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Bannack Montana: The Layers That Remain


Bannack Montana: The Layers that Remain

An American Time Capsule in Modern Art

Photobook and Prints

The Discovery

Surprised by the joy of discovery, I came across by chance a veritable museum of abstract art masterpieces on the interior walls of crude log cabins in Bannack, a ghost town in remote Montana. More stunning than I could have ever dreamed, I found fascinating fine art of exquisite shapes and textures layered and deteriorated by 160 years of abandonment and decay. It is both beautiful and nostalgic, summoning the near and distant past. The memories of what transpired in these rooms are lost to history; the layers are all that remain.  But, if the walls could talk, in a jump into the past, remarkable and important events would be retold. Now though, we can only imagine.

Chapter 1: The Abstracts

Bold abstract images stand out from the walls like Rorschach inkblots compelling you to interpret what you see. Through my tight compositions, this nonobjective art highlights the color palette, forms and patterns of the series. The images invite the viewer in with unexpected intrigue and transmit a somehow sentimental mood. The layers that remain on the walls today are windows in time, each layer a different window, a different time, exposing peeled, cracked, torn, corroded wall coverings, brush strokes, etchings, patches. Pioneer housewives, dating back to 1862, whose lives revolved around their home and family, decorated the walls to bring grace and beauty into their surroundings.  The layers we see were made by different people in different eras with materials they could afford. My photographs of the layered walls reflect and respect the unique personal individuality of each home and home owner. The subject matter features a visual remnant of their circumstances and memories.  In a way, the photographs honor the artful taste of these women and prove that the walls showcase remarkable appeal. Through the mist of time, the patterns are still alive, morphing, shifting in a state of flux, an ever-changing record of observable impressions.  

Paint, canvas, sack cloth, embossed wallpaper, mortar, lathe, cardboard, burlap, glue, tacks, nails, plaster, newsprint, muslin were used to insulate and decorate. Over the years, layers were laid on top of each other in any and every combination. Water intrusion caused the colors to run, creating striking luminosity and designs when buildings were abandoned. These extraordinary and unique creations call to us from the past and connect us to an ethereal aesthetic in the present. The master artist is time, leaving the art hiding in plain sight. Like viewing growth rings in trees or an ancient ruin, we can create an archeologic picture from the clues left behind and can just imagine what the environment was like. One challenge is to date the artifacts, chronicle the sequence of the layering and determine how exactly these strikingly beautiful, tentative designs were formed. But I encourage you to exercise your imagination and view these as art pieces on their own. To me this is a very different kind of Western art, abstract, experimental like new music.

Chapter 2: Bannack Town

The history of Bannack is well documented (see the recommended reading list) though bias within the first-hand accounts creates controversy even today.

On July 28, 1862, one year after the start of the Civil War, John White and other members of the “Pikes Peakers” discovered placer gold in the Grasshopper Creek waters where Bannack stands today. The creek was originally named Willard Creek by Lewis and Clark when they came through in 1805. Grasshopper Creek discharges into the Beaverhead River which flows into the Jefferson River then joins the Gallatin and Madison Rivers at Three Forks, to form America’s longest river (2,341 miles), the Missouri, which enters the Mississippi River North of St. Louis, Missouri.

These Colorado prospectors filed one of the first claims in what was then Idaho Territory and would later become Montana, which even then was considered one of the last frontiers. News of the strike traveled fast and led to the greatest race to the west since the California Gold Rush in 1848. Bannack quickly became known as the new El Dorado of the North and by October the camp was called home by more than 400 prospectors. This little mining outpost was named after the local Bannock Native American tribe. Growing to a boomtown population of nearly 5,000 by 1864, it was designated the first capital of the New Montana Territory by President Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, the president’s secretary could not read the handwriting in the correspondence and misspelled its name in the formal documents; “Bannack” stuck.

