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Untangling a Twice Told Tale
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Untangling a Twice Told Tale

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They say there are two sides to every story, and that the truth is usually found somewhere in between. That’s probably true when there are only two parties concerned, otherwise there are generally as many sides to a story as there are people involved in it.

Each of us brings our own personal perspective into any given situation, and the details we might tend to remember rarely conform perfectly to the memories of others. Determining the reliability of any recorded historical event can be a challenge, but sometimes, even when you have two reliable sources making journal entries on the same subject, you often end up with two very different interpretations of one singular event.

Such is the case with a story told by early pioneer Granville Stuart and a close acquaintance of his by the name of Edwin Purple. Both men were veterans of the California gold rush and each arrived here in the territory prior to the large gold discoveries, which eventually led to Montana’s own gold rush.

Granville Stuart was partner with a group of prospectors who set up sluice-boxes at Gold Creek and took out the first paying amounts of gold in what is now the state of Montana. Edwin Purple had been lured up to the Lemhi Valley of Idaho from Salt Lake City when false rumors of a rich gold discovery sent men and miners on a wild goose chase to that great empty quarter of the west. Purple had invested most of his savings in several wagonloads of dry goods and mining equipment, fully expecting to make huge profits at a new dig where supplies were scant and hopes were high. Upon discovering that he had been misled, he and a few others decided to try their luck at the newly located mines near Deer Lodge, at Gold Creek.

As Purple’s wagon train worked its way into southern Montana, they met up with a party of prospectors led by John White who were coming from Deer Lodge to try their luck on a tributary of the Beaver Head River. The men thought they had discovered good prospects nearby and urged the travelers to turn around and follow them to the creek, but seeing as they were total strangers, Purple and his companions declined the invitation and continued on.

As the groups parted, Mr. White warned them they would “soon be travelling back this same road, on your way to our diggings.” These new discoveries at Willard Creek, or what the prospectors called Grasshopper Creek, led to the first actual gold rush in the region, and before long the town of Bannack was plotted out at the western end of the canyon.

Before the year was over both Edwin Purple and Granville Stuart had moved to Bannack, and were running separate merchandising establishments and cashing in on the ‘gold fever’ that had taken root. When gold was later discovered at Alder Gulch, many of the residents of Bannack abandoned their new lodgings and businesses and joined the rush to Virginia City, leaving three fourths of the buildings at Bannack empty.

By April 24, 1863, Granville Stuart had sold off most of his holdings at Bannack and was returning to Deer Lodge with about $3,000 in gold dust hidden in his cantinas. At the time there had been some trouble with road agents lurking on the trails leaving town, and Stuart was careful not to tell anyone of his plan to head out for Deer lodge.

In his journal Stuart says that he left town at sunrise and saw nobody stirring. “I was armed with my short breech-loading rifle with plenty of cartridges and I knew that there was not another breech-loader in town, and in my belt I carried a tried and true Colt’s navy revolver and handled both as quickly as any of the robbers. I had just begun to congratulate myself on getting away without being seen, when I heard horses coming behind me and knew that I was being pursued. In a few minutes three men on horseback came in sight around a bend in the road. They were Charlie Reeves, William Graves and a man whom I did not know, but I did know that Reeves and Graves were tough characters.”

Stuart says that when the riders overtook him he dismounted and pretended to cinch his saddle, being careful to keep his horse between him and the outlaws. “I did not take my eyes off them, intending if they made a move toward their revolvers, to shoot with my rifle, which was hung on a shoulder strap and ready for action. They saw that I was watching them and that my rifle was conveniently near.”

As the three men passed by, Reeves mentioned to Stuart that they were headed for Deer Lodge. Just at that moment Stuart says he noticed a fourth rider coming up the ravine on the trail. “I thought I might possibly stand off three, but it would be impossible to escape from four. I remained by the side of my horse and when the horseman drew near, you may imagine my relief when I discovered him to be my friend Edwin R. Purple, and that he too was armed with a navy revolver. As soon as he came up I explained the situation to him and we decided to travel to Deer Lodge together.”

