Search for Gold in Montana

The Search For Gold In Montana 

Stanley wrote in his letters to Mr James U Sanders secretary of the Montana Pioneers and son of Wilbur F Sanders, that the gold rush was in full flow by the time he arrived at Fort Benton. Fort Benton was originally a Fur and Robe trading point, but because gold fever had taken hold the trade had all but stopped. Alder Gulch (named after the Alder trees lining the valley it was situated in) was awash with prospector camps staking their claims. The population had swelled to over 10,000 (less than 6 months after the original discovery had been made) and finding a decent plot of land was going to be hard work. Stanley set his sights on heading for Bannack. He did a little prospecting and deer hunting, then set up a cabin with John Crab (as previous story told) in between Virginia City and Nevada City before the winter of 1863 set in. Winters in Montana are well known for their snow blizzards and freezing temperatures, so hunting for food and a decent home was a necessity to see them through this testing time. 

"Hells Gate" on the Kootenay River in 1857 by Endre Cleven 


When the summer of 1864 had arrived,  Reginald and Co had heard of a strike on the Kootenay (Kootenai) river northwest of Virginia City. They headed to a place called "Hell Gate" Canyon. On the journey several prospectors were returning empty handed complaining of no luck, which must have disheartened the men, hoping to find riches on this expedition. One night while in camp, Bob (as Reginald was known, because it was a more manly name in Western America) sat and discussed the situation with two of another party heading in the same direction Daniel Jackson Miller or as he was known D.J and John Cowan. He persuaded them they had found colour with Captain Fisk's party while crossing the range and they should head for Little Blackfoot River instead.

Splitting from the main party they took off in their own direction. Reaching Little Blackfoot, they indeed found some good colour but it wasn't worthy of a camp. The party decided to cross the range and explore the eastern slope instead, proceeding up stream digging holes as they went. The trail soon began to cover in thick pine bush, which was hard to cut through. Suddenly the weather turned on its head and for about three days its rained constantly, bringing morale to an all time low. Surely with things not going their way, turning back would have been the easiest option. Thankfully the skies became clearer and a rocky peak appeared above the top of the pine trees, they could see a river with a mountain range in the distance. There could be no mistake it was the Missouri which gave the explorers a great boost. The next morning full of vigor they headed down the gulch in search of gold, prospecting along the way, but still only bringing colours. Stanley and Co then turned south east along the range setting up camp at the mouth of a little stream. John Crab managed to find some good colour, even the bed of the stream on the surface yielded a float gold colour. It was the best spot so far but with no nuggets so the party decided to move on. To cut the story short the further north they headed the less colours they found, so the men headed back to "the last chance gulch" as one of the party described it. Setting up camp on the 14th July 1864, they fed and then set about digging holes. In Stanley's letter below, there is a passage describing, that first discovery in his own words.

"I can well re-call the scene and my feelings as I strolled up the gulch, a fine still evening, with the charm of treading the unknown and unexplored. There was little to distinguish the gulch from many others we had seen, a tiny stream rippled under the gravel banks, bordered with choke, cherry and sarvus berry bushes, the low hills on either side rising steeper as the gulch entered the mountain range. I commenced a hole on a bar and put down to the bedrock, some six or seven feet deep - taking a pan of gravel from the bottom, I clambered out, and panned it in the little stream close by three or four little flat smooth nuggets and some fine gold was the result, nuggets that made the pan ring again when dropped into it, and a very refreshing sound it was. We set to and dug holes everywhere after that, took our time, did it well and chose what we thought the best ground".

Provision had become so low, Cowan and Crab set off back to Alder Gulch to stock up on food,drink and equipment. Bob and D.J stayed  to protected their claim. 

A possible picture of the four men, who became known as the "Four Georgians"  

A pan used by an early prospector at Last Chance Gulch 

On their return from Alder's Gulch with the supplies, Crab and Cowan didn't just bring food, they brought a stampede of eager gold prospectors.  Stanley and Miller where expecting this and had drawn up a code of laws protecting their claims, and this provided an orderly system for the location of new claims. A standard size of claim was usually 100 foot long. Within the space of just a few weeks the laws where passed by all the miners and the gold rush was on.  

The next story in the adventures of Reginald Stanley will tell you how the name Helena was chosen for this fledgling gold mining camp. Click here to read more.

A plaque in memory of the 'Four Georgians' discovery of Last Chance Gulch.