Most of the miners lived in log cabins, tents, wickiups, lean-to shelters, teepees, caves, dugouts, shanties, huts, and wagons. After numerous boom and bust periods, the town slowly declined as the gold ran out, whereupon the community moved on to better prospects at Alder Gulch and Virginia City and later to Helena, the current capital. As late as the 1940’s, the last of the miners had finally relocated to other areas and Bannack was becoming a ghost town. The Post Office closed in 1938, the school in the early 1950’s. Bannack State Park was established in 1954 when the Beaverhead County Museum Association donated much of the town site to the State of Montana, assuring it would be maintained and preserved. Bannack is now a National Historic Landmark representing an exceptional aspect of American history and culture. Over 60 buildings remain today, each one revealing important human elements of a long-gone era.



Chapter 3: Contemporary Reality

Typical of western mining camps, the area at the edge of the known universe, attracted hearty men and women who worked long and hard in the pursuit of a fresh start and quick riches. Enduring incredible hardships just to reach their distant destinations by wagon train and horses, they then survived on limited supplies and often faced the early and long, often severe Montana winters. The sturdily built town was a collection of tiny one room log cabins chinked with mud (12’ x 18’ with one window, dirt floor and sod roof), saloons, a hotel, a church, brothels, a few stores and gallows constructed on the facing hillside.  This literally lawless newborn boomtown was continually ravaged by criminal activity, creating the demand for the original citizens’ Montana Vigilantes. Also intimidating the pioneers were the local Native Americans who sought retribution against those settlers who encroached on their land and livelihood. The newly arrived intruders, in turn, were driven by territorial expansion and in complete disregard for the natives’ fundamental rights refused to respect treaties that protected them. The incentive was high for those emigrants willing to accept the hardships and risks, for those with the hopeful promise of making a new start in the Great New West – chilling and vacant, but full of promise. These aspirations correlated with Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that the United States was destined by God, its advocates believed, to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent into the last frontier. The exalted banner of Manifest Destiny provided ideological justification for the nation’s westward expansion for the white man, also moral cover for displacing Native Americans. The Frontier or Turner’s Thesis later emphasized the importance of the frontier mentality in shaping American character as well. The miners, distinctively unafraid of the unknown, manifested the American collective unconscious with an “anything is possible” fever.

But this unknown had gold; gold gifted by God as per Manifest Destiny. Gold was greed supported by its food chain. “Mine the miners” was the force behind the unique gold-based economy, cultural identity and western tradition.  Get the gold dust out of your pocket and into mine was the byword. Some of this gold helped finance the Civil War, it is thought. 

And who made up this new microcosm of individuals with survival, resilience, pioneering ideals in common?

 A great diversity of people settled in Bannack: North (Yankees and Confederates) and South Americans, British, German, Irish, Scottish, Norwegian, Swedish, French, among others. In Bannack, almost overnight, there were journalists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, professional gamblers, homesteaders, ranchers, cattlemen, sheep men, farmers, prospectors, storekeepers, authors, bankers, bakers, barbers, grocers, traders, trappers, guides, translators, tailors, wheelwrights, loggers, musicians, surveyors, saloon keepers, prostitutes, dentists, freighters, merchants, craftsmen, blacksmiths, carpenters and criminals. Bannack had many Montana firsts: the first jail, school, hotel, chartered Masonic Lodge, hard rock mine, electric dredge, sawmill and brick courthouse.

How did all these people get to Bannack?

It was a long and perilous journey to get to this rough country with a seemingly endless horizon and the big sky. Prospectors and their following survived dust storms, thunderstorms, bad water and lack of water, dangerous high mountain passes, the threat of starvation, Native American attacks, breakdowns, short or no supplies, no feed or pasture for their livestock, diseases, bugs, heat, wind, river crossings, gorges, freezing temperatures, fear, horse accidents, and horse theft. Horses, mules, or oxen pulling covered wagons and stagecoaches were used to move people and goods across unforgiving, ever changing terrain. The pioneers were connected to the gold rush territory of Southwestern Montana by following the Oregon, California, Mormon and Bozeman Trails. Salt Lake City is 300 miles to the south. They also came through Fort Benton, the steamboat navigation head on the Missouri River, which is overland 300 miles to the north of Bannack.

