Friday, September 30, 2011
Gemmell's Sawmill - Sheridan, Montana
James loved southwestern Montana better than any other place on the frontier. Nearly twenty years had passed since his first expedition with old Jim Bridger, but he had returned time and time again during those years. It's no wonder that he eventually chose Ruby Valley as his permanent home.
He loved to recount his Montana adventures and describe the pristine wonders of nature that few white men had ever seen. Memories of his first visit to the region were still vivid in his mind when he described them to William Wheeler in 1879:
…wonderful spouting springs at the head of the Madison and…what have of late years become so famous as the Upper and Lower Geyser Basin, the Upper and Lower Falls…and the Mammoth Hot Spring…Here we camped several days to enjoy the baths and to recuperate our animals… We made winter camp at the mouth of the Big Horn, where we had a big trade with the Crow and Sioux Indians. The next spring we returned with our furs and robes.(1)
As early as 1850 James went on trading expeditions up the Snake River, and as far as the Bitter Root or St. Mary's River among the Flathead Indians in Missoula County. He camped at Alder Gulch on the very sight where rich gold discoveries were made twelve years later, discoveries that led to one of the largest gold booms in history. “Not once did he have an idea of the great gold harvest that lay beneath him, but he saw only the beautiful and luxuriant furs and robes of the beaver, which he accumulated year after year and sent to St. Louis by way of Fort Bridger.”(2)
James made many such trading trips to Montana in the years preceding the gold rush. He entered the fertile Ruby Valley with a party of five men and packhorses in the fall of 1857, and traded with the Indians. They camped at the mouth of Daylight Gulch near Virginia City, where they met a trapper named Robert Dempsey. James went down into the Yellowstone region and traded blankets for furs with the Indians. When he returned to the valley, the snow was so deep that he was compelled to spend the winter at Dempsey’s camp and to postpone his return to Utah until spring. There was no forage for the stock, and they had to cut cottonwood boughs as feed for the mules…that was all the feed those poor animals had to live on through the long winter. The hardship and privations of that winter (1857-58) forged a life-long friendship between James and Robert Dempsey. (Dempsey and his Indian wife, who was adept in the white woman’s manner of dress and housekeeping, became good friends of James and Maria when they later moved to Sheridan.)(3)
In spring 1863, during his second expedition from Utah to the Bannack gold mines, James headed northeast to Fort Benton, a trading post on the upper Missouri River, to trade with the Indians.(4) While he was there, he purchased the sawmill machinery that was used to cut the lumber for the fort, loaded it in his wagon, and started back to Alder Gulch. When he was one day out from Fort Benton, the Indians stole his mules.(5) Refusing to accept his misfortune, yet not wanting to antagonize the culprits, he came up with a solution. He went back to Fort Benton, purchased five gallons of whiskey, and traded it to the Indians for his stolen mules. Upon his return to Alder Gulch in October he met Joseph C. Walker, who had recently settled in Montana. The two men (along with Walker’s brother and cousin) went into business and constructed a sawmill on a creek near Sheridan that became known as Mill Creek.(6)