The Great Montana Gold Rush


Picture by PIX1861 – pixabay

When people think of gold rushes in the United States, they usually think of the rush that began in January 1848 when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in California. The discovery of gold brought almost a third of a million people to California, as gold fever took hold. Thousands of Asians and Irish immigrants came to America with the hope of striking it rich and by 1852, San Francisco had grown from a population of about 200 just five years earlier to over 36,000. A lot of people know this history, but far fewer know that there was a much larger amount of gold found in Montana, which had its own gold rush.

The Montana gold rush began later than the one in California, though there is little doubt that the gold fever that hit California had something to do with finding gold in Montana. This is because more people were actively looking for gold almost everywhere they happened to be.

Placer gold was discovered on the banks of Grasshopper Creek in southwest Montana in 1862. The town of Bannack sprang up practically overnight and by 1866, the population was thought to be about 3,000. Placer gold is deposits of gold in sand and gravel and it is this kind of gold that is commonly panned. It can be found as nuggets, but more often is in flakes and ‘dust’.

In May 1863, an even richer discovery at Alder gulch actually sparked the gold rush. Alder gulch is about 70-80 miles west of Grasshopper Creek and it is from the gold that was found there that Virginia City, Montana was founded. Virginia City is now a ghost town, but at the time, it was bustling with activity. Many of the gold miners came from California, in fact. Virginia City is also known for its rough lawlessness, shootings, murders and almost constant fights.

Yet another rich deposit of placer gold was found in 1964 at a location called Last Chance Gulch. This turned out to be the second richest deposit found in Montana and the resulting mining town that sprang up, founded by the four prospectors who discovered the gold, eventually became the Helena, Montana of today. At the time, Montana was a territory and not a state, but in 1875, Helena became the capitol of the territory. Nineteen years later, after Montana became a state, Helena became the state capitol.

In just four years, over $19 million was found at Last Chance Gulch. That is a lot of money today, so you can imagine how much it represented back then. There is still gold in Montana, too.

Although hunting and fishing provide a huge amount of the tourist traffic in Montana at present, recreational gold panning still draws a large number of tourists every year. In all, more gold has been found in Montana than in California, though the Montana gold rush isn’t as well known. The state capitol and one of the best known ghost towns in America both had their beginning with the gold rush. To this day, celebrations are still held on St. Patrick’s day to commemorate the large population of people of Irish ancestry, who came to Montana because of the gold rush.

Montana is a state of tremendous beauty and large populations of wildlife, but it has it’s mineral treasures as well.


  1. Kyla Matton Osborne

    We live in prospecting country too. The local museum shows kids how to pan for gold and we have a store, right on the main street, that sells mining equipment, metal detectors, stone tumbling equipment and the like.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      I have a tumbler, but it is stored away at the moment and I don’t have any grit for it anymore, but I used to collect agates and polish them. The downside is that the tumblers make a lot of noise.

      It may sound strange, but despite the history of gold in Montana, in the five years I’ve lived here I’ve never tried panning for any, even just out of curiosity and despite the number of streams in our area.

  2. Andria Perry

    A couple years ago I bought Tony a metal detector so he could ” hunt gold” but he has yet to use it :/

    I would love to learn how to pan for gold, but just for fun.

    I stumbled this article

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      Many years ago, my grandfather actually designed and built a sluice box that worked on the same principle as gold panning. Sand and gravel was scooped up and put in the top, with water flowing into it, and a hand crank caused the box to move back and forth so that the heavier rocks and fragments, like gold, ended up in the box when the rest was washed away.

      You should get Tony to use the metal detector. It doesn’t do a great deal of good just taking up storage space. LOL

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      That is probably one reason that the laws are in place to limit what, where, what method and how much gold people are able to take in Montana. We are the fourth larges state, but our population hovers right around a million people in the entire state. There are a lot of cities with more people than our entire state has. There are roughly 8 people per square mile in Montana, which works out to about 80 acres for every man, woman and child. People here prefer it that way.

  3. Ceci

    Thanks for sharing the good story on Montana gold rush. I come from the village which rich in gold mining too, the youngster can still pan for very little gold powder after years.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is neat that children can still pan for gold there. I’m not sure that many kids here do that and I haven’t seen any, but I also live north of the area where most of the gold is concentrated.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      We don’t really have any treasures around here, but every now and then, someone discovers a small cache left by some miner than never came back for it.

  4. Gil Camporazo

    When I was a kid I heard about a gold rush in our locality. We call it Sipalay. It is the mountainous part of our small island of Negros. People in group rushed to the place and busied themselves panning the sands, the pebbles found in the creek where a dust or pinch of god was found. It took several years when that place was developed and ran by a private gold mining corporation. But many people had been helped financially.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is great when it helps a lot of people. The gold rush here did, too. Quite a few people became wealthy and only a few of them were gold miners. That is the way it should work.

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