The term "Yogo sapphire" refers to gems found in the Yogo Gulch, whereas "Montana sapphire" refers to gems found elsewhere in Montana. Overall, more gem-quality sapphires are produced in Montana than anywhere else in North America.
The first sapphires were discovered in Montana in 1865 in alluvium along the Missouri River about 14 miles east of Helena by Ed "Sapphire" Collins. Collins sent samples of the sapphires to Tiffany's in New York City. Unfortunately for Collins, those sapphires were of poor coloring and low overall quality and led to the reputation that Montana sapphires were of inferior quality.
Hence, Yogo sapphires in the Yogo Gulch area were not initially recognized as having any value.
Gold was discovered at Yogo Creek in 1866. Even though “blue pebbles” had been seen alongside gold in the stream alluvium, it was not until 1894 when they were actually recognized as sapphires.
One story credits a local schoolteacher for recognizing the blue rocks as sapphires. A variation of this story is that the teacher actually lived in Maine, but was a friend of a local miner who had mailed her a small box with some gold and a few "blue pebbles" in it. Still another tale involves a miner named S.S. Hobson who thought the blue stones might be sapphires; his guess was confirmed by an assayer in Helena.
Ultimately though, it would be Jake Hoover (with whom Charlie Russell spent two years as his apprentice) who would make a big profit from Yogo sapphires. In 1895, he sent a cigar box containing blue pebbles, which he initially thought were only pieces of broken bottle glass to Tiffany’s in New York City. Tiffany’s assessed them as "the finest precious gemstones ever found in the United States" and sent Hoover a check for $3,750 (approximately $112,900 in 2019 dollars).
About a year later, a sheepherder named Jim Ettien found the actual source of the sapphires — the Yogo dike. While Ettien was prospecting for gold, he found sapphires after washing gravel from a fissure within a limestone outcrop. The vein turned out to be five miles long.
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Ettien subsequently sold his claims to Hoover who in turn sold his interest in eight original mining stakes, collectively known as the "New Mine Sapphire Syndicate," to his two partners for $5,000 (approximately $150,000 as of 2019).
In 1899, a syndicate in London purchased the New Mine Sapphire Syndicate for $100,000 (approximately $3 million as of 2019). At that point, the operation became unofficially referred to as the "English Mine." The production of Yogo sapphires from this highly profitable mine continued from 1899 until the 1920s.
There are a couple of theories as to the meaning of the word Yogo. Early promoters of Yogo sapphires claim that Yogo may have meant "romance" or "blue sky" in the Blackfoot language. Another suggested meaning for Yogo is that it means "Going over the hill." However, there is little evidence to support either version and by 1878, the true meaning the word Yogo had been lost.
The Rock Creek location, near Phillipsburg, has been the most productive site in Montana. It is the sapphires from this mine by which the nearby Sapphire Mountains acquired their name.
The Vortex Mine, near Utica Montana, which began operations in 1984 is still in the business of supplying Yogo sapphires to jewelers around the world.
Phil Connelly is a Bitterroot Valley resident who enjoys digging up information about the story behind the story. His column appears weekly in the Ravalli Republic.