The nearest center that could supply frontier miners in Bannack with necessities and conveniences was Salt Lake City, where lived Mormons who referred to the rest of the world as “gentiles.” When news of gold reached Salt Lake City in September, 1862, the wealth of the area was thought to be greater than that of 1849 California, according to Mable Ovitt in “Golden Treasure” (pp. 97-99). The following spring:
“The “Deseret News” of Salt Lake City spoke of the many wagons that were rumbling through the streets although it was still early in the season. All were headed for the Bannack City mines. On the trail one traveler wrote that ‘five thousand wagon wheels, with at least a person and an animal for every wheel, churned the dust of the trail, a volcanic dust as light as breath which settled in a gray layer over everything. When an animal was too tired to blow the dust from his nostrils it was time to camp. When leaving a camp ground, all scrambled for the lead where a breath of fresh air might be enjoyed.’ ”
Mormons did not settle in the Montana goldfields, and instead provided a precious lifeline of supplies to the area. Some items, like a pool table came via St. Louis up the Missouri River, and then by land, but most commodities came from Salt Lake City. That included “Valley Tan,” a popular liquor, which seems a bit ironic given Mormon’s own proscription of liquor (p. 274 Langford, “Vigilante Days and Ways”). The Mormon freighters traveled in large wagon trains, so perhaps they were less vulnerable to bandits, but they were not immune, as this snippet from Hoffman Birney’s “Vigilantes” shows (p. 163):
“Bill Hunter and Jack Gallagher are credited with killing and robbing a Mormon trader who, late in October [of 1863], was foolish enough to make a public display of a large roll of greenbacks. Bills that had been the property of the Mormon were recognized by several people while the pair were engaged in dissipating their loot; but the original owner was never heard from again.”
The unfortunate Mormon is counted among the 102 men said to have been killed by Plummer’s gang.
One of the themes of “Calamity” is that there were divisions among the good guys in frontier Montana, and the Mormon story is part of that. Shortly prior to the events fictionalized in “Calamity”, the Mormon settlements had been coerced into accepting the suzerainty of the U.S. government by a show of military force. A window is opened on the relationship between Mormons and “gentiles” in the wake of that event by a passage from Langford (p. 263-264). Langford and a friend were travelling back to the States with a Mormon train via Salt Lake City, and got to know their travelling companions during the mostly tedious fifteen day trip.
“But we found an inexhaustible store of amusement, not unmingled with admiration, in the character of our Mormon conductors. Simple-hearted, affable, and unsophisticated, with bigot faith in their creed, studious observance of its requirements, and constant reliance upon it both for assistance in difficulty and pastime, they afforded in all their actions a singular contrast as well to the unregenerate Gentiles, as to the believers among older sects. They were not only sincere in their belief, they were enthusiastic. It was the single element which governed their lives: they idolized it, and neither reason, which they at once rejected, nor ridicule, which they silently abhorred, could shake their religious credulity. We engaged in frequent discussions with them, prolonging the evening camp-fire sittings with arguments which broke upon the rock of simple faith. Theology with them was restricted to the revelations of Joseph Smith, and the counsels of Brigham Young. These contained the precious elements of their belief.
“…Fully instructed in the doctrinal points of their faith, they readily met and disposed of our arguments upon principles familiar to all Christian denominations. The golden plates of the book of Mormon, the inspirational powers of Joseph Smith, the transforming virtues of the Urim and Thummim, were as sacred in their creed as the miracles of the Saviour. No argument could shake their confidence in Brigham Young, whom they regarded as the vicegerent of the Almighty himself. This belief was sanctified by an immutable promise, that the time would come when the Mormon religion would embrace the whole family of man. When we spoke lightly of these things, or expressed doubt concerning them, they reproved us kindly, and expressed their regret at our stubbornness and impiety. These discussions, which were frequent, and indulged in more for pastime than instruction, convinced us of the sincerity of the Mormons as a people.
“…On the evening of the day before we entered the Mormon settlements, the leading man of the company beckoned me aside, and referred to our trip down, which he said had been a pleasant one.
“‘We have had,’ said he, ‘some warm discussions about our religion, and you gentlemen, as our boys think, have been rather hard on us. But the journey is now about over, and we’ll not mind it. I sought this opportunity, however, to give you a word of caution, for I feel friendly to you. While you are at Salt Lake City you mustn’t talk as you have to us.’ “
“‘Why?’ I inquired.
“‘Because they don’t allow it… They are very severe upon people who talk as you have talked to us. Should you do it, you may be assured you’ll never leave the city alive.’”
Violent times. When Langford described this conversation to a Mormon leader a few days later, he was told he had been given good advice.