverhead County, at P. 38.

Despite Wheeler's account, we regard Lieutenant Bradley as the better historian -  indeed, the namesake of a Montana Historical Society research fellowship, and one of our primary sources on Montana's fur trade era.  It is a stretch to think he was off by a factor of 100x on the quantity of gold.

Writing in the 1950's, UM professor George Weisel reviewed the Silverthorn saga in an article titled "The Mystery of John W. Silverthorne". He reviewed Bradley's information (referring to him as the "Herodotus of Montana"), researched the records of Fort Benton and found no gold transaction in 1856, though several years before $100 in gold was traded at the fort. He also reviewed the reports of the Stevens railroad survey and concludes that Finlay, not Silverthorn, is the discoverer of gold in Montana.

Lastly, Montana novelist and historian Dan Cushman spins his own yarn about Silverthorn's gold in his 1973 account of "The Gold Frontier". In Cushman's account, the most likely source of Silverthorn's gold is California, taken from dry-gulched settlers by Bannock Indians and "fenced" in the Bitteroot Valley - to none other than Fred Burr! This seems far-fetched, and is not backed up by the character of either Burr or of California placer gold, which is generally about 900 fine.

What none of these sources reported, and apparently did not realize, was that John Silverthorn was married to Losett Finlay, one of Francois Finlay's daughters.  Perhaps the simplest interpretation of the series of events is that Finlay panned considerable gold from Benetsee Creek (on the Gold Creek branch) and gave a quantity of it to his son-in-law, John Silverthorn, to purchase trade goods at Fort Benton.

In light of the family relationship, the Silverthorn tale, instead of presenting a rival account of the first significant discovery of gold in Montana, might be seen as bolstering the case for Francois Finlay.

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