Last month I shared a bit about Virginia City, Montana and its meteoric rise and fall as a great city nestled in the Montana mountains. However, before there was Virginia City another city was the jewel of Montana built set in a gold rush.
|One side of the street in Bannock, MT (photo from Kirsten Lynn)|
Despite all the years I lived in Montana, I never made it to Bannack until last summer, and what a wonder. The town is actually bustling for a ghost town, only now it only bustles from morning until sundown during the summer months. Walking down the streets and into the many buildings visitors can go back in time to when Bannack was one of biggest and baddest towns in the West.
|More Bannack, MT (photo by Kirsten Lynn)|
Bannack was founded in 1862 when John White discovered gold on Grasshopper Creek. As with most gold strikes, prospectors and businessmen flooded into the area. By 1864, Bannack was named as the Territorial Capital of Montana. Bannack didn’t remain the capital for long as it was soon transferred to Virginia City.
Only a year after gold was discovered in Bannack, the prized nuggets were found near Virginia City and many prospectors moved on to the renewed hope of fortune. However, some stayed on in Bannack trying new mining techniques.
From 1862 to the 1930s, Bannack continued as a mining town its population fluctuating. By the 1950s most people had moved on and the mining dwindled to nothing. With the last of the town’s citizens gone, the State of Montana declared Bannack a State Park.
|Bannack, MT school and Masonic Lodge (photo by Kirsten Lynn)|
When Bannack and Virginia City were at their zenith, the road between the two towns was the scene of more holdups, robberies, and murders than almost any other comparable stagecoach route. The worst of the outlaw gangs in the area had none other than Bannack’s own sheriff as its leader.
Henry Plummer was born and raised in Maine. He headed West in 1852 and settled in Nevada City, California. There he opened a bakery. Well-liked and ambitious, Plummer was elected sheriff in 1856. However, in 1857, Plummer was convicted of second-degree murder for killing an unarmed man. Though he claimed it was in self-defense, he was convicted after witnesses testified he was having an affair with the murdered man’s wife.
After six months in San Quentin prison, Plummer was released. He made good again in Nevada until a shootout in a whorehouse sent him on the run. He hooked up with outlaws traveling through Idaho. Plummer named his crew, “The Innocents.” Go figure.
When Plummer arrived in Bannack, Montana in 1862, the people knew nothing of his record. A likable sort of fellow he was able to convince the residents to elect him sheriff in May of 1863. He built his jail to have rings put in the floor so prisoners could not escape by punching holes in the sod roof. Little did the people of Bannack know Plummer should have been the first resident in his jail, but they did notice he wasn’t able to stop the string of murders and robberies conducted by road agents terrorizing the town.
|Bannack Jail (yes that's me behind bars, Kirsten Lynn)|
A vigilance committee of nearly 2000 members was created. It didn’t take them long to destroy Plummer’s gang. Erastus “Red” Yeager revealed Plummer’s complicity right before they hanged him. On a bitter cold January morning in 1864, the Vigilantes arrested Plummer. Despite his pleas for his life Plummer was hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for another. By that spring all of “The Innocents” were dead or departed.
While certainly one of the more colorful characters, Plummer was just one of many who added to the fascinating history of Bannack. Today you can visit the old hotel, school, mayor’s house, saloon, and even bachelor’s row among other businesses and homes and truly step back into Montana’s past in its first Capital.
Kirsten Lynn is a Western and Military Historian. She worked six years with a Navy non-profit and continues to contract with the Marine Corps History Division for certain projects. Making her home where her roots were sewn in Wyoming, Kirsten also works as a local historian. She loves to use the history she has learned and add it to a great love story. She writes stories about men of uncommon valor…women with undaunted courage…love of unwavering devotion …and romance with unending sizzle. When she’s not writing, she finds inspiration in day trips through the Bighorn Mountains, binge reading and watching sappy old movies, or sappy new movies. Housework can always wait.