Mister Montana

Last week —

… we examined the outlaw sheriff operating in and around Virginia City-Bannack, in the Idaho/Montana Territory.  This week, we will look at a man who some would argue was as bad as the outlaw sheriff, only better connected.  His name was Granville Stuart, younger brother of James Stuart, the sons of Robert and Nancy Stuart of Harrison County, Virginia.  Ultimately, history remembers Granville as a pioneer, gold prospector, businessman, civic leader, vigilante, author, cattleman, and diplomat — a man who played a prominent role in the development of Montana.[1]

Granville Stuart was born on 27 August 1834 in Harrison County, Virginia (later, West Virginia).  After a brief stay in Illinois in 1834, the Stuart family moved to Muscatine County, Iowa, where young Granville and his brother James learned to hunt, explore, and develop fieldcraft skills.

In 1849, Granville’s father Robert made his way to the California gold fields — one of the thousands of 49’ers who made the hazardous journey only to find disappointment.  By 1853, Robert had tired of prospecting and returned to Iowa, leaving his two sons behind in California to make their own life.

The boys remained in California prospecting for gold but had no luck.  Still hoping to strike it rich, they moved from Sacramento to Yreka in 1854 and the Klamath River Valley in 1855.  In response to the Klamath Indian uprising in 1856, the Stuart brothers enlisted as scouts in the California Mounted Rifles, briefly participating in the Rogue River wars.  After a career of some 30 days, the boys returned to the goldfields in Yreka.  In 1857, James and Granville decided to return to their family in Iowa.

Heading eastward, the boys traveled with nine others until Granville became ill.  The boys suspended their journey at that time, and James took care of Granville.  By the time he recovered, it was too late in the year to continue their journey over the Rockies.  Unable to winter in southern Idaho or seek shelter in Salt Lake City because of the U.S. and Mormon War, they wintered with a friend named Jake Meek in the Beaverhead Valley (near Dillon, Montana).  During that winter, the brothers met and worked with a French-Canadian fur trader named Richard Grant (an employee of the Hudson Bay Company).  Richard was the father of John Grant, proprietor of the Grant Ranch, and a founder of Deer Lodge, Montana.

Young Granville

For the next three years, James and Granville traded cattle, horses, and other goods between the Big Hole Valley, Beaverhead, Deer Lodge Valley, and Fort Bridger (in southern Wyoming).  In the fall of 1860, the Stuarts moved to Deer Lodge Valley and established a camp on Gold Creek — a productive goldfield with good access to supplies at Fort Benton.

By 1862, prospectors congregating along Gold Creek began calling their community the “American Fork.”[2]  At the other end of the valley, Johnny Grant called his growing community “Cottonwood.”  With the discovery of gold in Alder Gulch in the summer of 1863, most of the valley inhabitants moved south toward Virginia City — including the Stuarts.  But wanting to retain a Stuart presence in the Deer Lodge Valley, James joined with Johnny Grant and organized a townsite survey company on Cottonwood Creek.  The town established there was later named Deer Lodge, Montana.

In 1863, gold strikes at Grasshopper Creek were drawing in hundreds of prospectors.  Trying to take maximum advantage of the boom, James and Granville relocated to Bannack, where Granville opened a butcher shop.[3]  In Bannack, the Stuarts made essential connections among the early pioneers and settlers of territorial Montana, several of whom became important business partners.  It was also in Bannack that Granville got his first exposure to vigilantism.

Granville and his brother James were partners in most things since they were teenagers and were rarely apart until January 1871, when James left Deer Lodge to operate a trading business at the government trading post on the Milk River near Fort Browning.  James left his wife and three sons in the care of Granville and Awbonnie.  In June 1873, the government closed Fort Browning and transferred James to Fort Peck.  By this time, James was seriously ill with liver disease, and he passed away on 26 September 1873.  Granville had his brother buried at Deer Lodge.

