Confederate Gulch, Meagher County and the sheep business

Gold discoveries led to settlement in the area west of the Big Belt Mountains on the upper Missouri River, Montana. Late in fall 1864 four former Confederate soldiers traveled south from Fort Benton on the Missouri River. Their destination was the Last Chance Gulch in Helena, but they wandered into a gulch on the west side of the Big Belt Mountains, east of the mountains of present-day Townsend. They decided to stay there for the winter. William J. Baker from Saline County, Missouri, sunk a hole and found a piece of gold about the size of a grain of wheat. More gold was discovered when they prospected higher up in the canyon. Between October 24 and November 19, 1864, fifty-one claims were recorded below the discovery claim of William J. Baker, and twenty-eight claims above the Baker claim.

The discovery place was named Confederate Gulch. This gulch and its tributaries became an anthill of activity in 1865. Gold miners arrived almost daily. The place was named Diamond City. At the crest of the boom 10,000 people lived and worked in Confederate Gulch. For a short time, Diamond City was the largest city in Montana. The total population of Montana in 1866 was 28,000; 35 per cent were working and living in Confederate Gulch.

The discovery of the Montana Bar

A former gold prospector in Colorado, Charles Fredericks, led a group of Germans who arrived at Confederate Gulch late in 1865. He sank a prospect hole in a clearing on a shelf up from the gulch floor. Here the group literally “struck it rich”. The shelf became known as the Montana Bar. It was not uncommon to get 1,000 dollars of gold from a pan of gravel and dirt on the Montana Bar, and this was at a time when gold was worth less than 20.00 dollars an ounce.[1] It was one of the richest placer-strikes per acre ever made, and was soon followed by other rich gold discoveries up and down the gulch.

Between 1866 and 1869 gold production at Confederate Gulch equaled or outstripped production in all other gold mining camps in Montana Territory. It has been estimated that between 19 and 30 million dollars in gold was produced. A single shipment of gold in 1866 weighed two tons and was valued at 900,000 dollars. Before 1870 an estimated 15 million dollars of gold had been taken out of the earth.[2]

The boom continued as long as gold was produced, but when the gold ran out in 1869 and 1870, the miners and the people serving the miners, left as suddenly as they had come. At the end of 1870 the population of Diamond City had been reduced to 225 people, and a year later only 64 people remained. Diamond City was “the most spectacular of Montana’s boom and bust gold towns”, according to Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder.[3]

Meagher County

Diamond City was a part of Gallatin County. Because of the big gold discoveries and the many people who moved into the place, strong political pressure was built up to organize a new county with Diamond City as the county seat. It was named Meagher County and was established in 1866. In 1880 the county seat was moved from Diamond City to White Sulphur Springs further east.[4]

The Missouri River marked the county line of Meagher County to the west and the 109th parallel of longitude was the county line to the east. Fergus County was carved out of Meagher County in 1886. Parts of Meagher County was included in Sweet Grass County when this county was established in 1895. Broadwater County was established in 1897 to the west. In March 1911, parts of Meagher County were included in Musselshell County. Wheatland County was carved out of Meagher County after strong disputes in 1917.

Livestock was brought into the valley

The miners at Confederate Gulch needed food supplies. Cattle and sheep ranches were established in the area to supply the miners with meat. Diamond City became a ghost city, but the ranches remained and expanded. At the end of 1875, it was estimated that Meagher County had about 20,000 sheep. Major William Davenport, born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, who arrived in Diamond City in 1866, operated the stage and express office and a general merchandising store until 1871. Together with his partners Thomas A. Ray and A. W. Kingsbury he was one of the first to import a band of sheep in Meagher County.

In 1865 D. A. Floweree brought a herd of 65 cattle from Missouri to Montana, and in 1870 he brought 1500 head of cattle from Texas. One of the early sheep ranchers was Charles W. Cook. He was born February 24, 1839, in Waldo County, Maine. He was sent to Providence, Rhode Island, to get higher education, but quit school before his final exams and traveled west. At St. Joseph, Missouri, Cook boarded a steamship for Omaha and continued to Denver, Colorado. In 1864, he joined a group of eight men driving 125 head of Cherokee cattle to Virginia City, Montana. They arrived there on September 22, four months after leaving Denver. Cook remained in Virginia City until March 1865 but then joined the stampede of gold seekers heading for Last Chance Gulch, Helena.

A month later he moved to Confederate Gulch, where he worked as a placer miner until 1870. He experienced no great luck and contemplated a return to California. Instead, he went to Oregon, where he bought a band of sheep. He brought the band back to the Gallatin Valley, where he arrived in October 1871.[5] Next spring he moved his flock north and settled ten miles west of White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County. After twelve years he sold his sheep and reinvested his money in cattle. Three years later, however, after the disastrous winter of 1886/1887, he returned to sheep raising. At times he owned as many as 15,000 head of sheep. When he finally sold out in 1911 his flock had been reduced to 10,000.

