Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mathilda Dalton

Epidemics were a terrible danger in all mining camps. Not only were diseases and their causes not well understood, but miners were careless with their water sources and the streams needed for placer mining quickly became polluted. Typhoid, spread through contaminated water, was particularly common. The Dalton family learned about this danger firsthand. The Daltons were natives of Maine and came west from Wisconsin traveling with the first Fisk expedition in 1862. The family of six settled at Bannack. Granville Stuart nicknamed Mathilda “Desdemona” after the character in Shakespeare’s Othello because “she was beautiful and so good.” Edwin Ruthven Purple in his gold rush narrative Perilous Passage describes “Dez” as tall and magnificently formed, and one of the belles of Bannack. One smitten lad supposedly blew out his brains for her. Another spurned lover, however, said that everything she ate went to her feet which were unusually large.

Mathilda Dalton, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives
 The Daltons moved to Virginia City the following year in 1863. Mathilda Dalton, at twenty, was the oldest child; her three siblings were much younger than she. The family had hardly settled at Virginia City when Mathilda fell victim to typhoid. Mrs. Dalton nursed her daughter through the illness, but then fell ill herself. Her husband also contracted the disease. Mathilda was still recovering in January 1864 when both her mother and her father died. There were few options for single women, and men greatly outnumbered them in the gold camp. Mathilda was left to care for her three younger siblings, and so she decided to marry. She and her husband, Zebulon Thibadeau, returned to Wisconsin and later relocated to Wallace, Idaho.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are buried on Boot Hill, Virginia City’s first cemetery. The Daltons’ lonely graves are the only marked burials, except for the five road agents. Because of the stigma attached to the five, most families moved their loved ones’ graves to Hillside Cemetery across the ridge. By that time there was no one to move the Daltons, or who remembered where they were buried. It was not until the 1920s that Mathilda’s children returned to Virginia City to mark their grandparents’ graves.


  1. Is there a link to a story about the five road agents?

    1. The MHS library has a letter form Mathilda describing how her father met Henry Plummer in California before they came to Montana. The Plummers and the Daltons were neighbors in Maine and the Daltons knew Henry well. During this encounter, Henry claimed he did not know Dalton, and that he was not Plummer. Very odd. Apologists for Plummer apparently have not read the official San Quentin correspondence we have in our files. Henry won a pardon from the governor by deceit. Thanks for your question!