Throughout his life, Granville Stuart served in various public offices, including town council president, school district trustee, legislative representative, militia officer, state land agent, head librarian, and founding member of the Society of Montana Pioneers.  He was also a prolific writer, keeping copious notes and journals and copies of correspondence — primary records that make good history.

In 1879, Granville Stuart worked as a bookkeeper at his old friend Samuel T. Hauser’s First National Bank in Helena, Montana.  Stuart and Hauser had known each other since 1862 when they were together in the goldfields.  Stuart, aware of the burgeoning cattle business on the open range, encouraged Hauser to invest.  Hauser put together a deal with Helena banker Andrew J. Davis creating the DHS Cattle Company (DHS for Davis, Hauser, Stuart).  Granville Stuart was a minor partner with an investment of $20,000 (which he borrowed from Hauser).  Hauser and Davis appointed Stuart to serve as general manager.

In the spring and summer of 1879, Stuart bought cattle from Beaverhead Valley in Montana and from Oregon with plans to site them on 800 acres of the Judith Ranger (near Lewiston).  DHS Ranch was located in an area surrounded by an open range near Fort Maginnis (for protection from hostile Indians) and a ready market for Cattle.  The disadvantage of ranching near an army fort was that the army claimed all hay land surrounding the fort, including that of the DHS Ranch.  A legal dispute when on for several years before the military finally relinquished its claim to the hay land.  In any case, by April 1880, Stuart had acquired approximately 9400 head of cattle at the cost of $141,327.


The nature of vigilance committees, which is to say, lacking any system of checks against abusive power, was that their members and activities were secretive.  Consequently, the best defense against abusive vigilante organizations was to publicize the names of their members.  In 1835, when the Vigilance Committee of Nashville, Tennessee, whipped Rev. Amos Dresser for his pro-abolitionist publications (which he denied), the American anti-Slavery Society published the names of all 62 members of the committee.  Some of these men were purported to be elders of the Presbyterian Church.

In Montana, vigilance activities started as small secret groups in Virginia City but given the amount of lawlessness in Montana around 1850, vigilante activities spread quickly.  Since they were secret organizations, there is not a lot of information available to us today, but we do know that several higher-ups in the organizations were prominent Montana citizens — including Granville and James Stuart (founders of the so-called Stuart Stranglers[4]), Wilbur Sanders (1st U.S. Senator from Montana (1890)), Sidney Edgerton (first Governor of Montana Territory (1864)), Cattleman Nelson Story (famous for his 1866 cattle drive from Texas to Bozeman and prominent Bozeman merchant), John Bozeman (founder of Bozeman, Montana (1864) and the Bozeman Trail), Nathaniel P. Langford (first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park), and Thomas Dimsdale, publisher of the Montana Post.

Granville Stuart 1900s

The secret nature of Montana vigilante organizations also makes it difficult to know when execution was carried out by vigilantes or another individual or motivated group.  After the George Ives trial, vigilantes apprehended, tried, and executed several criminals.  Notable among those hanged was Henry Plummer, the sheriff of Bannack, suspected by more than a few citizens of being the ringleader of Virginia City Road Agents.  Montana Vigilantes relied heavily on the testimony of criminal suspects to target and apprehend other criminal suspects.  Montana criminals were never hesitant in giving testimony against other criminals — if they thought doing so would save their hides.[5]

In 1884, horse thieves and cattle rustlers were prevalent on the open range — pushing ranchers to demand the support of stock growers associations.  They turned to influential men who had a stake in the cattle and horse-raising industry.  One of these men, as indicated above, was Granville Stuart.  With the tacit approval of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Vigilante organizations took steps to capture and execute rustlers and thieves.  Some sources claim that Stuart (and others) may have killed up to twenty rustlers; others claim the number of executed men exceeded 75 rustlers and squatters.  There is no evidence to support the claim.  Granville Stuart became president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association in 1885.

