Gold Strike on Willard's Creek

Bannack, Montana, about 1900, looking west up
Grasshopper ("Willard's") Creek.

On the far horizon are the ridges of the Big Hole Divide, through which Captain Clark and his party of 20 men, plus Sacagawea and 15-month-old Jean Baptiste, followed an Indian road from the headwaters of the Bitterroot River back to Fortunate Camp in early July of 1806. The Indian road turned south about four miles upstream from here, so they did not come through Bannack. In this picture Willard's Creek flows from left to right, joining "Jefferson's" (the Beaverhead) River 15 creek-miles to the southeast.

A prospector named John White and his partners arrived in this vicinity in July of 1862 and, unaware it had already been named for Alexander Willard of the Corps of Discovery, named the creek after the local insect scourge of that season – grasshoppers. On the 28th, White himself hit pay dirt on one of the sandbars in the creek. Word spread fast. Plenty of other gold-hungry pilgrims were near enough to respond within weeks. By early autumn 400 expectant newcomers had pitched their tents around White's camp, and begun posting their claims.

By the following spring the population had grown to 3,000, and on 23 November 1863 the settlement had a name and a U.S. Post Office called Bannack (an alternate spelling of Bannock, an American nickname for a tribe of Northern Paiute Indians who lived in that part of what is now southwestern Montana and southeastern Idaho). In May of 1864 Congress established a new territory, an Ohio congressman suggested the Spanish name "Montana" – "mountains" – and Bannack became its capital. A year later, a nearby gold strike drew the most optimistic of Bannack's hopefuls 50 miles east to Virginia City. The Territorial Governor's office soon followed, and almost overnight Virginia City became the new territorial capital.

Within a few years of the initial gold strike at Bannack the hand-work of placer mining – panning" for gold – gave way to quartz-lode, or hardrock, mining, and then to the newest mechanical technology. In this photo, the creek has been dammed somewhere below town in order to facilitate electrically powered dredging upstream.

In 1905 all dredging ceased and the town's days of glory were over. In 1918 its only surviving saloon closed for good. Now a state park, it's one of the best preserved ghost towns in the northern Rockies.