A Tenderfoot in Montana:
Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes,
and the Birth of Montana Territory
by Francis M. Thompson
Edited by Kenneth N. Owens
A vast wilderness, gold, vigilantes and justice were the backdrop for life in early Montana, and Francis Thompson experienced them all and lived to write about them.
His vivid memoirs thunder across the pages of A Tenderfoot in Montana: Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes, and the Birth of Montana Territory which has just been released by the Montana Historical Society Press.
"There are many wonderful books about the early days of Montana. I believe that 'Tenderfoot' will take its place with those at the top of that list because of the remarkable breadth and scope of the history that Thompson experienced," Director of Society Publications Clark Whitehorn said.
The book was edited by Kenneth Owens who draws brilliantly on later research on Montana history for his introduction and skillful annotation of Thompson's writings.
"A self-styled tenderfoot, he saw a great deal and recorded it not only with accuracy but with a perceptive appreciation for the uniqueness of his time in this place," Owens writes.
In 1862, Thompson arrived at Fort Benton by steamboat and headed out for the recently discovered gold fields near boomtowns of Bannack and Virginia City.
After scratching for gold, Thompson went on to run a mercantile business, travel to the Pacific Coast and back, form personal relationships with vigilantes as well as the leader of the road agents Sheriff Henry Plummer, and to serve in Montana's First Territorial Legislature.
His accounts of the exploits of the vigilantes and the road agents and their eventual fate are riveting. The crowd at the hanging of Jack Galligher demanded that the vigilantes grant him a drink of whiskey while he waited on the gallows: "The bravados wishes were complied with, but the rope being too taut for him to drink with ease, he shouted 'Slack that rope and let a man take a parting drink?' He cried and swore by turns. As he exclaimed 'I hope forked lightening will strike every strangling villain of you!'"
Thompson stood with the vigilantes, but in a strange quirk of fate, he also helped put Sheriff Plummer to rest after he was hanged. "Mr. Plummer, sometime before his death had deposited with me quite a little sum of money. After consulting with Judge Edgerton...I paid from this fund for a coffin and the expenses of a decent burial, and the remainder I set by draft to Mrs. Plummer in Iowa," Thompson writes.
His accounts of the vigilantes are only part of the book, and his other experiences are also engagingly presented. His hunt of a large bear is a slice of life that helped earn him a nickname: "I remember saying aloud, to myself, 'Now Thompson, keep cool, don't get rattled: that's your bear'...When we reached home, I was hailed as 'Bear Killer,' a distinction which I intensely enjoyed," he writes.
Thompson also was present at Gold Creek in 1862 when Rev. Francis held what is thought to be the first Protestant religious service in Montana. "I organized a choir for the occasion" Thomson writes.
Knowing that what he was experiencing in Montana was important to future generations, Thompson took a lead in 1865 as a member of the Territorial Legislature in creating the Montana Historical Society.
This is the work of a complex and talented man who felt a responsibility to pass on the things he had seen and done to future generations.
The 292-page book with 17 illustrations and historic photographs is available at book stores for $14.95, or can be ordered directly plus shipping by calling the Society toll-free at 1-800-243-9900 or go on-line at www.montanahistoricalsociety.org and click on Museum Store.