The Home Fires

Granville was 27 years old when he married a 12-year-old Shoshone girl named Awbonnie Tookanka (there are various spellings and pronunciations of this person’s name) on 15 April 1862.  Awbonnie and Granville remained married until her death in 1888 — she was 41 years old.  The couple made a good life on the DHS Ranch, but in 1886 – 1887, a financial crisis developed over the issue of grazing on the open range.  Severe drought, over-grazing, and a particularly severe winter were the problem’s root causes.  By early spring of 1887, DHS had lost 60% of their 40,000 head of cattle.  What remained of the herd was in bad health.  DHS never recovered from the predicament.  Granville left the ranch in 1890; when the spread finally sold five years later, Granville still owed Hauser’s bank $3,500.

On 8 January 1890, Granville married twenty-six-year-old Allis Belle Brown, his children’s former school teacher at the DHS ranch.  Belle didn’t mind being paid to teach Stuart’s mixed-race children, but she had no desire to raise them as her own.  Granville gave up his children with Awbonnie to the St. Ignatius Mission School through her urging.[6]  Granville and Allis never had any children of their own.  Allis Belle Stuart died in Hamilton, Montana, in 1947.

Stuart’s long friendship with Samuel Hauser helped open doors for Stuart with the administration of Grover Cleveland.  Shortly after the beginning of Cleveland’s second term in 1893, Hauser helped secure an ambassadorial appointment for Stuart in Uruguay and Paraguay.  Stuart was standing next to Juan Idiarte Borda, the President of Uruguay when he was assassinated in Montevideo.

The later years

When Granville returned to Montana from South America, he found his opportunities somewhat limited.  With a change in the administration in Washington, opportunities for a federal position were impossible.  Despite his years of effort, Granville was far from wealthy and remained indebted to Hauser.  Granville and Belle settled in Butte, Montana.  In 1905, he became head of the public library — a post he retained until 1914.

To make ends meet (financially), Granville and Belle operated a rooming house in Butte. Granville began compiling the writings later published as Forty Years on the Frontier during this period.[7]  Between 1915 – and 1917, the state of Montana participated in the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, California.  The primary benefactor of the Montana exhibit was William Clark, who insisted that “Mr. Montana” head the delegation, which he did for the first year.  In 1917, Granville and Belle moved to Missoula.  In failing health, his last public appearance was in September 1918 during the Montana Pioneers Society meeting.  On 2 October 1918, Granville Stuart suffered heart failure in his home and died.  He was laid to rest beside his brother James in Deer Lodge.


  1. Kennedy, M. S.  Montana Gold.  Magazine of Western History, 1964.
  2. Milner, C. A.  As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart.  Oxford University Press, 2008
  3. Spence, C. C.  Territorial Politics and Government in Montana, 1864-69.  Illinois State University Press, 1975.


[1] Even today, state historians refer to Granville Stuart as “Mr. Montana,” because his journals and writings have provided Montana and western historians unique insights into life in the Northern Rockies after the 1850s.

[2] Not to be confused with American Fork, Utah, settled by Mormons in 1850.

[3] In the goldfields, shopkeepers became wealthier than the miners and prospectors.  A steak dinner in 1863 cost $50.00.  Today, that would be $1,149.89 … an inflation rate of around 25%.

[4] William “Flopp’in Bill” Cantrell captained the strangler’s missions. Throughout their short existence, their membership during chases would fluctuate between 17 and 40 men, depending on the location of the thieves and the day of the week.

[5] For an excellent film about vigilantes and range detectives, see The Missouri Breaks with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.

[6] American Indian mission schools provided a basic western education, often run by Christian organizations, and funded by the U.S. government.  Children were routinely stripped of their Indian culture and immersed in the European-American culture.  Children were treated harshly by their “Christian” teachers and administrators. 

[7] Not published until 1925.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Goldrush, Gunfights and such, History, Idaho, Indian Territory, Montana, Outlaws, Pioneers, Politicians, Range War, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mister Montana

  1. Layla Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    Excellent as always and I might add it seems all good ole western stories begin in Virginia! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Layla Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    Reblogged this on PoliticsRewritten.


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