The Supposed Bad Guys

Known as road agents who held up the stagecoaches which transported the gold out of the territory to civilization, the bad guys were often veterans of crime before they reached Montana. Drawn to the west, looking for adventure, violence, glory and gold, they lived by the sword (Bowie knife, Navy pistol, Henry rifle) and died by the sword. The road agents were mostly ruthless, shameless, lawless, fearless, hard-drinking, unfazed and totally defiant when shot or hung. Bannack’s own infamous Sheriff Henry Plummer was duly elected yet allegedly led of a gang of thieves, murderers and robbers called the “Innocents”.  This gang is said to have murdered over 100 men and robbed countless others.


The Supposed Good Guys

For a period of months there was no government at all, no law, no authority, no systems.  The good guys were prominent citizens who made a name for themselves by organizing the Vigilantes on December 23, 1863, patterned after a similar organization in California. By the end of January 1864, the Vigilantes had tried and executed over twenty members of the robber band including Henry Plummer and several of his accused gang members. Plummer met his destiny on the very gallows he had built in Bannack to hang another of the town’s miscreants, John Horan, convicted of murder. Other members of Plummer’s gang who were hanged until dead: Cyrus Skinner, Ned Ray, Buck Stinson, Red Yeager, Boone Helm, George Ives, “Club Foot” George, Bill Bunton.

Sidney Edgerton, the first Governor of the new Territory of Montana, appointed by President Lincoln, lived in Bannack. Colonel Wilbur Fisk Sanders, prosecutor for the Vigilantes, who took a prominent part in bringing law and order to Montana, also lived in Bannack and Virginia City. Granville Stuart was a pioneer, gold prospector, businessman, civic leader, vigilante, author, cattleman and diplomat. He lived in Bannack for a short time.

The Native Americans

The territory around Bannack was contested by Native American tribes who had been cheated for years by both the US Congress and the Territorial Government, such as it was. They were nomadic with no set boundaries covering Montana, Idaho, Wyoming where they had thrived for thousands of years. But that was to change forever. Their culture underwent irrevocable transformation. Wars against the Native tribes persisted well beyond 1862.  Twenty battles were fought between 1865 and 1887, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, 14 years after gold was discovered in Bannack. The Lemhi Shoshone, Bannock, Nez Perce, Snake, Salish, Cree, Crow, Flathead and Blackfoot tribes were mobile hunters living in on bison, big game, fish and roots, dwelling in teepees. wigwams, and wickiups in the great valleys of Montana, including the area around Bannack.

Chapter 4: Gold Is Where You Find It

Having grown up in the Madison Valley on Bear Creek Ranch, a Hereford cattle ranch near Cameron, Montana, it’s so ironic to have traveled all over the world, as a nature and landscape photographer, and to have found my gold, my hidden art treasure (in the Treasure State!) in Bannack, right under my nose, in the back pasture, a few miles from where I was born and raised. As part of a long and storied tradition I had been steeped in the early history of Bannack and Virginia City.  The gold prospectors, cowboys, Native Americans, the Vigilantes were a part of my childhood fascination. The current ranching business here in the Madison Valley is a direct consequence of raising cattle and horses just 7 generations ago to provide food and transportation for the prospectors and their dependents. Many of our neighbors and schoolmates had ancestors in Bannack and the surrounding areas.  William Ennis, who in 1863 arrived in the Madison Valley, freighted hay to feed cattle and horses in Virginia City and Bannack and later established the town of Ennis where I went to school.  Myron Jeffers first settled on a ranch near Bannack then trailed cattle from Texas to Montana and ultimately founded the little town of Jeffers near where I live now. In 1865 Osmond Varney bought a ranch on Cedar Creek near the Madison River raising hundreds of horses to meet the booming demand in Bannack and Virginia City.  

