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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Montana Gemmell Family


Jeanette Gemmell
(1852 - 1914)
Courtesy of Sandra Baril


A few months after little Katie’s death, James and Maria hosted a wedding for their eldest daughter, Jeanette.  The groom was James Duncan, son of Reverend Hugh Duncan.  As it turned out, the Gemmells and the Duncans had a lot in common.  Reverend Duncan and his family were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Montana the year before James Gemmell brought his family to Ruby Valley.  The Duncan family had arrived with the first wave of settlers heading for the Montana gold mines.  Starting out in May 1864, Jim Bridger led the first wagon train across hostile Indian Territory from Fort Laramie to the boomtown of Virginia City.  The Duncans hooked up with the Hickman Company of thirty wagons and followed the Bridger train.  Theirs was the second wagon company to arrive at Virginia City.

Reverend Hugh Duncan
(1824 - 1887)
Courtesy of Sandra Baril


Hugh Duncan had worked for a time in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and later had moved to Kansas, where he took up farming and became a Methodist minister.  In 1864 he moved his family to Montana, but not without a few harrowing experiences along the trail.  He was stricken with pneumonia after spending one whole day up to his chest in the frigid water of the Big Horn River, helping thirty ox teams and wagons to ford the deep and dangerous water.  Fortunately for Duncan, there was an excellent physician in the company, a Dr. Sherwood, who nursed him back to health.


The wagon trains stopped for one day to rest and to celebrate the fourth of July on the banks of the Big Horn, where they feasted on mud turtle soup for dinner. The next day they crossed the Shoshone, then called the Stinking River.  As the wagons crossed, the cattle that were hitched to the Duncan wagon went down stream and into a deep hole. Hugh Duncan leaped from the wagon onto the backs of the animals, trying to save them.  Then the four wheels dropped off the bed of the wagon and left the box floating downstream with fifteen-year-old James Duncan, and his mother and sister inside.  However, several men on the river bank managed to rescue those in the wagon bed.  The company reached Virginia City on July 21, but Hugh Duncan stayed there only a few months, then moved his family to one of the settlements along Alder Gulch and built a makeshift cabin.  He bought a one-third interest in a mining claim, and he and his son James went to work placer mining(1) for gold.  In 1869 Reverend Duncan moved to Ruby Valley, where he purchased one hundred sixty acres of land and engaged in farming and stock raising and became neighbors to the Gemmells—neighbors in the frontier sense of the word, anyone within a five-mile radius.

Reverend Hugh Duncan was one of the first Methodist ministers in Montana and one of the founders of the Masonic order in the state.  In 1883 he was grand master of the Masonic Lodges of Montana.  His son James followed in his footsteps in many ways.  James Duncan worked in mining for twenty years and then, like his father, he changed to farming.  He was very successful, owning an excellent farm property.  He was an honored member of the Masonic fraternity and a charter member of the Sheridan Lodge, serving four times as Master of the Lodge.  He and Jeanette were both devout Christians and served faithfully in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Sheridan.  Jeanette founded the Ladies Aid Society of Sheridan.  Both she and James were “possessed of high ideals, and led [lives] of integrity and industry.”(2)  The marriage of James and Jeanette produced a large family—ten grandchildren for both Hugh Duncan and James Gemmell.

James and Jeanette Gemmell Duncan
Courtesy of Reed Russell

These original Ruby Valley settlers had fascinating tales to tell about the early days of Montana.  For example, children and adults alike had to create their own amusement, especially during the long winters.  So they had dances, like the one held in James Gemmell’s big red barn, and they also put on plays.  James Duncan recalled performing in a home-made rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Since there were only boys in the cast, his brother Tom had to borrow his mother’s clothes to play Lady Macbeth.(3)

Virginia Gemmell Garrity
Courtsey of Cathy Hall

The Montana Indian war also made for some interesting stories.  James Gemmell’s daughter Virginia was twelve years old at the time of the Battle of the Big Hole, a battle between the Indians, led by Chief Joseph and Chief Looking Glass, and United States army during the Nez Perce War of 1877.  Sheridan residents built a stockade that year for protection from the Indians.  As a safety measure James had his children bury the family valuables and treasures. Virginia helped her brothers dig a trench to bury a hand-carved clock of hammered brass and a set of gold scales:

Everyone in those days kept open house and sold meals, which were paid for in gold dust weighed on the gold scales.  If a miner or a neighbor wished to borrow gold dust until his next panning, he was given the liberty of weighing the gold he desired, and when it was returned the weight was never checked, as honesty was the keynote of the old timers.

The family keepsakes were never unearthed. By the time the boys decided to open the underground vault, the landmarks had been changed, making it impossible to locate the correct spot.

The Gemmell brothers in 1900
Charlie, Andy, John, and George
Courtesy of Cathy Hall

The four Gemmell brothers (Charlie, Andy, John, and George) lived and worked in Ruby Valley most of their lives.  John was the only one who left Montana; he later moved to San Bernardino, California.  In 1900 the brothers worked together as placer miners at Bearmouth, Montana.  No doubt they had high hopes of striking it rich.  They were all single at the time, but John ended up marrying the camp cook, Addie O’Hara, and had four children.  Charlie and Andy remained bachelors, but George, who was James Gemmell’s youngest child, eventually married and had five children.
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  1. Placer mining, as opposed to tunnel mining, refers to mining for precious metals found in the sand or gravel of stream-beds.
  2. James Duncan obituary, The Butte Miner, October 17, 1926; The Madison County Forum, October 22, 1926. Montana Historical Society, “The Pioneers”, author unknown; Jeanette Gammell Duncan obituary, Sheridan Forum, August 14 1914.
  3. Montana Historical Society, “The Pioneers”, author unknown
  4. Obituary of Virginia Gemmell Garrity, Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, 8 January 1942.
  5. 1900 U.S. Census, Bearmouth, Granite, Montana.

1 comment:

  1. Patricia Riddell LococoJanuary 17, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    Interesting. My grandmother, Margaret, who was the great-granddaughter of Margaret Jane Gemmell, also moved to San Bernardino (in the late 1930's). I was born there.

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