Wednesday, March 12, 2014

They Lost a Claim

Hope Mommer tells a story in her biography Look Out West: Here Comes Robert Dempsey about an opportunity Robert Dempsey's little daughters lost. Dempsey was a well-known horse trader with a large extended family. The Dempseys arrived at Bannack at the height of the gold rush. They settled in a log cabin outside the gold camp while the hired hands lived in elkskin lodges, tending the livestock, and watching the miners in their frantic search for gold. The Dempsey daughters, ten-year-old Maggie and eight-year-old Mary, also watched the miners panning in Grasshopper Creek. Maggie studied the procedure. She and her sister found a spot along the creek, and imitated the miners, slushing and swirling water and gravel around in a pan. Their work paid off, and suddenly the girls saw something yellow and gleaming. They had found gold! They ran to the cabin to show their father. He got very excited. Dempsey was an Irishman, and exclaimed in his thick brogue, “On Maggie, me darl’n, to be sure it’s gold! I’ll be gone to file me daughter’s gold claim.”  And Dempsey immediately set off for town to file a claim on his daughters’ behalf.

Bannack in the 1860s. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 940-703
But before Robert Dempsey reached the claim office, he stopped off at one of the numerous watering holes to have a wee nip or two in celebration. So proud was he of Maggie and Mary and their great discovery, the whiskey loosened his tongue. He began to brag about it. Miners kept a watchful eye and an open ear for such casual talk, and were known to take advantage. In this case, some other miner overheard the Irishman telling his friends about Maggie’s gold and the location of the discovery. The miner made a beeline for the claim office, filing on what should have been the little Dempsey girls’ claim. When Dempsey finally arrived at the land office, the claim had already been taken.


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