Henry Sieben

Another early sheep rancher in Meagher County was Henry Sieben (1847–1937). He was born in Abenheim in the German state of Hesse Darmstadt. He was the youngest of six children and emigrated with his parents to Chicago in 1852. His mother died one year after their arrival. The father moved west with his children to Rock River near Crandall’s Ferry in Whiteside County, Illinois, in an area known as Dutch Bottom. In 1856 their log cabin burned to the ground. The children were scattered to live with and work for friends of the family.

When their father died in 1859, most of the children were already on their own. At the age of 17, in April 1864, Henry joined his three-year older brother Leonard and moved west. They traveled through Iowa, crossed the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, and then traveled up the North Platte River. At Fort Laramie they joined a wagon train bound for Montana, consisting of more than 100 wagons. It was led by John Bozeman.

During his first summer in Montana, Henry worked for some ranchers in the Madison Valley, but the next season he began as a freighter. The next five years both he and his brother Leonard were freighters “hauling merchandise brought by steamboat to Fort Benton and by the railroad to Corinne, Utah, into the Montana mining camps.”[6] The Sieben Brothers bought about ninety head of wornout oxen in the fall of 1869 from other freight outfits and nursed them through the winter. Next spring the fattened cattle was sold to a butcher at Fort Benton.

In fall 1870 Leonard and Henry began as ranchers at a new winter camp in the lower Smith River Valley in Meagher County. They bought their first cattle in northern Utah and herded it to the Smith River Valley. Their youngest brother Jacob joined them in 1872. He became interested in sheep. In 1874 he was sent to Red Bluff, California, where he bought 2,200 head of Merino sheep. He began trailing the sheep 1,500 miles in a northern direction in spring 1875 and in early December he arrived in the Prickly Pear Valley just north of Helena.[7]

The partnership of the three Sieben Brothers was dissolved in 1879. Leonard moved back to Illinois. He married and settled in Henry County. Jacob and Henry divided their stock. Jacob took over the sheep, while Henry kept the horses and the cattle herd. He moved his headquarters to the Lewistown area. Over time Henry Sieben became the owner of several ranches under the umbrella of the Sieben Livestock Company. Henry Sieben managed his cattle and sheep businesses from his home in Helena from 1907.

L. D. Burt brought 2,000 sheep to Meagher County in 1878 or 1879. In 1892 he lost 18,000 head of sheep out of 30,000 because of wolves, coyotes, and lack of feed.[8]

Early ranchers along the Musselshell River

The Musselshell River, running through large open country between mountain ranges and the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, was only used by Indians before 1870. “The buffalo was the life blood of the Plains Indian and the Musselshell drainage provided excellent hunting grounds for securing them.”[9] The river is a tributary of the Missouri river. It is 342 miles long from the confluence of its North and South Forks near Martinsdale to its mouth on the Missouri River. It rises in several forks in the Crazy, Little Belt and Castle mountains in central Montana. The main branch is formed by the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork in Meagher County about 25 miles east of the county seat White Sulphur Springs, and a short distance from Martinsdale. From the confluence of these two waterways, the main branch flows roughly due east past Two Dot, Harlowtown and Roundup before it turns north past Melstone and flows into the Missouri River at the beginning of the Fort Peck Reservoir. The Blackfeet Indians, who hunted buffalo and prepared winter meat in the Musselshell area, called the river the Dried Meat River.

The Missouri River was navigable six months of the year to the mouth of the Musselshell River, between three and four hundred miles below the inland port of Fort Benton. The distance from the mouth of the Musselshell to Helena across land was calculated to be around 200 miles. It was still considered dangerous to travel through the Musselshell region in the 1870s. Unfriendly Indians controlled all the land east through the Yellowstone valley and into Dakota Territory.

Some of the miners in Diamond City had bought cattle and chose to graze it in the vicinity of the town. The owners let the cattle take care of itself while they concentrated on their mining. This kind of cattle ranching did not work very well during the cold winter of 1871 and 1872. Three feet of snow covered the ground four months in a row. The cattle had problems finding anything to eat without help and many perished.[10]

People in Diamond City who had recently traveled through the Upper Musselshell valley reported that they had passed open ground at many places along the river where the wind had blown away the snow. In early January 1872, William Gordon, William Alonzo Smith, and William C. Swett combined the cattle they owned into one herd of about six hundred and moved the herd into the Musselshell valley. After a very strenuous journey they found clear ground on bench lands.  They left the herd where tall brown grass was visible, and then returned to their mines and hoped the cattle would take care of itself.

In the spring the cattle were rounded up for branding. It became obvious that far more cattle had survived in the Musselshell valley than in the Smith River Valley.[11] William Gordon decided to leave mining and settle in the Musselshell Valley. He built a log cabin and a lean-to stable for his horses. Soon more ranchers followed his example. Perry and Sanford Moore, Ed Sayre, E. J. Hall, William Smith, and J. H. Freezer all drove cattle into the Musselshell Valley. At first, they only let the cattle graze there in the winter, and moved it back to the Smith River Valley in summer. From 1874 they all settled permanently in the Musselshell valley.[12] There was also a growing interest in the hot sulphur springs in the Smith River Valley, ten miles east of Camp Baker and about seventy-five miles from Helena. The place was later named White Sulphur Springs and it became the county seat of Meagher County in 1880.

