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Friday, January 20, 2012

“The Late James Gemmell”

Image courtesy of the Friends of the Sheridan Library

It was late August 1879.  James Gemmell woke up early one morning determined to accomplish a mission he had been considering for a long time.  He had thought about it for many weeks, but hadn’t wanted to discuss it with Maria.  She would only worry about him.  After breakfast and a few morning chores, he told Maria that he was going into town to get the mail and the weekly newspaper.  She thought nothing of it; this was his usual routine.

He rode into the village and stopped at Rozelle Bateman’s place at the corner of Main and Mill Street.  Bateman was the postmaster.  His four-room house, constructed with logs from Gemmell’s saw mill, served as a post office, a store, a hotel, as well as a home for his family.  Everybody stopped at Bateman’s when they came into Sheridan.

James walked into the store and headed for the cigar box on the shelf near the dry goods to check for mail.  That cigar box was the official Sheridan post office, where the villagers (one hundred fifty of them in 1879) dropped off and picked up their letters.  Today there was no mail for the Gemmells.  James had a little time to chat with some of his neighbors and read the newspaper while he waited.  He felt some sense of relief that today he would complete what he considered some very important business at the hotel.

Like his brother William, James had always been strong and fit, and was very seldom ill.  In recent years he had noticed that old age was creeping up on him.  Even Maria noticed that his appetite had diminished, that he had lost weight and often complained of stomach pain.  Instinctively he knew that those whiskey sprees with his fellow mountain men had taken a toll on his health.  Back in 1870 he swore off the whiskey, except for special occasions.  Now, at nearly sixty-five years old, he accepted the fact that his days were numbered…perhaps he would live a few more months, or maybe even a few more years.  At best, time was short.

A few days earlier James had heard rumors that an old acquaintance William F. Wheeler would be coming to Sheridan on business, and of course, he would be staying at Bateman’s hotel.  The stage wouldn’t depart until evening, so James figured there would be time to pay him a visit before he left town.  James had met him for the first time ten years previously, when Wheeler first arrived as the newly appointed United States Marshal of Montana Territory.  A native of New York, he had studied law and worked as a newpaper reporter for the Ohio Statesman before entering government service.  His ten-year term as Marshal had just ended, and he was now able to devote most of his time to his position as a founding officer of the Montana Historical Society.

William F. Wheeler, 1890
Photo courtesy of Montana Historical Society Archives

Several folks had arrived at noon to talk with the former marshal.  James waited his turn and finally stepped forward to greet his old friend.  Wheeler recognized him immediately as one of the first acquaintances he had made when he came to Montana.  He remembered that James Gemmell was one of the very first white settlers in the territory.  He couldn’t help but notice how James had aged since he saw him last.  How feeble he looked!  He motioned for James to sit down and have a glass of wine.

Sheridan as James knew it in the 1870's
(Buildings numbered from left to right)
View from back of Bateman store
Photo courtesy of Sandra Baril

Wheeler had stopped in Sheridan on his way home to Helena after visiting Yellowstone National Park.(1)  His description of its many natural wonders sparked vivid memories for James, who then related the story of his expedition to Yellowstone with old Jim Bridger more than thirty years earlier.  All the while Wheeler was jotting down a few notes.  “Have you ever seen any views (photographs) of the geysers, the falls and hot springs since your first visit,” he asked.

James responded, “When I was in Bozeman several years back, Bird Calfee showed me his whole collection. I recognized them all right away.  Always wanted to go back again, but I had a large family to feed. Seems like I was always working.”

Two hours had flown by, and James had nearly forgotten the real reason he had come to call on William Wheeler.  At this point he invited Wheeler to go home with him to his ranch just a mile away.  He said he had some interesting papers he would like him to see.  When they arrived at the house, James retrieved two yellowed, tattered copies of the Michigan State Gazette that he had kept in a satchel for thirty-five years. The Jackson, Michigan, newspaper had reprinted two letters originally published in the New York Plebeian.  These two letters recounted the story of his involvement in the Canadian rebellion of 1837, from his capture and trial and sentence of life imprisonment in Van Diemens Land, to his escape and return home after two years of captivity.

Wheeler continued to take notes as James told how he happened to venture out on the plains.  He talked about the death of his first wife in Michigan, how he met up with Jim Bridger, how he settled in Great Salt Lake City, and how he and his family were among the earliest settlers in Montana.

A couple of hours passed unnoticed until it was time for supper.  Maria insisted that their guest stay and have a meal with them. James introduced several of his children who were still living at home.  The youngest one was three-year-old George, a stout, healthy, rosy-cheeked boy.  He was James’ twenty-first child. (James had eighteen biological children and three step children.)

After supper the two men drove the buggy back to Sheridan in time for Wheeler to catch his evening stagecoach to Helena.  As they parted, James placed the newspapers in Wheeler’s hands and explained that he was getting old and didn’t expect to live much longer.  For this reason he had told his story.  He had one last request of Wheeler, “If you consider my story worth preserving, I hope you will write it out.”  As they shook hands, Wheeler assured him that he would.

William Fletcher Wheeler served as the Montana Historical Society librarian from 1884 until his death in 1894.  He devoted much of his time collecting the reminiscences of old pioneers and writing their biographies.  He completed his article “The Late James Gemmell” in 1881, and it was published by the Montana Historical Society in 1896, fifteen years after James died.(2)
  1. Yellowstone National Park was designated by the United States Congress in 1872.
  2. Wheeler, William F., “The Late James Gemmell,” Montana Historical Society, vol. II, p.332.


  1. Patricia Riddell LococoFebruary 4, 2012 at 1:56 AM

    No...I don't want the story to end!!!

  2. Pat, I feel the same way. It has been such a compelling story. But there are still some loose ends to tie up concerning Hannah Jane and her children, Orlin, and James' sisters Margaret Jane and Mary.