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Monday, October 17, 2011

The Parting of Two Families

The sawmill business proved profitable for James that first year (1863-64).  Some say he made a small fortune.  This seemed like a good time to move his family to Montana and to settle there permanently, however, there were some drawbacks.  The gold rush era was the most dangerous, lawless period of Montana’s history.  Bandits and road agents controlled the road between Bannack and Virginia City, targeting travelers journeying between the two mining camps.  Violent holdups became commonplace.  In 1863 alone, about a hundred men were murdered.  James would have been a likely target, traveling as he did with either a load of supplies or a large sum of money.  The law was enforced and justice dispensed by the self-appointed Montana vigilantes, and it was often hard to tell which group was more corrupt, the bandits or the vigilantes.  James reportedly knew many of them, bandits and vigilantes.  A suspected road agent named Reed (Erastus "Red") Yager was said to be sleeping in the same bed with James when he was taken by the vigilantes and hanged on a tree near Laurin, a few miles from Sheridan.(1)  The sheriff himself, Henry Plummer, was also a suspect.  He and two members of his so-called “Plummer Gang” were dispatched at the end of a rope on January 4, 1864, on the very gallows Henry had built.(2)

In spring 1864, once the sawmill business was up and thriving again, James returned to Utah and informed his family it was time to move to Montana.  It would be a difficult task for any man to break such news to one wife and one family of children, but how about two?  Too bad we don’t have a detailed account of that “family council”.

It’s probably safe to assume that Hannah Jane flatly refused to go.  She had always been a devoted member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she had strong ties to the community and to her siblings who lived nearby.  James’ disaffection from the Church probably took its toll on their relationship.  (During the six years since his excommunication from the Church, he could have applied for readmission, but he obviously chose not to do so.)  Most likely James didn’t even ask Jane to go to Montana.  He knew how she felt, and he also knew that settling in Montana with two wives and two families would have been unwise, to say the least.  At this point their marriage ended.  Jane, who had worked hard during those lean years at various odd jobs, like doing washing and ironing for the soldiers at Camp Floyd to help support the family, would now need to support her children on her own.(3)

Although Maria had a more amiable relationship with James, this would not have been an easy move for her either.  It would mean leaving her mother and her brothers, who lived nearby.  It would mean hard work and backbreaking labor to establish and build a new home on the frontier.

In spring 1865, James and Maria loaded up a covered wagon with five children (Nettie, Jodie, Jimmie, Charlie, and Andy), all their belongings, and supplies for a journey of several weeks.  Little five-year-old Robert (Hannah Jane’s youngest son) said good-bye to his father, and never saw him again.  Consequently, in later years Robert told his own children that he didn’t remember much about his father.  He said that his mother told him that Father left home to go on a freighting trip.  When he didn’t return, “Mother told them that the Indians must have killed him, as he had to carry large sums of money.”(4)  Ironically, this is precisely what happened to her first husband, Isaac Brown, father of Isaac and Hannah.  It seems more logical to assume that, rather than lying to her children about their father, Jane never mentioned his name again, leaving young Robert to believe that stories told about Isaac Brown, were about his father, James.  After James left, Jane dropped the Gammell name and went by Hannah Jane Brown.
  1. James Gemmell obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881. Reed (Erastus “Red” Yager), along with George Brown, was hanged from a cottonwood tree, which still stands outside of Laurin.
  3. A short biography of Robert Mahlon Gammell by his daughter Charlotte Gammell Jensen.
  4. A short biography of Robert Mahlon Gammell by his daughter Charlotte Gammell Jensen.

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