The two merchants and the three desperadoes played a strange game of cat and mouse throughout the day. Every time the outlaws tried to get behind their two marks, Stuart and Purple dismounted and pretended to tighten their saddles, knowing full well that their lives depended on keeping the three men ahead of them and well within sight. Stuart says that when the highwaymen finally halted to make camp for the evening, he and Purple chose a spot 50 yards back and made arrangements to sleep in shifts so as not to be surprised by them in the night. The next day Stuart continued his highly successful gambit, until both parties reached Warm Springs, where the frustrated robbers spurred on their horses, arriving in Deer Lodge an hour before our much-relieved duo. And that basically is the story as reported in the journals of Granville Stuart.

In his own account Edwin Purple states that, “On the 2nd of April I left Bannack City to go over to Deer Lodge after a pair of cattle which I had been compelled to leave there the fall before, they having strayed from the herd. My travelling companion I expected to be Granville Stuart alone. But as we mounted our animals, we were joined by George Carhart, who said he had business at Gold Creek, and would go along with us.” In this account Purple has placed the event three weeks earlier, and he and Carhart both leave Bannack with Stuart.

He goes on to say that the three of them reached the Big Hole around noon and ate lunch together. After they had finished their dinner and were saddling up the horses, Purple says “Wm. Graves, alias Whiskey Bill, a stranger to Stuart and myself, rode up, and speaking to Carhart, with whom he seemed well acquainted, said he would ride along with us over to the Divide, as it was on the way to a place where he had left some friends of his at work prospecting for gold. At night all four of us camped on one of the little water runs, of which there are several putting down from the Divide. Carhart and myself slept in my blankets, and Stuart shared with Graves a part of his. Graves, who had neither bedding or provisions with him, left us early in the morning after eating breakfast, starting off towards the head of Silver Bow creek to join his friends in that locality. Stuart, Carhart, and myself continued our journey to Johnny Grant’s (at Deer Lodge) at which point we separated from each other to go our several ways.”

Oddly enough, Charlie Reeves plays no part at all in Purple’s version of the story, and in comparing the two accounts the writers hardly even seem to be speaking of the same incident. As far as adventurous yarns of the gold rush era go, Stuart’s version wins out easily. On the other hand, Edwin Purple relates the whole thing in such matter-of-fact terms that it’s hard to believe it happened any other way.

Purple says that neither he nor Stuart had any money with them at the time, and that fact alone may have saved their lives as they rode along the lonely trail with two well-known desperadoes. Stuart, however, contends it was their constant saddle cinching that saved their skins, and according to his account there was certainly no neighborly sharing of blankets!

Later that same month George Carhart was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a shoot-out while he was passed out drunk in a bar in Bannack. In the 1850’s, before falling in with the wrong crowd, he had served in the California legislature. Charlie Reeves was eventually banished from the territory and was reportedly last seen in Mexico. Whiskey Bill’s career as a road agent ended later that winter about a mile north of Stevensville, when Vigilantes finally caught up with him at Fort Owen. He was hung in a wooded area north of the fort at the request of the Salish Indians, who were camped at Fort Owen at the time.

Before the year was out, Edwin Purple had returned east to his home state and never visited the west again. He prepared his reminiscences of those early days only as a family history, and the personal diary he must have referred to when remembering various names and dates has never surfaced. Granville Stuart had presumably intended to publish his personal journals all along, and actually published his first book, ‘Montana As It Is’ in 1865. Both men served as head librarians later in life, Purple at the New York Academy of Medicine, and Stuart at the Butte Public Library. Stuart was commissioned to write a history of the state of Montana in 1916, and prior to that had served as special envoy to Paraguay and Uruguay. The truth behind the events that took place during those two notable days sometime in April of 1863, has long since gone to the grave with the four (or five) men involved, depending on whose story you believe.

The Ravalli Republic is teaming up with Ravalli County Museum to bring you a series of local history and photo features. If you would like more information on today’s subject please contact the Ravalli County Museum at www.ravallimuseum.org. You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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