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.