I explored Bannack three years ago and have returned many times in the four seasons to further my understanding of the life there in all weather. Open to the magic of discovery, I could not believe my eyes as I walked through a creaky, weathered door of a Bannack log cabin. I had stepped into time.  I was stunned by the captivating graphic designs on many of the walls. These images spoke to me in my language: color and patterns.  I immediately began to photograph what was remarkably right in front of me.

I see these photographs as attractive contemporary art, conveying every sensation, sight, feeling, a sense of place and emotion to the viewer, something more than we can know. They create a narrative, and make the fleeting wall patterns timeless, each image demanding a certain amount of attention. The deterioration of the walls mirrors the deterioration of the Bannack community as the gold pinched out.

My photographs address the intersection between modern art and early Montana history; the combination of the two has become my passion, even infatuation. I want to leave a legacy of Montana history which includes abstract Western rough country art.  Hopefully you will share with me the pleasures to be found in discovering these beautiful images. My aim is now to add photographically to the Bannack narrative.

But it’s not only about these beautiful abstract patterns on the walls. These are the visual clues of many lives lived here years ago. We must appreciate the art and the history together. I want to share and encourage the cause of preserving the exterior and interior buildings at Bannack.  I hope to inspire you to become interested in Bannack and its importance in Montana, to become a part of the effort to help preserve the physical attributes as they are for the next generations to come.  Bannack is a very fragile piece of our heritage still in desperate need of preservation.

To historians this ghost town sitting in a remote corner of southwestern Montana is essential to understanding the history of the American West. To tourists it’s a state-run, charming historic town complete with a book store, refreshments and an excellent tour guide. To some native Montanans it’s just one of the many ghost towns. To this Montanan, it holds a secret - an American time capsule of modern art - created by the layers left behind. I believe everyone should become an advocate to protect Bannack. Grants, private donations are much needed. I challenge you the reader to get involved, to make a real difference in the future of Bannack. Donations can be made to:

  • Bannack State Park
  • Bannack Association
  • Beaverhead County Museum
  • Montana Historical Society
  • Montana Heritage Commission
  • Preserve Montana
  • Montana History Foundation

I have committed a significant percent of the photobook and print proceeds to Bannack State Park. How can you help?

If you would like to learn more, here is a suggested reading list:

  • Vigilante Days and Ways, Nathaniel Pitt Langford
  • The Vigilantes of Montana, Prof. Thomas J. Dimsdale
  • Forty Years on the Frontier, Granville Stuart
  • Hanging the Sheriff, A Biography of Henry Plummer, R.E. Mather and R.E. Boswell
  • Famous Sheriffs and Western Outlaws, William MacLeod Raine
  • The Story of the Outlaw, Emerson Hough
  • Golden Gulch, Dick Pace
  • John Colter, His Years in the Rockies, Burton Harris
  • Journal of a Trapper, Osborne Russel
  • Bannack, Foundation of Montana, Rick and Susie Graetz
  • Bannack, Cradle of Montana, F. Lee Graves
  • Discovery Men, Gary R Forney
  • It Takes all Kinds, Stories from Virginia City, Montana, Dick L Pace and Gary R Forney
  • Blood and Treasure, Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, Bob Drury + Tom Clavin
  • Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose
  • Indian Country, Peter Matthiessen
  • It happened in Montana, James Critchfield
  • Gold Camp. Alder Gulch and Virginia City, Larry Barsness
  • Beaverhead County, Steven C Morehouse
  • Early Days in Madison County, James S Spray
  • Here Rolled the Covered Wagons, Albert and Jane Salisbury
  • Six Hundred Generations: An Archeological History of Montana, Carl M Davis
  • Montana’s Madison Country, Phyllis Smith
  • Montana Post/ Madisonian – Newspaper­

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