The main road to Central Montana at that time passed through Diamond City and White Sulphur Springs. A plan for a wagon road from Helena to Fort Buford in Dakota Territory via the mouth of the Musselshell River was taken up in earnest in 1873. This road came into use in March 1874, when the first “Diamond R mule train” left Helena for the mouth of the Musselshell.[13] A village named Carrol was located on the Missouri River some miles upriver from its mouth. Freight unloaded at Carroll was transported south through the Judith Basin and then west up the Musselshell River to Helena, the center of population in Montana at the time.

The wagons from Carrol to Helena used twelve to fifteen days. Way stations were set up along the route at Diamond City, Camp Baker, Brewer’s Springs, and Carrol. The place of William Gordon, who had settled near the forks of the Musselshell River, became a stage stop. During the first years, Indians occasionally attacked mule trains and places where whites had settled, and especially during the summer of 1875.[14] A post office was established at Brewer’s Springs in July 1875. A stage began to run three times a week from Helena to Diamond City and to Brewer’s Springs and along the Musselshell River to Carroll.

George Lyons and the Moore Brothers had moved a herd of 1,200 head of cattle to winter in the Musselshell Valley, reported the newspaper “Rocky Mountain Husbandman” on November 25, 1875. According to rumors around 10,000 head of cattle had been moved to the valley for winter grazing.[15]

The wagon road from Helena to Carroll on the Missouri River

The Diamond R Transportation Company was established in 1874 by Matthew Carroll aiming to move freight and passengers from the Missouri River to Helena, Montana. Freight destined for the gold fields in Helena left St. Paul, Minnesota, on the newly built Northern Pacific Railroad for Bismark, North Dakota. The railroad ended there. But cargo was shifted onboard steamboats, which took it up the Missouri River to the newly built Fort Carroll, and it was then taken overland by wagon to Helena.

The first roundup in the Musselshell Valley was conducted in summer 1876. William Mills, the Moore Brothers, Len Lewis and George Lyons, all ranchers in the Smith River Valley, joined forces. In 1877 the merchant Richard Clendennin moved with his family from Carroll to the fork of the Mussellshell. He opened a store there, and not long after he named the place Martinsdale.

By 1878 several new ranches had been established in the valley including sheep ranches.[16] William A. and John M. Smith were among the first. I. N. Godfrey and C. W. Cook settled on the south fork of the Musselshell, and Ed Sayre began his sheep ranch by organizing a stock company. Within six months of coming into the Musselshell J. H. Severance built a house, a large sheep shed and a corral. Henry Klein of Helena sold a number of sheep to men in the Musselshell area in 1878. The Martinsdale merchant R. H. Clendennin bought 1,130 head, J. H. Severance bought 1,500 head and took out 1,000 more on shares with Klein. The buyers paid $3.25 per head, all ewes.

According to the “Rocky Mountain Husbandman”, Meagher County had 20,000 head of sheep in 1875, and in 1879 it was estimated that 60,000 sheep and 15,000 cattle were grazing in the Smith River Valley.[17] Smith Brothers started with 900 sheep in 1875. George R. (Two-Dot) Wilson moved into the Musselshell valley in 1877. Only three women lived in the valley in 1878, Mrs. George Wilson, Mrs Richard Clendennin and Mrs J. E. Hall. It was in this thinly populated area that the Norwegian Martin T. Grande established his ranch at Comb Creek, on the South Fork of the Musselshell River in 1879.

[1] Michael P. Malone & Richard B. Roeder, Montana. A History of Two Centuries, Seattle 1976, p. 60.
[2] Michael P. Malone & Richard B. Roeder, Montana. A History of Two Centuries, Seattle 1976, p. 60.
[3] Michael P. Malone & Richard B. Roeder, Montana. A History of Two Centuries, Seattle 1976, pp. 52, 67, 68, 71.
[4]“Historical Sketch of Meagher County, Montana”, Alva J. Vinton, July 18, 1941. 230.009.
[5] Progressive Men of Montana, p. 577.
[6] Dick Pace, “Henry Sieben”, Montana. The Magazine of Western History, Vol 29., No. 1, January 1979, p. 2-15, p. 4.
[7] Dick Pace, “Henry Sieben”, Montana. The Magazine of Western History, Vol 29., No. 1, January 1979, p. 6; Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, The Iowa State College Press, Ames Iowa, 1948, p. 297.
[8] Research worker Alva J. Vinton, Subject. History of Sheep, January 9th 1941. Assignment no. 6, Special Collections, MSU 230.037, p. 2.
[9] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, M.A. dissertation, University of Montana, 1966, p. 4.
[10] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, M.A. dissertation, University of Montana, 1966, p. 5.
[11] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 29.
[12] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 30.
[13] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 34.
[14] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 41.
[15] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 43.
[16] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 49.
[17] Harold Joseph Stearns, History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920, p. 51.

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