Day 8, Monday, July 23, 2018
After a night spent in Dillon, Montana, I departed for my day’s destination. I was going to Bannack State Park, which preserves the ghost town of Bannack. Bannack was founded in 1862 after gold was discovered there. It was remote then – it was connected by the Montana Trail wagon road to Salt Lake City, but was also rough and dangerous, due to the risks posed by Native Americans and weather extremes. Bannack is still remote now!
Bannack is named after the local Native American tribe that inhabited the area; the Bannock Indians. When they sent the paperwork to Washington, D.C. the agent misspelled the proposed name and nobody ever corrected it. Bannack it remains.
The town has quite a colorful history; it was the capitol of the Montana Territory for a brief period in 1864, until it moved to Virginia City. And here’s a story for you! The Sheriff of Bannack, Henry Plummer, was a criminal who had served time for manslaughter at San Quentin prison. Apparently no one found out about his history when they elected him as Sheriff. In Bannack, he was suspected to have been leading a band of road agents who were allegedly robbing and murdering travelers. Some claimed that Plummer’s band had committed over one hundred murders! That’s where the story gets stranger though; modern historians believe this number is very inflated, since only eight deaths were documented during the period in the area. People believed what they wanted to though, and Plummer and two of his deputies were hanged without trial, and over twenty more received an informal trial and then were lynched by vigilantes.
One man named Joe Pizanthia was killed when the vigilantes turned to mob violence. They tried to question Joe, but he refused to leave his cabin. A large crowd gathered, and two men volunteered to bring Joe out. Joe ended up shooting them when they attempted to enter. That got the crowd all worked up, so they borrowed a cannon, shelled the cabin, and injured Joe. Then they dragged him out, and shot him over one hundred times, set the cabin on fire and then threw his body onto the flames. Wow – they didn’t mess around!
Stranger still is that many suspected the vigilantes of framing Plummer and his deputies in order to hide the fact that they were the real bandits… Yikes…
Today in Bannack, sixty log, brick and wooden homes and business remain. Many of the buildings are open to visitors during the day and you can wander freely through them. It was so cool to be able to explore these buildings!
With so many deaths among the suspected road agents, and the people murdered on the road, there are bound to be ghosts there. One story in particular that stuck with me wasn’t about the men murdered here. The Bessette House was owned by Mitty Bessette, who arrived in Bannack in 1864 and died of old age in 1919. The house was used as a quarantine house in the early 20th century, housing people during outbreaks of influenza, scarlet fever, diphtheria and whooping cough. The house is believed to be haunted by the ghosts of children who died during these epidemics. Some visitors hear the sound of crying babies coming from the house.
It was hot while I was there, but I enjoyed wandering and checking out the various places. In a ghost town that is covered in snow each year and winter winds, it was great to see how well preserved it is. They even have some original outhouses!
The birds are plentiful there, with many birds nesting in the rafters and beams of the various old buildings. Good from a birding perspective, but not so good from a historic preservation angle. Birds are pretty hard on buildings.
Bannack has two cemeteries. There is one at the top of the hill above town; it was the original cemetery. Almost all of the stones are gone now and there isn’t much to see. Down the road a little ways from the town site is the second cemetery. This one has graves in various states of decay, it is always interesting to see cemeteries that are mostly rocks and sagebrush. They are so different from the ones at home. I spent a bit of time checking out the headstones there.
It only costs $6 to visit Bannack and it is free for Montana residents. They also sell an informative guidebook for $2 more. I loved visiting Bannack! Writing this makes me want to go back and see it again!