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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.

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.
  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.